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Last updated March 22, 2024

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How to Write the Vanderbilt Supplemental Essays

Key Takeaway

Vandy doesn't ask for as heavy an extracurricular load as a lot of other highly selective schools. That being said, you need to help them understand your extracurriculars above all. Take a look for a great example. 

What are the Vanderbilt supplemental essay prompts?

Vanderbilt has two supplemental essay prompts you can choose from. They do not have a preference for which one you submit, but you should consider which one makes the most sense for you. Both Vanderbilt supplemental essay prompts are fairly common topics, so you may find ways to “recycle” your writing and use it for other schools too.

This guide will walk you through our tips on how to write the two Vanderbilt supplemental essays from a former Vanderbilt admission officer.

How to Write the Vanderbilt Supplemental Essay

Supplemental Strategy

Supplemental essays are very important to the Vanderbilt admissions process. Vanderbilt is an extremely highly-selective school, so making admissions decisions based on academics alone isn’t enough. They want to understand and assess your impact and engagement outside of the classroom as well.

Vanderbilt admissions also wants to understand who you might be as a community member on their campus. Remember, Vanderbilt students live on-campus in the residence halls all four years. Community fit in their diverse community in Nashville is exceptionally important to them too.

These values—extracurriculars and embracing a diverse community—are reflected in the Vanderbilt supplemental essay prompts.

How long should Vanderbilt supplemental essay be? 250 words? 400?

Oh, one more thing. Vanderbilt asks you to “Please provide your answer in approximately 250 words”, but you’ll notice that the box allows you to submit up to 400 words. Many students ask if it is okay to write more than 250 words.

It is okay to write more than 250 words for the Vanderbilt supplemental essays. As always, you should find ways to be concise and direct when writing this style of supplemental essay. Vanderbilt changed their word count policy in the 2022-2023 school year, which is also when they added the second prompt. They give the space to write up to 400 words, and you may use as much of that space as you need.

Prompt 1

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.

This has been Vanderbilt’s supplemental essay for years, and you are likely to see similar prompts at other schools. It's a classic extracurricular activities essay.

To start, make sure you clearly describe the activity and your role. Some activities might take a bit more explanation than others. Admission officers likely know what a baseball pitcher does or what a debate competition might look like. Still, you may have had an informal leadership role. If you are writing about something more distinctive like an internship, research program, school club, or family responsibilities, be clear about your role. Have someone else read it and make sure they can accurately recite to you their understanding of your activity.

Remember, Vanderbilt wants to understand your impact outside of the classroom and the context and breadth of any achievements you have. (We have a whole post about extracurricular magnitude and impact, if you're interested.)

Vanderbilt admissions also wants to know that you are reflective enough to write about the impact your chosen extracurricular activity had on you. What did you learn? How did you change? Perhaps you were part of a research team and gained a greater understanding of how individual scientists are integral parts of a lab. Maybe your work with children on the autism spectrum is the reason you want to go into education. Show how you’ve learned and grown.

Additionally, Vanderbilt (and pretty much any school) wants to understand how your experiences will positively impact others now and in the future. Remember, they are recruiting not just students for the classroom, but community members for four years. Be sure to tell them how your experiences will translate to the next chapters of your life.

By the way, students often worry about being too direct. While you don’t want to write with zero style or emotion, know that writing clearly about your impact can help your admission officer understand your point quickly. Your admission officer is on a time crunch. It is okay in a supplemental essay to explicitly connect the dots between what you have done in high school and what you will do in college.

Which brings me to my last point—feel free to sneak in something specific at Vanderbilt that relates to your extracurricular activity, something you’d like to join once there. Whether that is research, service, marching band, or the rocket team, it is appropriate to let them know an aspect of the community you’d like to join.

Prompt 2

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?

This second prompt was new for Vanderbilt in the 2022-23 school year. They do not have a preference for which prompt you choose, so don’t let that discourage you from addressing this one.

Most of my guidelines from the extracurricular essay apply here as well.

This prompt is a somewhat distinctive take on a diversity essay. Instead of directly asking you to address diversity or a community, Vanderbilt asks you to reflect on conversation(s) you’ve had where your viewpoint wasn’t shared.

Just like the extracurricular essay, don’t make the careless mistake of not setting the scene for the conversation you describe. You don’t have to (or want to) spend half your essay describing the parties involved, but don’t skip the setup either.

Then, give details of the encounter. Some students opt for the more conservative route of taking a stance of neutrality in the disagreement—describing a scene without stating their own opinion. Perhaps a controversial reading in class brought out differing opinions and resulted in an argument. Other (probably most) students will choose to reveal their own viewpoint or “side” of an argument and describe the scene where they were challenged. Either approach is okay, as long as you…

Share how the conversation impacted you. Perhaps your opinion was changed when you realized someone else has more direct experience with a topic and they swayed you. Maybe the person with whom you disagree dug their heels in based on a proclamation of unshakable faith. The lessons one learns from these encounters would be different, and you need to make sure that lesson is revealed.

Again, you want to leave the admission officer with a sense of who you are as a community member through this story. Maybe you are open-minded, or empathetic, or a great listener, or a skillful but caring debater. Let them infer (or tell them directly!) how this will manifest on the Vanderbilt campus.

To recap:

With both essays, make sure you set your reader up to understand the situation or extracurricular activity. Don’t leave them guessing or assume they’ll understand something. Then, open yourself up to enough reflection to demonstrate your capacity to learn and grow, and be forward-looking enough that they can picture you on their campus.

For more advice about applying to Vanderbilt, be sure to check out our Vanderbilt Common Data Set post and How to Get into Vanderbilt guide. See you there!