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MAR 11, 2020 • 11 min read
Writing supplemental essays can seem overwhelming and tricky, and Amherst's supplement is no exception. A good rule of thumb is always to try to write a novel response to Option A first -- that way if you are not satisfied with your essay, you can submit a previously written essay from one of your high school classes.
Essay response*(300 Words or Less)*: Please respond to one of the following quotations in an essay of not more than 300 words. It is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts.
EXPERT TIP: Remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay. The admissions committee is not trying to trick you when they say that research is not necessary. Don't waste your time trying to look up a relevant journal article, or trying to dig up research on the speaker. Instead, spend some time reflecting on what the quote means, and how it relates to you and how you see the world. These essays, more than anything, are supposed to be about you.
Disclaimer: if you cannot make heads or tails of any of the quotations, it's possible that Option B is your best option.
Option A provides you with four potential prompts:
"Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight---insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments."*
Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College
The first step in breaking down these prompts is to decode what the speaker actually means. It's important to do this first rather than just running with an idea; you want to ensure that you are actually responding to the quotation rather than just running with an idea you had that relates to one or two keywords in the prompt. In that sense, there is a certain degree of reading comprehension involved in crafting your response.
On its most basic level, Jagannathan is speaking first of the critical nature of insight in the natural sciences, and how it relates to research. This prompt is a gift for those of you who are interested in applying to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics majors because it opens the floor for you to talk about your love of science and research. Now that you've decoded the prompt, you can talk about how the speaker's ideas relate to your own interests.
A Few Ways To Approach Your Essay Response:
Talk about the first moment you realized you were interested in science. It could be a conversation with your favorite science teacher from high school, or a childhood obsession with an obscure topic that never went away.
Perhaps your interest in science is more fueled by your career goals than a passion for basic science. For example, physicians have to complete a great deal of science coursework, much of which is not used in their day-to-day practice. If you are premed or planning on pursuing a health profession, it could be helpful to think about how important the fundamentals are to your everyday practice.
Another approach is to latch onto the research aspect of prompt. Did you participate in research in high school? Are you interested in continuing research during your undergraduate career? Talk about the questions you came up with and how values like curiosity, truth, and insight play into your experience with research.
By nature, these prompts are open-ended--make sure you don't get caught up in the abstract and forget to talk about how science has affected you on a personal level.
"Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It's about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning... Translation, however, doesn't only occur across languages: Mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation --- that is, untranslated."
Ilan Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College, Robert Croll '16 and Cedric Duquene '15, from "Interpreting Terras Irradient," Amherst Magazine, Spring 2015.
After skimming the prompt, our next step, as always, is to fully decode Stavans' words. Stavans pulls in the idea of translation and relating it to the many ways in which human beings consume and participate in culture, whether that be through music, language, commerce or politics. Just as Prompt 1 was for future science majors, Prompt 2 is perfect for you if you're interested in the humanities or social science, particularly business, political science, or marketing.
Again, "translation" is a fairly broad topic, so it should not be difficult to come up with an example of translation in your life. As long as you pick a topic you can expand upon on a personal level and relate it to the theme of translation, you'll have the groundwork for a compelling and revealing essay.
A Few Ways To Approach Your Essay Response:
Discuss how social media has impacted the way people present themselves and in turn, the way those depictions are translated. This is an easy jumping off point to connect to your interests if you are considering a career in business, politics, or communications. Stavans' reference to terrorism hints at the dark side of human connectedness and how humans can influence each other. Alternatively, you could take a more positive route and talk about social movements of the 21st century that have developed exponentially faster due to social media, such as Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement.
If you are a musician, consider writing about performance as its own mode of translation. If you're interested in politics, you could relate the translation theme to your time on the debate team and how translation was vital to interpreting and refuting others' arguments. You could even talk about the problems that arise when two people interpret the same content differently.
No matter which angle you choose, make sure you incorporate anecdotes about your own experiences.
Creating an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries... requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create.
Carolyn "Biddy" Martin, President of Amherst College, Letter to Amherst College Alumni and Families, December 28, 2015
If you are at all interested in social justice, this prompt is for you. This prompt is relatively straightforward; in interpreting this prompt, we discover some of Amherst's key values--honesty and diversity. Don't fret if you don't perceive yourself as a "diverse" person--diversity is for the good of everyone in a society, and it is a key buzzword in college admissions, so you should get used to being able to talk about it.
Martin's words prompt you to write about relationships--ones you've experienced or witnessed in your life. Additionally, she asks you to consider the benefits of diversity. There is no wrong answer here--talk about a specific instance in which you have seen the benefits of diversity in your own life.
A Few Ways To Approach Your Essay Response:
Write about a relationship you have with someone who occupies a different identity than you. This could be a childhood friend, a teacher, or a coworker. Paint a picture of how a conflict came about between the two of you, and how it was resolved. If you can, try to work in big-picture values like honesty, integrity, and forgiveness. Put the relationship into a broader social context, while emphasizing your commitment to diversity. It's okay if in this scenario you were initially in the wrong--admissions committees will be impressed by your display of self-awareness and evidence of personal growth.
This is a more personal prompt than the previous two, which makes it easier in some ways, but it is not without pitfalls. Your story needs to be specific enough that it is vivid, but vague enough that it is not perceived as politically inflammatory. Remember--you never know who exactly your audience is, and what beliefs they hold. It's a fine line to walk, but worth it if you feel strongly about social justice.
"Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather, achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted."
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals
This is a classic "Describe a time when you overcame an obstacle" essay, couched in Hastie's flowery language. If a specific achievement pops into your mind when you read Hastie's words, then this essay is for you. This is a great time to (modestly) detail some of your most significant achievements and whatever bullets you dodged along the way.
If Hastie's words resonated with you but you feel that you haven't suffered or achieved enough to write a whole essay about it, you might want to write about a historical figure, past or present, whom you admire and explain how their struggles made them stronger, or their accomplishments more impactful. As long as you explain why you admire that person, you can write a solid essay about their achievements and the importance of perseverance.
A Few Ways to Approach Your Essay Response:
This essay does not have to be about some great hardship that you endured (although if that is what you are prepared to write about, then go for it). Instead, think about a time when you achieved a particularly difficult long-term goal. What were the stakes? What changes did you make to succeed? Who helped you along the way? And most importantly, why didn't you give up?
Hastie's quotation calls forth ideas of determination, perseverance, and resilience. While you were probably not the first African-American to serve as a judge for the US Court of Appeals, you can show that you also possess these qualities.
Like Prompt 3, this essay requires vivid storytelling. One major pitfall to avoid when recounting a story is the urge to just tell the audience the sequence of events rather than show them what the experience was like. For example, suppose you're writing about getting cut from the tennis team only to make varsity the following year. Think about the description in terms of writing a movie trailer rather than typing out bullet points. Describe the sun beating down on your neck, the calluses on your palms, and your feelings of humiliation and jealousy, and how you turned that negative emotion into determination. These details turn your audience from passive readers to active participants in your story.
High School Paper: Please submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological, or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample, or in-class essay.
EXPERT TIP: If you have submitted an analytical essay in response to the "essay topic of your choice" prompt in the Common Application writing section, you should NOT select Option B. Instead, you should respond to one of the four quotation prompts in Option A. Find out more about Option B here.
Finally, if none of these prompts spoke to you, you could always submit a high school paper as your supplemental essay. Just make sure that you read the guidelines carefully and submit an essay that follows the instructions. If you can find an essay that you did well on and enjoyed writing--that's probably going to be a safe bet for Option B. And even if you already submitted the high school paper for a grade, make sure to comb through it once or twice more to make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors.