How To Write The Dartmouth College Supplemental Essays (2020-2021)

Welcome to the Dartmouth College supplemental essay prompts for the 2020-2021 application cycle! Here's everything you need to know.

(You can refer to the Dartmouth College website if you want to see how exactly they're presenting their essay prompts for this year.)

Dartmouth’s writing supplement requires that applicants write brief responses to two supplemental essay prompts as follows:

In other words, answer question 1, and answer one of the questions provided under “2.”

1. Please respond in 100 words or fewer:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir… a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

We get it, Dartmouth—you didn’t want New Hampshire to turn you into a public school back in the early 19th century, and you made it into this whole big thing, and you won in court. But this pompous quote, which you’ve been using for years, does nothing to help your applicants respond to the simple question: “Why Dartmouth?” (No disrespect—Dartmouth is a terrific school.)

This is a typical “Why This College” question, but your response has to be very, very short. Do your research on Dartmouth and make sure you come up with some concrete examples of why Dartmouth is the place for you, and don’t just say that you wouldn’t mind being in the middle of nowhere for four years. Make sure your reasons for wanting to attend Dartmouth are in line with your own personal narrative. Consider three main areas--academics, extracurriculars, and campus life. In other words, make sure your points are authentic, and that you’re not simply pandering to that small college that some love, Sir.

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself.

The great thing about this question is that it’s so open ended it can be about almost anything. You’ve already written your Common App essay, but hopefully you have another subject for a personal story up your sleeve, and now would be the time to use it. Use this opportunity to discuss a personal story, legend, genealogy or tradition. In other words, talk about whatever you like, as long as it’s personal and uniquely you. Use your restricted word-count wisely: stick to one main anecdote.

B. What excites you?

Truly revolutionary figures, whether in the sciences, technology, art, or anything else, are always very passionate about what they do. Whether it’s the thousands of hours the Beatles spent practicing or Marie Curie’s late nights in the lab, there’s evidence of that deep interest in their habits. It would benefit you to show the admissions officers two things here: first that you have already worked to identify some of the things that drive you, and second that when you pick something you truly go after it. Don’t just talk about how cool it is that black holes don’t even let light escape--go further and discuss how you followed up by interviewing astrophysicists or staring through the cheap telescope you got for your birthday every single clear night. This combination will best present you as someone likely to make the next breakthrough.

C. In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba, Class of 2014, reflects on constructing a windmill from recycled materials to power the electrical appliances in his family's Malawian house: "If you want to make it, all you have to do is try." What drives you to create and what do you hope to make or have you already made?

“What drives you to create?” sounds a lot like “What excites you?” in my mind, just with an added specification. Maybe one calls you more strongly than the other, but you can approach the prompts similarly. Think about the most likely way for you to meaningfully impact on the world. What does it look like? Does it involve “creating” a lifesaving biomedical device, a nonprofit that provides banking services for the homeless, a movie about new environmental technology, or something else (probably something else). For an effective response here, you’ll want to hint at how you might achieve your vision in addition to describing your motivation and outlining what it is you hope to create.

D. Curiosity is a guiding element of Toni Morrison's talent as a writer. "I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost...magnificent, when I write," she says. Celebrate your curiosity.

I’m starting to feel like a broken record, but now is a good time to recognize that a lot of supplemental essay prompts are really asking you to do the same thing--show your potential. “Celebrate your curiosity” is the version of this that perhaps appeals to the artists and authors while Prompt C is probably geared more towards engineers.

This is also a great question for our student-entrepreneurs though: what lack did you see in your community? What was missing and how did you find a solution to fill the gap? To answer this question, you don’t need a special talent, but you need the kind of curiosity you can demonstrate and quantify. If you haven’t made a serious splash in something, this question probably isn’t the best for you. And that’s fine—there are five others.

E "Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away," observed Frida Kahlo. Apply Kahlo's perspective to your own life.

It’s easy to see this prompt and think the essay task is as simple as correlating the theme with the events of your life. Resist the temptation to discuss how many times you’ve switched schools and how many states or countries you’ve lived in. To make your application part of the less than 9 percent that get accepted to Dartmouth, you’ll need to be more creative than that. You can start with noticing examples of this in your life, but follow up with the big questions. Why does it matter that everything changes? How do you and should you deal with change? Does everything really go away? What stays if anything? Your answer to these questions will say a lot about how you view your future and how prepared you are to deal with changing, moving, and flying away to college.

F. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

There’s a question like this on the Common Application that asks about a problem you’d like to solve—no matter the scale. In my personal opinion, these kinds of questions should be avoided when possible. And since this question for Dartmouth is not mandatory, I’d suggest you avoid it.

The way the question is phrased is simply too much to ask of a 17-year-old, or a 27- or 37- or 47-year-old for that matter. Many of the 2020 presidential hopefuls end up sounding a little phony when they try to speak to the “the world’s troubles” and they are far older and more experienced than college students. And they have professional speech writers. You may be a “better human being” (than what?), but the fact is that you don’t need to have solutions to the greatest problems facing our world to get into Dartmouth. You’re trying to get into college, not run for president. It is extremely difficult to tackle subjects like climate change, the threat of nuclear war, the patriarchy, systemic racism—take your pick—in a meaningful way in 250-300 words, as a high school student. Students who attempt these grand problem questions often sound like they’re parroting NPR, and their responses generally sound like amateurish editorials rather than authentic personal statements. Which is no wonder: questions like these set them up for failure.

If you do opt for this question, make sure it’s personal. Climate change affects us all, but unless you live on a melting iceberg, I wouldn’t recommend you propose an alternative to the Green New Deal here. Unless you have accomplished incredibly uncommon things in the realm of activism, I’d choose to talk about something else.

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