Some of Our Favorite Supplemental Essay Prompts: 2020-2021 Edition

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A review of essay prompts can be a great way to prepare for the writing process. I am supposed to write roughly 650 words, but on what? Of course, you will head straight for the Common Application prompts and prepare to stress out choosing one idea. But what about reading supplemental prompts and taking a mental walk around the other questions that colleges are asking students? A creative prompt may just the spark a fresh perspective or a new insight about yourself. And this new idea could go on to inspire your main essay, after you’re well rested and ready to start writing your college essay.

The final 2020-2021 supplemental essay prompts will be uploaded to college websites during the summer and uploaded to the Common App in August. As you finalize your list, check your schools and see if the 2020-2021 supplemental prompts have been posted on the school website. UVA, for example, has just updated their supplemental prompts and you can find them here. Some schools many change their supplements from year to year, while others stay the same.

A quick note about essays this year: the 2020-2021 Common App has added an opportunity for students who have been deeply impacted by COVID-19 to share their stories. Applicants will see this optional 250-word essay prompt:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Beginning your essays in June gives you a head start on your college applications and reading the following 2019-2020 prompts just may inspire your next great idea.

Rice University

There is a breadth of intellectual opportunities here at Rice. Further explain your intended major and other areas of academic focus you may explore. (150-word limit)

Wake Forest University

  • List five books you have read that intrigued you.
  • Tell us how a work of fiction you’ve read has helped you to understand the world’s complexity. (300 words max)*
  • What piques your intellectual curiosity, and why? (150 words max)
  • At Wake Forest, we gather our students in “Calls to Conversation,” congregating small groups around dinner tables in faculty’s and administrators’ homes to discuss topics organized around a theme, for example “arts for social change,” “gender in society,” and “leading a meaningful life.” If you could design a theme for a “Call to Conversation,” what would you choose, and why? (150 words max)*
  • We live in an age intensely interested in heroes. Professor Joseph Campbell defined “hero” as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Describe a hero in public life and how and why, in your opinion, they meet Professor Campbell’s definition. (150 words max)

University of Richmond

Select one: 650 words or less

Prompt 1: What is an urgent global challenge or social justice topic about which you are passionate? What solutions or outcomes do you hope to see?

Prompt 2: By the time you graduate from college, there will be jobs that don’t exist today. Describe one of them and how Richmond might prepare you for it.

Prompt 3: You are required to spend the next year in either the past or the future. To what year would you travel and why?

University of Chicago

Choose one of the six extended essay options and upload a one- or two- page response.

1. Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?
—Inspired by Kedrick Shin, Class of 2019

2. If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options, as you can tell, are endless.
—Inspired by Yoonseo Lee, Class of 2023

3. A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a ______?
—Inspired by Arya Muralidharan, Class of 2021 (and dozens of others who, this year and in past years, have submitted the question “Is a hot dog a sandwich,” to which we reply, “maybe”)

4. “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West
—Inspired by Elizabeth Mansfield, Class of 2020

5. UChicago has international campus centers around the world, but we don’t have any interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional campuses… yet! Propose a spot in time or space, in this or any universe, for a new UChicago campus. What types of courses would be taught at this site? What cultural experiences await students who study there?
—Inspired by Peter Jasperse, Class of 2022

6. “Don’t be afraid to pick past prompts! I liked some of the ones from previous years more than those made newly available for my year. Also, don’t worry about the ‘correct’ way to interpret a question. If there exists a correct way to interpret the prompt I chose, it certainly was not my answer.” —Matthew Lohrs, Class of 2023

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun!

Syracuse University

Who or what influenced you to apply to Syracuse University? (Maximum: 250 words)

Who is the person you dream of becoming and how do you believe Syracuse University can help you achieve this? (Maximum: 250 words)

University of Michigan

If you could only do one of the activities you have listed in the Activities section of your Common Application, which one would you keep doing? Why? (50 words minimum, 150 words maximum)

Essay #1 : Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. (100 words minimum, 300 words maximum)

Essay #2 (Required for all applicants): Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? (100 words minimum, 550 words maximum)

Washington University in St. Louis

Tell us about something that really sparks your intellectual interest and curiosity and compels you to explore more in the program/area of study that you indicated. It could be an idea, book, project, cultural activity, work of art, start-up, music, movie, research, innovation, question, or other pursuit. (300 words maximum)

Emory University

Choose one prompt from the “Reflections” category and one prompt from the “Tell us about you” category. We encourage you to be thoughtful and not stress about what the right answer might be. We simply want to get to know you better. Each response should be no more than 150 words.

“Reflections” Category:

  • Share about something you want to bring from your community to the Emory University community.
  • Share about a time when you questioned something that you believed to be true.
  • Emory University’s shield is a crossed torch and trumpet representing the light of learning and the proclamation of knowledge. It symbolizes our mission to impact the world through discovery. What truth or knowledge do you want to see shared?

“Tell us about you” Category: Respond to one of the following.     

  • Which book, character, song, or piece of work (fiction or non-fiction) represents you, and why?
  • If you could witness a historic event first-hand, what would it be, and why?
  • If asked to write a 150-word tweet to tell the world who you are, what would you say?

Tufts University

Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, ‘Why Tufts?’ (100-150 words)

We want to hear your authentic voice as you answer the following questions. Be serious if the moment calls for it, but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too. Simply put, be yourself.

Pick one of the following (200-250 words):

  • From recognizing break dancing as a new Olympic sport, to representation in media, to issues of accessibility in our public transit systems, what is something that you can talk about endlessly? What do you care about and why?
  • Whether you’ve built circuit boards or written slam poetry, created a community event or designed mixed media installations, tell us: What have you designed, invented, engineered, or produced? Or what do you hope to?
  • We all have a story to tell. And with over 5,000 undergraduate students on our campus, that is over 5,000 stories to share and learn. What’s yours?

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Please choose two of the prompts below and respond to each in 200-250 words. Your essay responses below should be different from your Common App essay response.

  • Tell us about a peer who has made a difference in your life.
  • What do you hope will change about the place where you live?
  • What is one thing that we don’t know about you that you want for us to know?
  • What about your background, or what perspective, belief, or experience, will help you contribute to the education of your classmates at UNC?

Maureen Delaney

Educational Counselor

As a Counselor in Educational Planning, Maureen Delaney considers the strengths and interests of students and helps them to achieve their academic and personal goals. Maureen takes time to establish authentic connections both to students planning for college and those advancing from undergraduate to graduate school. As an engaged partner, she identifies each individual’s strengths, cultivates...

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