How to answer the Dartmouth supplemental essay prompts 2019-2020

Posted a month ago

Dartmouth College just released their supplementary essay prompts! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, never fear: here’s a guide to how to think about and write your very best Dartmouth essays.

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Applying to other Ivy League universities? Check out how our expert essay mentors answered the supplemental prompts for Harvard, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Brown, Yale and Cornell.

Essay 1: While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, uttered this memorable line: ''It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!'' As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community, or campus environment attract your interest? (100 words or fewer)

As you might expect, Dartmouth's first prompt asks you, plain and simple, why you want to attend Dartmouth. What's unusual, however, is how few words you have to do it—only 100! Right off the bat, this tells you that you should stay away from the Intro-Body-Conclusion paragraph format you might be used to. There's just no room. You'd also benefit from a few rounds of editing to weed out superfluous words. Every word, every sentiment counts. So read your essay drafts out loud, and see if you can distill the essence of it into a few memorable sentences.

Now let’s look at the prompt itself. Because it’s so short, it will be tempting to immediately list all the parts of Dartmouth that appeal to you—maybe it’s the liberal arts philosophy they proudly promote (the subject of that Webster quote) or the unique Dartmouth Plan for undergraduate study. Whatever it is, stay specific. This is the time to do your research and truly think about what course you imagine your undergraduate years taking—what have you prepared for in high school, and what is truly your passion? Admissions officers have read thousands of essays. Don’t write one where you could mistake Dartmouth for any other university! If you’re not invested, it will show in your vocabulary, the tone of your prose, and the flow of your sentences.

Honesty is critical, so if Dartmouth’s rural-ish location or beautiful forest setting is a genuine trait you love, then absolutely include it! Essay readers want to see the person behind the numbers. Will you be that student skateboarding down the sidewalk on your way to the Hopkins Center? Or might you be someone laughing at dinner with new friends from your Stats class? Do that imagining work for them and relay it in your own words.

There’s little else to say about this prompt—and to be honest, you have so little room that it can’t encompass all you know, or love, about Dartmouth. Admissions Officers know this. It is far more about how well you express yourself—through humor, or sincerity, or persuasion—than showing off your knowledge.

Essay 2: Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

  1. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.
  2. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?
  3. In The Painted Drum, author Louise Erdrich ‘76 wrote, “… what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?” Tell us about something beautiful you have made or hope to make.
  4. “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.
  5. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.
  6. Labor leader Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the organization now known as United Farm Workers. She said, “We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We've got to jump right in there with both feet.” Speak your truth: Talk about a time when your passion became action.

This is quite a variety of prompts! Let’s begin with some general advice that you should keep in mind, then work through each of the prompts briefly.

Pay attention, once again, to the length. 250-300 is not much to work with, so it's still a good idea to avoid traditional paragraphs. Thematically, though, all these prompts are asking for the same: they want you to step away from "college talk" and move into your own imagination. The pull of emotion is what Dartmouth is looking for, asking you to talk about inspiring personal experiences, self-introspection, or world events. So this probably isn't the place to bring up the more delicate points of that World History lecture (Prompts 2, 4, or perhaps 6) but consider, instead, how what you've explored in your life contributes to the person you are today. These prompts are designed to be incredibly flexible. You won't be able to write the next Great American Novel here, so worry less about not being able to say everything and more on your prose. And of course, proofread.

Now, let’s move on to these fun prompts!

Mo’olelo Prompt: This feels like a solemn but hopeful sentiment, and you should reflect that feeling in your own personal story. What is important to know about you, and where you come from? Family bonds feel like a natural fit here, but be creative in exploring what traditions bind you together. This is a great prompt to pick if you have a penchant for introspective writing. This prompt is likely not the best if you’d like to be funny.

John Dickey Prompt: This "current events" prompt should definitely appeal to those interested in social justice, history, and politics. A word of caution—while you should not censor yourself to blandness, know that expressing controversial opinions might have an effect depending on who reads it. Above all, remain cordial and respectful in your writing. Offensive language or insults will undoubtedly hurt your chances of admission.

Louise Erdrich Prompt: This lovely quote might make you want to examine an important creative pursuit that you have. What do you want to put into the world? This does not have to be tangible; maybe its a type of relationship or feeling. This prompt is perfect for applicants who are interested in the humanities because it is a chance to express your creative tendencies.

Pete Hautman Prompt: This prompt provides students the opportunity to analyze a text and their own ideas about that text. This does not mean you have to analyze a book from your English Literature class. Maybe you read an article in the New York Times that gave you an idea of how to approach a difficult conversation. The idea is to think about the way books and the written word influence your life and play a part in your personal development.

Einstein Prompt: What a great quote! If you've had a personal passion in life, like a hobby or course of study, this might be perfect. A quirkier option might be to consider the surprises that have occurred in your life, and how your curiosity guided you through. If you've explored parts of your life that seemed daunting or new to you, you'll do well on this prompt.

Dolores Huerta Prompt: This prompt is perfect for students that want to focus on their involvement in their community, social activist work, and/or political ambitions. You should not use this prompt to brag about your accomplishments, however. The quotation focuses on the idea of doing good on behalf of others. Its an altruistic idea that focuses on the importance of action. This concept should be at the heart of this essay.

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