How to Ace Vanderbilt’s Supplemental Essays | Guide & Examples, 2022-2023
Two pieces of good news for you:
First, Vanderbilt only requires one short supplemental essay (250 words). They give you two prompts to choose from.
Next, the essay prompts are pretty good. We think one of the two will generally lead to better essays than the other (we say why below). But each option can be a great springboard to showing off more of your personal characteristics — and making Vanderbilt readers want to move you to the “accept” pile.
We’ll show you exactly how to do this below the table of contents. Take a quick look at the prompts, and then meet us there.
Please select one of the following short answer prompts in approximately 250 words:
Option 1 (Describe an activity): Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.
Option 2 (Diversity): Vanderbilt University values learning through contrasting points of view. We understand that our differences, and our respect for alternative views and voices, are our greatest source of strength. Please reflect on conversations you’ve had with people who have expressed viewpoints different from your own. How did these conversations/experiences influence you?
(For help with all aspects of your college application, head to our College Essay Help Center.)
Brainstorm — decide what’s most impressive to say before deciding on your prompt
Prompt’s essay-writing method starts with figuring out what you want to say. (Then you slot that into the essay prompts that are available.)
So what kinds of things do you want to say on your college application? Easy. Your task is to show admissions officers that you will succeed in college and beyond.
Okay, but how do you show an admissions officer you’re likely to succeed? This is also, surprisingly, not that hard: you do it by talking about your experiences that show one or more of the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants:
- Drive (grit)
- Intellectual Curiosity
- Diversity of Experiences
That brings us to brainstorming. Before you can begin to decide between describing an activity or showing how you’ve dealt with contrasting points of view, you need to write down all of your high school experiences — a big task, but extremely worth your time. Brainstorm things like 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.
At the end of this process, you should have a solid idea of what experiences you’ve had that best show off one or more of the 5 Traits. The very best of these 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 the Vanderbilt supplement you choose.
Describe an activity > Diversity — Your essays should talk about you, not someone you disagree with
We are going to show you how to do well on both of these prompts. However, we like the activity/work experience prompt better.
That’s because the activity/work experience prompt lets you talk about what you’ve done outside of school. What a great topic for showing off your likelihood to succeed in college and the 5 Traits! (See our article How (and why) to Write a College Essay About Your Extracurricular Activities for more on how much we love activities in essays.)
The second prompt reads in pertinent part (emphasis added):
Please reflect on conversations you’ve had with people who have expressed viewpoints different from your own. How did these conversations/experiences influence you?
In contrast to the activity prompt, the diversity prompt:
- centers on another person, and how they influenced you; and
- could tend to lead to an “adversarial” rather than positive essay.
To be clear, we at Prompt agree with Vanderbilt when it states, as a matter of philosophy:
Vanderbilt University values learning through contrasting points of view. We understand that our differences, and our respect for alternative views and voices, are our greatest source of strength.
True. But that’s for life. When it comes to college essays, we worry that this prompt is setting you up to write about someone other than yourself and possibly have you come off sounding more adversarial and negative than you really are.
Option 1 (Describe an activity) — Use the activity/work experience to paint a picture of the dynamism you’ll bring to Vanderbilt’s campus
Here’s the first option again:
Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.
In terms of “describe an activity” essays, our first (and most powerful) piece of advice is to read our article on how to ace these: How to Write a Great “Describe an Activity” Essay. This article walks you through five easy steps for giving the admissions team what it wants.
If you don’t feel like clicking over (but you should!), here’s the gist:
For deciding what activity/work experience to choose, go with one that:
- Shows steady commitment;
- Shows off one or more of the 5 Traits (of course!);
- Shows you won awards or gained a leadership position within;
- Is surprising, interesting, or unique.
These different criteria might push you in different directions. Ultimately, the most important thing is focusing on that “likelihood to succeed” part (which things like commitment, awards, and leadership all tend to demonstrate).
But it’s important to think about that last bullet, too — an activity that’s unique, different, or surprising can show you’ll be an asset on campus. So long as you have a real track record in your more “unusual” activity, you should seriously consider it.
In terms of content and structure:
- Write an essay that shows off what you might do on campus — that’s what admissions readers are reading it for!
- Use our outlines (in the Describe an Activity article) to make for a more powerful, readable, and easy-to-write essay.
- Optionally, end with a line or two about how you intend to carry on the activity/work experience at Vanderbilt.
Option 1 (Describe an activity) — Example
Caveat: Prompt strongly believes that influencers shouldn’t influence your college essays and that, for essays that get published in flashy places, you don’t know if the essay got that student in or if they got in despite what was maybe a bad essay.
So please take this made-up example essay with a grain of salt.
Being teased because I couldn’t sing had bothered me my whole life. I couldn’t join in when friends sang top 40 tunes or Disney nostalgia. I felt ashamed.
Yet, today, I’m the captain of our school’s acapella group, for which I’m singing the “When I fall in love” solo, and I can play the piano.
As a freshman, I decided to face my fears and sign up for Glee Club. I also fessed up to the choir director: I told him I couldn’t sing, but wanted to challenge myself. I promised to sing quietly or not at all if I disturbed others, or to quit if it was impossible. Luckily, he said I could come early to practice for extra help. And I did.
Not only that, but I practiced at home every night with a mini-keyboard from my brother. To my non-musical family, practicing music is “weird.” But it was magical to see my “can’t sing” trait slowly but surely become “can” with practice. Soon, I could not only sing on-key; I loved music. By sophomore year, I started piano lessons, adding piano to my “weird” nightly practice routine.
Music is a part of my life now. At Vanderbilt, I’m excited to take advantage of the Blair School of Music and take classes on music history. And to keep expanding my abilities and working on arrangements for one of Vanderbilt’s many acapella groups. I’m not ashamed to sing in public anymore — I’m really proud of it!
- Word count: 247
- This example essay uses the “initiative and impact” outline structure featured in our Describe an Activity article.
- The essay shows a student with tremendous drive, as well as bravery, honesty, and humility.
- The essay shows a student who would be a great asset on the Vanderbilt campus. The last paragraph about what types of things they’d do on campus is a great (optional) way of showing the student’s desire to go to Vanderbilt and how they’d be a good fit.
- This essay is loosely modeled on a real essay that we also liked about a girl who committed to weightlifting. So long as you bear in mind our caveats above — you can check it out in this video (it starts at the 4:30 mark).
Option 2 (Diversity) — Focus on your actions and the 5 Traits
Here’s the prompt again:
Vanderbilt University values learning through contrasting points of view. We understand that our differences, and our respect for alternative views and voices, are our greatest source of strength. Please reflect on conversations you’ve had with people who have expressed viewpoints different from your own. How did these conversations/experiences influence you?
As we stated above, the key to this essay is to stay focused on you: your actions, your characteristics, and how you exhibit the 5 Traits. Keep your coverage of the person whose views differ from yours to ~1 paragraph or less. And make sure your essay has a “positive vibe” to it, as you want to come off as dynamic and exciting to the admission readers (not “combative”).
Option 2 (Diversity) — Example
As part of the activist group Sunrise-Cambridge, I advocate for bold, immediate, and aggressive change on climate issues on a local level. A lot of us in the group feel battle-ready; we’re young and worried about the state of the globe. We see our impatience as a good thing: a necessary corrective in a complacent world.
But during the last election, a much-older member took a contrary view in our endorsement deliberations. He wanted us to approve a city council candidate who has a good record on many of our issues but a “bad” one on cars. Most of us dismissed the candidate out of hand. I was impressed that the older member not only went up against us, but how he did it: respecting our disagreement, but also laying out a strong contrary case.
In the end, we did make the endorsement; the councilor was elected; and she’s now a dependable ally for our cause (even if not our most enthusiastic).
That moment has had a profound influence on me. I see my political activism differently — to be effective you need to know when to compromise judiciously. As the leader of the high school Sunrise chapter, for example, I’ve made a point to get feedback on our big issues from school leaders. That wasn’t popular at first. I heard things like: the principal is the bad guy! But it is popular now — being willing to communicate with a bigger, more diverse group has made us so much more effective.
- Word count: 248
- This example essay shows a student who is dynamic, thoughtful, with drive, initiative, and contribution.
- This essay would be better if it expanded upon the last paragraph (what the student did with the knowledge from the older Sunrise member). Instead, it “wastes” a fair amount of its length talking about the situation in which the student learned to listen to another viewpoint.
- You can imagine the topic of this essay being even stronger if it was written in response to the “Describe an activity” prompt — the student could spend more time talking about what they have done as head of their Sunrise chapter in high school with the philosophy that compromising and hearing diverse viewpoints isn’t “selling out” but powerful.
Helpful info on all the “other” stuff you’ll consider as you apply to Vanderbilt (and other schools)
A few helpful resources for the non-supplement parts of your application:
- Common App: Vanderbilt requires either the Common Application, Coalition Application, or QuestBridge Application. If you choose CA, read our guide to acing everything to do with writing your Common App application.
- Whether to submit test scores: Vanderbilt remains test-optional for Fall 2023 and Fall 2024. Our test-optional article will guide you through the tricky waters of making this decision.
- Early options: Vanderbilt offers Early Decision I, Early Decision II, 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: