essay prompts

From where you sit, basking in the glow of your computer in the comfort of your desk chair, college essay supplements are just another item to be checked off on your to-do list. For colleges, the supplemental question is a way to communicate their values to you—a sort of last-ditch recruiting effort meant to both attract students to the institution and communicate some element of its social or academic experience. Santa Clara asks students to comment on their “strategic vision”; the University of Chicago is infamous for off-the-wall intellectual essay prompts (reminiscent of their off-the-wall intellectual experience); Reed College asks you to write all about Paideia, a unique week of self-taught courses on any subject under the sun. And Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts uses its supplemental essay as a way of introducing both the intellectuality of their community and the impressiveness of their alumni and faculty. While your job isn’t to measure up to that pedigree, your response should be delivered in the spirit of intellectualism.

Analytical Writing

You have two options for your Amherst supplement. Option A asks you to respond to one of four Amherst quotations in 300 words or less—we’ll tackle this option a little further down this post. Option B allows you to submit a graded paper from 11th or 12th grade that “best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities.” Option B seems relatively straightforward: make your way through your file of old homework, track down that awesome paper on The Scarlet Letter, and submit. All done, right?

Not exactly. When I worked at Reed College, we also required a graded writing sample as a part of the application, and we got all different kinds of submissions: problem sets, creative essays, personal narratives, economics papers, philosophical ruminations, and more. The length of the papers ranged from a single page to dozens of pages (and you can bet there was no way we were going to read a twelve-page paper on images of Christ in The Grapes of Wrath). There were excellent submissions but more often than you’d think, there were poorly chosen or poorly executed submissions. If you choose to send a paper, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t just send the paper that got you the best grade! We don’t care whether there’s an A+ or a B on the top of that page; we’re looking for content. Choose the paper you feel best represents your analytic ability.
  2. Choose an essay that is good throughout. You may love your intro paragraph or your conclusion, but the reader might not start at the beginning, and might not make it to the end. It’s more likely that the reader will randomly choose to read a few paragraphs from the middle, so choose a paper with strong writing from start to finish and everywhere in between.
  3. Make sure you follow the directions! Amherst wants a “tightly reasoned, persuasive argument” from a social science or English class. Make sure the paper you choose is arguing for or against an idea. A plot summary or historical report will not be sufficient here.

Personal Responses

At a glance, Option A looks much harder than Option B, because it requires original insight. But it’s also a great option if you don’t have a worthwhile graded writing sample, if you threw away your homework right after you got it back from your teacher, or if you just want to share a different aspect of your intellectualism than a class assignment allows. And with these essay prompts, you really do have a blank slate to explore some really complicated and interesting topics. Some tips:

  1. Show respect. These quotations were chosen because they are connected to the Amherst tradition. In the 2016 iteration, we have a quote from two professors, two recent alumni, a former president, and an alumnus from 1925. While you may want to disagree with one of the quotations, tread lightly and show respect for this community that you hope to join.
  2. The goal isn’t to analyze the content of the quotation, but to connect it to a thought of your own. Stay away from historical and social analysis or examples from literature. The upshot of this essay should be strongly tethered to your own life in much the same way that the personal statement describes who you are to the reader.
  3. Be specific! Making sense of these prompts is no small feat, and a couple of them are pretty challenging just to understand, much less write about. Instead of trying to unpack the whole quotation, find one idea within the quote that resonates with you. Explain that resonance and explore it in a way that demonstrates your personality and values.

The Amherst supplement is among the harder supplements I’ve seen this year, and I think that’s an indication both of the selectivity of the institution and the intellectual rigor of an Amherst education. If you take a look at this assignment and recoil in horror, it might be that Amherst is not for you. But if you’ve taken a look at the quotes and your mind is already churning with possibility, you may have found an excellent match. Enjoy making your mark with this addition to your application.


Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College.