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MAR 11, 2020 • 11 min read
UNC-Chapel Hill – called "Carolina" or "UNC" for short – is the flagship institution of the North Carolina public university system. UNC consistently ranks among the top public universities in the United States. In 2018, Carolina ranked 3rd in the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings, and it placed 5th on the US News and World Report list. UNC students (known as Tar Heels) can study abroad at more than 350 programs in 70 countries, and Carolina comes in at 11th in yearly research volume among public and private U.S. universities, according to the National Science Foundation. Don't forget about athletics – the Tar Heels men's basketball team won NCAA national championships in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, and 2017, and the Tobacco Road Rivalry between Duke and UNC is an integral part of the student experience.
To top it all off, the Carolina Covenant program makes a debt-free education possible for over 6,500 lower-income admitted students. Think you're a Tar Heel born and bred? You should know that there is no formula or threshold for admission to UNC. The university is proud of its holistic admissions process that takes into account careful readings of each and every student application. To win that spot in the class of 2023, spend some time on your supplemental essays to make your application stand out from the crowd.
In addition to submitting your Common Application, you'll be asked to respond to two of the following prompts in 200-250 words:
Tell us about a peer who has made a difference in your life.
What do you hope will change about the place where you live?
What is one thing that we don't know about you that you want us to know?
What about your background, or what perspective, belief, or experience, will help you contribute to the education of your classmates at UNC?
Since these essays are so short, your job is to communicate who you are and why you're a good fit for Carolina as clearly as you possibly can. There are two basic ways to go about this: you may choose to reveal additional dimensions to the personal portrait presented in your Common Application essay, or you may decide to double down on certain core aspects of your application identity. Either way, it's crucial to determine exactly what you're trying to say before you start working on your essays. Only then will you be able to express yourself clearly through writing. Let's take a prompt-by-prompt tour through some possible approaches to the UNC supplemental essay questions!
UNC prides itself on being 'the university of the people.' In addition to serving the North Carolina community by allocating about 80% of the spots in any incoming class to in-state students, UNC emphasizes the importance of interpersonal community on campus. It's one of the things that makes this large university of about 19,000 undergraduates feel homey and welcoming to students of all backgrounds. On top of that, Carolina seeks to produce graduates who are excellent friends and community members as well as accomplished scholars. This essay question presents an opportunity for you to show that you're more than the numbers on your application. UNC will have access to your grades and test scores; what can you do to bring yourself to life on the page?
As is so often the case in college admissions contexts, specific stories will help you bring honesty and clarity to your essay. You'll want to identify times when a peer challenged you, helped you, or taught you something about yourself or the world at large. Think outside the box: a story about how a friend was there for you during generic 'difficult times' might come across as a relatively thin attempt to glorify your own skills. If you choose this prompt, make sure you have something genuine to say about a peer that doesn't serve as a jumping-off point for bragging or listing accomplishments. Resist the temptation to rehash the highlights of your academic career so far! Remember, UNC will know the basic contours of what you've accomplished.
What could these genuine things to say about peers look like, you ask? Great question! If you have a friend whom you love or admire, you might spend some time writing about the specific qualities that person embodies. Think of stories! This approach could help you show that you're empathetic, insightful, and observant – all without having to call yourself any of these things outright, which can come off as a bit arrogant. Maybe you had a difficult experience with a peer that forced you to face something about yourself that you want or need to change. Writing about a peer in this way could reveal maturity and humility, since you're showing your reader that you are sensitive to your own shortcomings and are willing to admit and address your weaknesses. Whichever route you choose, remember that this prompt is not about you. Let your voice and identity shine through in a subtle, genuine way by talking about someone else for a nice change of pace from much of the college admissions process!
Key points: Focus on specific stories. Resist the temptation to pivot back to talking about yourself.
This prompt is worded in an interesting – even somewhat tricky – way. You can read it as asking what kind of changes you want to see in your home community, which could be taken in the direction of social/political critique or existential considerations. On the other hand, you might think the prompt is asking you to reflect on what you hope will change about where you live when you go to college; that is, how do you hope your experience living at school will be different from your home life at the time of writing?
It's possible to construct a good essay coming from either of these angles. You should recognize, though, that the option you choose says something about you as a thinker. The first could mark you as a big-picture person who's not afraid to grapple with abstract issues – though, if you're not careful, you could sound a little pompous. Remember, a modest claim is always preferable to splashy, substanceless content! The second reading of the question could produce an essay that reveals you as a practical, self-aware thinker who is prepared for the challenges of the college transition. Just make sure to let your personality shine through a little. A good technique for either way of handling of the question might be to think of a story or clear example to anchor your analysis. Was there a specific moment when you really grasped the need to improve access to education in your community? Why, exactly, is it important to you to live three hours away from both the mountains and the beach?
Again, no matter how you decide to approach the prompt, make sure you only write about this topic if you have something clear and specific to say that connects back to the reason you want to attend UNC. It could be helpful to do some research about UNC and the surrounding community to get a sense of what it's like to live there. For example, Carolina has a number of living-learning communities which allow students with shared interests to live together. How might a specific living-learning community bring positive changes to your living situation? You could also consider the geographic setting of UNC: as a part of the Research Triangle, Chapel Hill offers all the advantages of a pastoral college town and the diversity and opportunity associated with a much bigger city. How could these aspects of the UNC experience help you reflect on your own home community? How could challenges you experienced in your home community be transformed productively at UNC and in the surrounding area?
Key points: Get clear on what you think the question is asking. Remember to connect your response back to UNC in a legible way.
This topic is the most similar to Question 1 on the Common App. It's a chance for you to show admissions officers who you are, beyond the names and numbers that will characterize the rest of your application. Here's a not-so-hidden truth: all of your admissions essays are an opportunity to do this. This prompt goes out of its way to invite you to do so, though, by asking you to write about one thing that doesn't show up anywhere else on your application. You don't want to reiterate something that shows up repeatedly in your application, unless (and this is a pretty rare situation) you can draw a truly new insight about yourself from a story or experience you've written about before. Your first mission, then, should you consider accepting this prompt, is to make sure that you're writing about something your reader couldn't find anywhere else on your application. Next, establish that you know exactly what that 'something' is, and are prepared to communicate it in a clear way to your reader. Still have something to write about that meets these two criteria? Then this might be the prompt for you!
As with every supplemental essay response, it's a good idea to make sure your approach is in alignment with what you know about UNC and its admissions goals. Tar Heels' love for athletics indicates how important it is for UNC students to bring together their individual gifts in the service of something larger than any single person's achievements. Since UNC is interested in admitting students who can contribute in a clear and unique way to the campus community (see the advice for essay topic 1), you might use this essay prompt to illustrate something about your personality that adds to your academic identity. Now is a good time to bring up quirky childhood obsessions that continue to inform your approach to school and life, for instance. What will you bring to the table that goes beyond hard work and academic success? Carolina loves to talk about how individual students can leave their "heel print" (get it? Tar Heels? Heel print?) on a large and diverse campus community. If you choose to respond to this essay prompt, give your readers a preview of what your heel print could be. Try to avoid hyperbolic statements and grandiosity, though: in the context of UNC admissions, this question is more about the distinctive qualities you will bring to the student body as a whole than your dazzling individual talents.
Key points: Avoid this prompt unless you have something specific to say that's different from the rest of your application. Remember the importance of teamwork and community to the Carolina way.
At first glance, this prompt might seem like it poses the same question as Essay 3. Upon close examination, you'll notice that this essay option specifically asks about how you will contribute to the education of your future fellow Tar Heels. Approach this topic with caution, then – it would be all too easy to sound self-important in response to this prompt, or (perhaps worse) to seem insensitive about the struggles of other would-be Carolina students. UNC prides itself on making a world-class education available to everyone, so try to be aware of this in your supplemental essays.
One way to respond to this prompt successfully might be to apply critical examination to your own personality or background. As suggested in the advice for Essay 1, you could write about how a certain experience made a personal weakness clear to you, and how you endeavored to address that weakness. Even this kind of response can be dangerous, though; you still run the risk of sounding insincere.
Perhaps you have a genuinely impactful set of experiences that would bring a new perspective to the Tar Heel student body. Were you part of the public education system in a different country? Are you a non-traditional student with a family? Are you working with a learning disability or difference?
It should be clear to you that this prompt is not appropriate for most applicants. If the above situations don't sound like yours, consider responding to one of the other essay questions.
Key points: Steer clear of this question unless there is something unique or extenuating about your situation. Stay humble and honest!
Good luck with your application to UNC. Maybe you'll be wearing Carolina blue come this fall!