How to Ace U. Virginia’s Supplemental Essays: Guide & Examples | 2022-2023
Oh, the quirk!
If you’re anything like us, you love quirk when you find it in Wes Anderson movies, in cool little tea shops, or when hanging out with your favorite aunt.
But in college essay prompts? Quirk can be a little scarier when found there.
Fear not, however! Though U. Virginia has become, after an essay prompt overhaul, the Reigning Lord of College Application Essay Quirk, we have everything you need to get you through this.
Look over the prompts below — don’t despair — and then meet us below the table of contents for a concrete, brisk, and to-the-point method for giving UVA what they’re looking for.
The first prompt has a ~100 word limit (Note: this article just covers the College of Arts & Sciences, though our method should help you with any of these.):
- College of Arts & Sciences: If you could create a college course that all UVA students would take, what would it be about and why?
- School of Engineering: How will you use an engineering degree to change the world for the better?
- School of Architecture: Describe a significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.
- School of Nursing: Describe a health care-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying Nursing.
- Kinesiology Program: Describe an experience that has deepened your interest in studying kinesiology.
The second prompt (choose two out of 11 options, about 50 words each):
- What’s your favorite word and why?
- We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. [Editorial note: yes, you are!] What is one of your quirks?
- About what topic could you speak for an hour?
- Take us to your happy place.
- You can wake up tomorrow and a skill you already have will become expert-level. What skill is that?
- What is the last gift you gave someone that wasn’t bought with money?
- What website is the internet missing?
- After a challenging experience, how do you recharge?
- Tell us about a place you’d like to share with everyone, but also keep to yourself.
- 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?
- Tell us about a time when, faced with an opinion or perspective that differed from your own, you responded as an empathetic speaker or generous listener.
(For help with all aspects of your college application, head to our College Essay Help Center.)
In this article:
The U. Virginia admissions team wants authentic, but unusual answers that showcase your intellectual curiosity
On brand with the “quirk” thing, we get warm fuzzies from U. Virginia’s admissions office.
The Admission Dean’s TikTok page is charming and insightful, and as college essay nerds, we’ve pored over it with interest. By combining what we see there with our knowledge of how admissions offices work, we’re offering some guidance on how to approach these unusual supplements.
All colleges are ultimately looking for students who will succeed in college and beyond. That’s what the essays are for. Essays showcase potential when they talk about experiences, ideally ones that show one or more of the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants:
- Drive (grit)
- Intellectual Curiosity
- Diversity of Experiences
As the UVA dean talked about how UVA overhauled their recent application questions based on a review, her deciding question was: Which prompts gave them “some of our favorite and most insightful essays?”
What we see from this is that UVA wants two things:
(1) to do the same assessment of students’ potential for success as any other college (“insightful”), and
(2), to have fun in doing so (“favorite”).
In the comment section of the same video, the Dean implies she doesn’t like the “favorite word” question because it “gives us some of the more contrived answers (leadership, dedication, etc).” (Spoiler, though - it’s still there, the first of the 11 options.)
What we’re learning from this exchange is that U. Virginia wants answers that show a lot of personality — answers that reveal what’s unusual, rare, or unique about you. (You might even say, what’s “quirky” about you.) And not answers that make you “look good.”
All that being said, don’t forget the balance you’re trying to strike. The dean notes that academic performance is the most important piece of your application — we at Prompt take this with a grain of salt (see more here), but it does indicate that UVA isn’t just looking for a flock of delightful Zooey Deschanels: they want students who love learning (intellectual curiosity), will do well in college and beyond and who showcase real, interesting answers.
Before you choose a prompt, decide what unusual interests/experiences (that show off the 5 Traits) you want to showcase
Despite UVA’s unusual take on essay prompts, our essay-writing method still applies: you must start by figuring out what you want to say.
Only when you have a good idea of which of your high school experiences show off the 5 Traits should you consider the prompts — you want to slot your best stuff into them (not have them distract you from what best shows your potential).
So invest some time in brainstorming. Write down a long list of your:
- Academic interests
- Extracurricular activities and interests
- Self-learning or independent projects you’ve undertaken
- Work experiences or substantial domestic obligations
- Any other skills you’ve developed or meaningful experiences you’ve had
If you create a free Prompt account, you can develop these ideas through our brainstorming modules.
Once you’ve taken that time, you can better navigate what experiences show off your college potential. The very best should go into your personal statement. (Re-write your personal statement if that’s not so!)
But the “next-best” after that should find their way into your UVA answers.
College course prompt — Show off your intellectual curiosity [Example included]
The most important thing in your first answer is to make sure your response focuses on actions you’ve taken that show intellectual curiosity.
Do not speak in the abstract about course material that really might interest you, but for which you don’t have a track record. Also, don’t speak in the abstract about a great college course you’d like, but neglect to add the work you’ve done in that field already!
Instead, use your time to show how you’ve been a curious, interesting, dynamic person in high school (and will likely continue to be one in college).
The prompt again is:
College of Arts & Sciences: If you could create a college course that all UVA students would take, what would it be about and why?
In addition, here’s UVA’s unofficial note on word count:
We want students to answer the prompt in around 100 words. As always, the boxes on the Common App allow students to go a bit over, so we don't expect students to write exactly 100 words.
Every UVA student should take an urbanism course: better-designed cities are our most powerful tool against climate change, against homelessness, and for alleviating poverty. As a housing activist in local elections, so much of my work is to educate my peers (and elders!) on basic facts, such as the “High Cost of Free Parking” (a book by Donald Shoup) and “How Our Government Segregated America” (a book by Richard Rothstein). Yet these facts have an outsized impact on our everyday lives and the world we want to create.
- Word count: 88
- This entry shows a student who is full of intellectual curiosity — they’ve read at least 3 books outside of school! — and a dynamic person who takes initiative (being a housing activist at a young age, trying to educate others, organizing a book club). The student also seems like a contributor with strong values.
- The response also answers every part of the prompt — (a) what would the course be about and (b) why — right in the first sentence.
- In addition, the response focuses on how the course connects directly to work the student has undertaken already.
- Finally, the answer isn’t “quirky” per se, but it’s not your run-of-the-mill stuff either. The student has plainly developed this somewhat unusual interest and runs with it. Your answer can be very different but should have that same whiff of authentic passion or interest.
11 prompt options — Be authentic, but show off the 5 Traits [Examples included]
Here are the instructions again:
Students will … write responses to two prompts out of eleven options in about 50 words each. Again, the Common App boxes allow students to go a little over the stated limit. Some of these are old favorites and some are new.
One tip for deciding which two prompts to answer: write all of them (at least, sketch out your answer) and see which of your answers end up being strongest in terms of showing your potential/the 5 Traits. It shouldn’t take long to dash each answer out, using your brainstormed list of experiences. Then, you can refine the two you think are best.
Caveat: many of our answers use the same content and take it in different directions. This is only to show you how these questions work. Please make sure your answers show off different, if complimentary, facets of your experience. Don’t recycle facts the readers already know from other parts of your application.
Alright — on to the examples.
[1.] What’s your favorite word and why?
My favorite word is “density.” In urban planning, it means “more homes, closer together.” Something magic happens under those circumstances: people can walk places (car usage plummets), people can heat their spaces efficiently (fuel usage plummets), people can support local businesses, racially and economically diverse people can live together (a boon to social mobility).
- Word count: 54
- Important: definitely don’t go for a “contrived” word like “leadership,” or “dedication” (read our first section above if you want to know why!)
- Here, the student chose an unusual word with which they have an authentic relationship.
- This answer shows off intellectual curiosity as well as contribution values like caring for the environment and social equity.
[2.] We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. What is one of your quirks?
Constantly looking up the ownership and value of various properties. Doing this is a great way to see where a city is best using its land — and where it’s wasting resources, such as huge parking lots near subway stops. I also like that looking these facts up educates people on important issues (environmentalism, equity) while showing that we often have more power as citizens than we think.
- Word count: 67
- Again, the answer shows off intellectual curiosity as well as contribution values like caring for the environment and social equity.
- Again, the answer does seem more “authentic” than “contrived.”
[3.] About what topic could you speak for an hour?
On the origins of The Nutcracker. In a recent research paper, I compared the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story to the ballet, defending what many critics dismiss as a saccharine production: in the original, Clara (aged 7) marries the dis-enchanted Nutcracker and is praised as beautiful. In the ballet, Clara bravely kills the Mouse King — and has an exciting, imagination-rich adventure.
- Word count: 62
- Yeah, we got sick of the urbanism thing, too. So, here’s one more thing that might work.
- This essay shows the student’s intellectual curiosity. (And it’s fine that it doesn’t really exemplify another of the 5 Traits, although of course, you might weigh which topics let you show off more than one.)
- One caveat to this choice: it’s really hard to discuss a topic richly in 50 words. In this instance, we had to flatten/elide some details. If you find that you can’t be accurate about your topic in the limited space, see if you can better configure that answer for a different prompt.
[4.] Take us to your happy place.
The Nutcracker ballet has meant “Christmas” to me ever since I danced in our local production as a kid during my parent’s divorce. The production provided a warm, safe, beautiful anchor for me in a rough time. I still love it so much that I devoted a research paper to comparing E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original story to the ballet (arguing in favor of the ballet’s, yes, feminism).
- Word count: 68
- Importantly, this answer ties back to a recent experience — you want all your answers to talk about high school experiences (even if, as with this one, you also touch on your childhood), as that’s what most interests admissions readers.
- As with the answer above, this answer does a nice job of showing intellectual curiosity. It also touches on diversity of experiences.
[5.] You can wake up tomorrow and a skill you already have will become expert-level. What skill is that?
Hair & makeup. My white mom wasn’t up to my hair; I learned from my Black grandmother and I particularly loved that it was bonding time for us. Just like her, I’ve always loved hair and makeup. Today, though my grandmother died, I find that I can bond with friends by doing their hair and makeup (with or for them, whether they’re into it or not). I’d love even greater prowess, though.
- Word count: 71
- This answer shows a student who’s a real contributor, bonding with their grandmother and being someone who seems to make friend groups better. In a more minor way, it also has some diversity of experiences.
- Again, this answer comes off as authentic, not “contrived” as the U. Virginia dean might say.
[6.] What is the last gift you gave someone that wasn’t bought with money?
I noticed a beautiful empty frame in one of the homes where I babysit. I learned from the mom that she just felt too overwhelmed to fill it. My mission was clear: I took her two young kids out to the park for a “photo shoot.” Photographing little kids is hard! But I got a great picture, had it printed, and put it in the frame on Mother’s Day. Big hit.
- Word count: 71
- This answer also shows a student who’s a real contributor. Actually, this is a great prompt to showcase contribution, especially if you think that’s something lacking in your application elsewhere.
- In addition to contribution, this answer shows creativity, initiative, and drive. This present took some doing, but the student made it happen.
[7.] What website is the internet missing?
There is no website that shows:
- How many people want to live in a city but are priced out;
- How their inability to live there hurts their lives; and
- How much they’d contribute by being able to live there (in reduced emissions, and greater quality of life).
This comes close, but not enough.
- Word count: 53
- This answer shows both intellectual curiosity and contribution. The author is well-informed on an important subject, and shows how much they care about its human costs.
- This answer would be stronger if the student had an activity list description of the work they do that’s related to this knowledge (ie: if they’re part of a housing activist group and it’s listed there) so that the admission readers can place it in greater context.
[8.] After a challenging experience, how do you recharge?
Recently, the “affordable housing” ordinance I pushed for with my activist group failed to pass. We’d put in so much time and effort and were demoralized that affordable housing remains too hard to build. I found that it was hanging out with this group that buoyed me again. They felt what I felt and they soon started having hope that I found contagious.
- Word count: 62
- This answer shows contribution — a person who loves their group, hanging out with their group, and giving back to it — as well as drive, given the hard work referenced by the challenge and resilience to bounce back.
- Warning: This prompt seems like an easy one to answer without going deep on the 5 Traits. Make sure your answer shows more than how long you can stay in a hot sauna: make sure it shows something strong about your character.
[9.] Tell us about a place you’d like to share with everyone, but also keep to yourself.
There’s a coffee shop where I take the kids I babysit: it has a sandlot they love in the back, great Vietnamese coffee, and used books you can borrow while you sip! I love this place and want it to be hugely popular; sadly, it’s getting that way!
- Word count: 48
- Warning: We struggled with coming up with a (madeup) scenario that would work for this prompt while also showing off the 5 Traits. (This answer isn’t great for that.) This might be one of the more difficult prompts to do well on; or, you might have the perfect experience that this prompt allows you to show off.
- This answer isn’t great, but it does show a creative person who loves to read and seems good at their job (babysitting). All good things to admissions readers.
[10.] 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?
I would paint a picture of immigrants being welcomed in Charlottesville with the message “Build homes so immigrants can live here.” An important aspect of the housing crisis and cities’ failure to build enough housing is that cities that consider themselves “welcoming” to immigrants absolutely are not: immigrants can’t afford to live there.
- Word count: 53
- Warning: This answer is okay, but it’s a little combative and it’s also maybe a bit more controversial than you might want to include in an application where you don’t know the political leanings of the reader reviewing your application. While you can touch on political activism (whatever it is), try to keep your answers as uncontroversial and positive as possible.
- That being said, this answer demonstrates intellectual curiosity and contribution.
[11.] Tell us about a time when, faced with an opinion or perspective that differed from your own, you responded as an empathetic speaker or generous listener.
As an activist, opponents regularly enrage me. But I want to listen, learn, and be able to correct my own views or those of others. Recently, I talked with someone who said new homes shouldn’t come at the expense of parking. I’m proud that - for once - I calmly listened, asked a lot of questions to fully understand her views, and was able to correct one meaningful error.
- Word count: 65
- This answer shows intellectual curiosity, as well as great contribution skills - getting along with people and wanting to get along. It shows someone who is humble about their faults but driven to improve.
- Warning: That’s “empathetic” (showing empathy), not “emphatic” (talking loudly)! This prompt is actually pretty good for showing off your valuable “people person” skills.
Helpful info on all the “other” stuff you’ll consider as you apply to UVA (and other schools)
A few helpful resources for the non-supplement parts of your application:
- Common App: UVA requires the Common App. Read our guide to acing everything to do with writing your Common App application.
- Whether to submit test scores: UVA remains test-optional for Fall 2023. Our test-optional article will guide you through the tricky waters of making this decision.
- Early options: UVA offers Early Decision, Early Action, and Regular Decision. Read our Early Admissions article so you know how to approach this decision.
BTW, here’s our guidance for approaching any college supplement + here’s where you can find our guides for almost every college’s supplements.
Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center.
More articles on Prompt.com’s admissions-boosting methods: