open laptop and pad of paper

The Bowdoin supplement asks applicants to first identify which of the lines from “The Offer of the College,” a poem written in 1906 by Bowdoin president William DeWitt Hyde, most resonate with them. Applicants are then invited to provide an optional short essay of 250 words to reflect on their chosen line and how it has meaning for them.

Here’s the excerpt of the poem included in the prompt:

To be at home in all lands and all ages;
to count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
and Art an intimate friend;
to gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
and the criticism of your own;
to carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
to make hosts of friends…who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends –
this is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.

Now, in the world of college essay supplements, there are optional essays and “optional” essays. This supplement falls into the latter category: it is optional in name only. Bowdoin admits about 15% of its applicants and, while they don’t publish statistics on admit rate for students who do and do not respond to this “optional” prompt, I’d be willing to bet that non-respondents are rarely offered a space in the freshman class.

So that means you’re writing it! And if you’re interested in Bowdoin, I think you should be excited to do so. This is a great prompt for two reasons. First, it does a wonderful job of introducing students to Bowdoin. In this short piece, you learn that Bowdoin has over a century of history, that it is defined by its community, that it places value in both humanity and the Earth. Second, the prompt gives applicants so much freedom to provide an answer that is deeply personal. Instead of responding to one narrow question, you have the opportunity to choose from among nine possible options, connecting aspects of who you are to who you might be at Bowdoin.

And it’s the person you’re allowed to be at Bowdoin that I would encourage you to emphasize in this short response. Your essay should be aspirational with a hint of retrospective. Find the line that makes you most excited about being a college student and ask yourself why it holds such sway for you. Someone who has never felt the freedom of conducting an independent research project in a well-stocked chemistry lab might be drawn to the line about having “…resources behind you in whatever task you undertake.” A student who grew up in a concrete jungle might look forward to four years of learning in Nature, and the relationship with the natural world that can be developed in the upper right of the United States. It is the rare essay supplement that finds its way to being deeply personal, and you should be excited at the space you’re given here to share what you most look forward to about life as a Bowdoin undergraduate.

The spirit of this piece is poetic, but you needn’t provide any kind of literary analysis here. It’s a version of “Why Bowdoin?” but won’t require research into courses or professors or the number of clubs available to incoming freshmen. It’s 250 words where you’re invited to imagine what college might mean to you—how your life might be different for the next four years—and the flavor of the opportunities that might be your most prized. Enjoy sharing that excitement with the Bowdoin admission office!


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. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.