How To Write The Johns Hopkins Supplemental Essay (2019-2020)




Welcome to the Johns Hopkins supplemental essay for the 2019-2020 application cycle! Johns Hopkins asks only one supplemental essay question, so you’re going to want to make it count. Essentially, you’ve got 300-400 words to talk about teamwork. It's a good topic. Johns Hopkins wants to know that you can play well with others, so to speak. An ability to collaborate is a pretty important skill in the real world, and more colleges should really be asking about this. Here’s how to approach the essay.


Write a brief essay (300-400 words) in which you respond to the following question: Successful students at Johns Hopkins make the biggest impact by collaborating with others, including peers, mentors, and professors. Talk about a time, in or outside the classroom, when you worked with others and what you learned from the experience.



This seems like a pretty straightforward question, but bear with me while I break it down:


“Successful students at Johns Hopkins make the biggest impact by collaborating with others, including peers, mentors, and professors.” Don’t skip over this sentence, just because it’s not technically part of the question. Johns Hopkins is sharing one of its own core values with you. The school is saying: “We think that collaboration, whether between peers, or between mentors/professors and students, is what leads to making a big impact.” This isn’t a traditional “Why This College?” essay, but, by sharing a value with you, Johns Hopkins is giving you a chance to make a case for why you’re a good fit for them.


“Talk about a time…” This means you should focus on an anecdote, or tell a story of some kind. These folks aren’t looking for a resume-style list of examples of when you worked with other people—in 300-400 words, you’ll be better off sticking to one strong story.

“…in or outside the classroom, when you worked with others…” So this can be about a school activity or experience, or something you did in an extracurricular activity. Keep in mind that the people reading this essay will have your transcripts and activities list in front of them. Don’t simply repeat yourself. Let’s say you’ve got a pretty exceptional extracurricular you want to drive home, like maybe you founded a really impactful non-profit. Even in a super impressive case like this, you can’t simply reiterate what’s on your activities list (what the project is, the time you’ve spent on it, the number of people impacted). You have to give us new information. And that new information needs to be all about teamwork. Don’t use this as an excuse simply to tout your leadership—this is about collaboration, about a moment “when you worked with others.”


“…and what you learned from the experience.” Finally, what’s the takeaway?


OK. Johns Hopkins has communicated one of their core values to you (teamwork), and they want to know that you share this core value with them. Your task is to make a strong case that you do (assuming you do), and give them some insight as to what’s unique about your take on what teamwork means.


So what unique take do you have on teamwork? What unique and personal meaning does teamwork have for you?


Obviously, I don’t know what the answer is, but you do, if you think long and hard, and try out a few different ideas.


Here’s what I can tell you.


The fact that you play on a sports team doesn’t mean that you have an original idea of what teamwork means. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a sentence that starts with some variation on: “Most people think sports are just about having a good time…” If this were true, there would be fewer college applicants using sports as a metaphor for life, leadership, perseverance, diligence, and, yes, teamwork. Nothing against sports. My job is simply to let you know that lots of kids are going to talk about sports. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to (and you don’t need my permission, obviously). It just means that the bar is much higher for you when it comes to writing something unexpected and personal. You may have a truly original story about teamwork in sports, but the sad reality is that, excepting exceptions, you probably don’t, even if you broke your leg, even if you won the big game, and so on.


Community service is also a predictable go-to for this question. Maybe you help out at a soup kitchen, or you went on a service trip. By coming together with like-minded helper-outers you accomplished something really great. And that is really great, in ways that are so much more important than the college application process. But for the sake of this essay, community service is probably not the best bet. Every high school student applying to Johns Hopkins has done community service. Lots of them have been required to do community service by their high schools.

When it comes to talking about your activities (sports, community service, or anything else) college essay specialists have a “10% Rule.” The “10% Rule” goes like this: your activity is probably worth writing about if you are in the top 10% of students engaging in that activity. It’s an especially good rule to keep in mind when it comes to sports and community service. If you’re Greta Thunberg (in a year or two), you can absolutely talk about your activism on your college essays. But if you picked up trash for 2 hours a week, keep Greta in mind—she’s got a much better story to tell about what she’s done about the climate crisis than you do. Same goes for sports: if you’re training with the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team, go ahead and use sports to talk about teamwork. Otherwise, find something smaller and more personal.


“Something smaller and more personal” can be literally anything, provided you have a story that gives us insight into what teamwork means for you and only you. It can be a story from your routine of waking up at 5AM to milk the cows on the family farm with your mother; it can be an anecdote from your nightly ritual of staying up until 1AM fielding questions from fellow coders on message boards.


One last note: my personal belief is that the 10% rule can also be inverted. Great essays can come out of talking about an activity where you are frankly pretty bad. If you have a long list of impressive activities (and no on will doubt your bona fides), don’t shy away from talking about how, for example, in the last row of violinists at your school orchestra, you have found deeper meanings about teamwork. You will of course have to have something truly meaningful to say here, but essays about mediocrity can show vulnerability, and can be highly effective.


The last part of the question has to do with what you’ve learned. This is why I’ve insisted on insight and personal significance throughout this post. By the time you get to the end of your essay, you shouldn’t need to state an explicit moral (“And so, to me, teamwork means more than working toward a common goal… etc.”). Your story should respond to this question, and show what teamwork means to you. Be sure that your essay makes clear what the personal takeaway is. Ask your friends to read the piece and tell you what they think the takeaway is. If they get it, without your having to write out a moral, you've probably accomplished your goal.


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