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Writing the UVA Supplemental Essays

Karen Spencer

Written by Karen Spenceron October 17th, 2019

Like many admissions officers, I was introduced to this line of work after having been a tour guide at Valparaiso University. I went to graduate school to study counseling in higher education and, while working in the admissions office at UVA, realized that admissions was my passion. As an admissions officer at Franklin & Marshall, I read and made decisions on applications from NY, CA, and CO, was in charge of transfer admissions, and was the liaison to all coaches during the athletic recruiting process. Moving to Georgetown, I continued to oversee transfer admissions and reviewed applicants from the Midwest, reading up to 1800 applications each year. I also acted as the liaison for the soccer coach, and led one of the business school admissions committees. During my time in the admissions world, I particularly enjoyed meeting with students, helping student athletes decide if they really wanted to play a sport in college, helping transfer students find a better fit at a different college, and helping students and parents debunk the myriad of myths that are out there regarding this process.
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As someone who attended UVA for graduate school, I’m a little biased in favor of the school. However, I do genuinely like all of the supplemental essay prompts for two reasons. The first is that they are short. A 250-word limit forces you to be really clear about what the take-home is for the reader because you don’t have any opportunity to lose focus and meander off topic. The second is the questions reflect UVA’s values, and the essay is an opportunity for students to show how they connect with those values. I will also say that UVA is one of those schools, like the University of California system, to be very open and transparent about what they are looking for in an essay. I’ve included a helpful link from their Associate Dean at the end of the blog. Right here, however, are my own tips for addressing the UVA essay prompts. You’ll be asked to choose just one of these questions: What is your favorite word and why? This is a long-standing prompt, and my guess is because it loans itself to interesting and unusual essays. It’s not about the word you pick. It’s about why it’s your favorite. What about it resonates with you? Why this word above all others? If you are really struggling to come up with an answer to this question, this probably isn’t the right prompt to answer. We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are. If I had to answer this, I’d write that I talk really, really fast. As a child, my mom would have to ask my best friend to interpret what I had just said.  It’s very reflective of who I am because I’m also efficient, impatient, value productivity, and multi-task extremely well. I like a full plate. It drives me insane when people walk slowly. Am I painting a picture of who I am? Good. That’s the point of this essay prompt. The quirk should lead the reader to visualize who you are, how you tick, and what makes you, you. Notice that the quirk I’ve disclosed is just that: quirky. It’s not bizarre, it doesn’t raise red flags, and it wouldn’t cause an admission officer to think, “Yikes, I would not want her as a roommate.” There is a fine line between quirky and creepy, so make sure you stay on the right side of that line. Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why? This is your opportunity to tell the admissions officer what excites you. What could you talk about all day? What topic gets you fired up at the mere mention of it? This prompt allows you to explain the what, and more importantly the why of this topic and its importance to you. Do you think vegetarianism can help stop global warming? Do you want to teach your classmates to knit as a form of meditation? Do you believe Marie Kondo is a prophet and that organization can you help you lead a more focused life? If so, tell them about it. It will allow them to see a side of you they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message? This prompt is not so dissimilar to the one above and provides an opportunity to let the admissions team know what you value. This could be funny or serious. My friend’s father recently died and she said he always used to say, “Find the fun; be playful; choose your attitude.” Those all resonate with me for various reasons, and had I been 19 when I read them they might have found themselves on Beta Bridge. But like the prompt above, they want to know why this is your message. That’s the most important part of the question to address, so make sure that’s where you spend the majority of your word count. UVA students are charged with living honorably and upholding a Community of Trust. Give us an example of a community that is important to you and how you worked to strengthen that community. Feel free to think broadly about what “community” might mean to you here. It could be a team, a neighborhood, a place of worship, or a group of people you interact with that has a similar interest. Keep in mind that this community may or may not already be evident elsewhere in your application (perhaps on your activities list). Two things are important here: why this community is important to you (because it tells them what you value) and what you have done to make it a better place (and therefore what you will bring to the community at UVA). So often in these two-part type questions applicants spend all their time addressing one portion of the prompt and forget the other. They are both important here and you should give them equal attention. Finally, don’t forget that UVA requires an additional essay depending on which school you’re applying to. If you’re eyeing majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, or the Kinesiology Program, be aware you’ll have some extra writing to do. Good luck and go Wahoos! Associate Dean’s tip on these supplements Essay-Pitfalls-CTA


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