December 6, 2013
Flash forward a couple of weeks. It’s December 31st and you’re frantically trying to complete your college applications before the ball drops in Times Square and the deadlines hit.
“I just have to finish these writing supplements…,” you’ll tell yourself as you reach for some Red Bull when you really should be sipping some champagne (assuming parental approval, of course). You’ll curse the evil admission officer (someone like me…) who “required” these “extras” before your application could be considered “complete.”
But here’s the thing: these “extra” writing samples are really valuable. Quite often, the answers you provide to the three questions on the writing supplement to the Common App are my favorite part of the application. Why? Well, when you “engage the supp,” as one of my colleagues likes to say, you add a jolt of voice to the admissions mix of grades, test scores, and recommendations. When it’s done well, your persona floats to the surface where we can see it and appreciate it. (That image sounds like a Disney cartoon: I’m imagining Ariel smiling from beneath a blue wave…)
Don’t misunderstand me: the traditional elements are very important parts of our admissions process. I like a sexy GPA in a rigorous curriculum as much as the next admissions dean. But when two-thirds or more of the applicant pool sport numbers that suggest academic ability, the numbers alone don’t (can’t) tell me everything I want to know about you as we make a decision.
The supplemental questions pay a dividend for you as well as for us as they spotlight your voice. While the data tells us who will be successful in a Tufts classroom the voice of all those qualified applicants shapes the vibe of our undergraduate community. By design, the Tufts’ writing supplement coaxes you towards a fuller, original interpretation of your best self: funny, cynical, kind, athletic, messy, romantic, daydreamer...whatever! There’s no “right answer.”
While I've never been a particular fan of The Who I must confess that Tommy and friends asked a salient question when they crooned “Who are you?” We want to know that, too. Whether you're an offensive lineman or a poet (or a poetic offensive lineman), your objective is the same: frame a narrative that introduces you to the admission officer who is reading your file. And by "reading" I mean evaluating, because that's the task at hand in a competitive admissions process.
“My Tufts application was the absolute best representation of me on paper,” a recent applicant told us last year. “I liked that Tufts cared enough about my application to create essay questions that really represent the person behind the paper.” Bingo! That’s a key idea for you to keep in mind as you finish your application: who is the person behind the PDF (since we’re mostly paperless in our admissions process).
To tease that out of you, we ask you to answer three short questions as part of our writing supplement to the Common App. But one quick clarification: “short” does not mean “casual.” Yes, two of the three questions should be answered in 200 to 250 words (and the Common App will be a stickler for those word count parameters) but a well done response—250 words is really just a healthy paragraph—packs a punch.
Here’s our logic:
The first question—and the shortest of the trio—is straightforward and practical: “Why Tufts?” How or why did the university make your final college list. Simply put, why did you apply? Are you intrigued by our programs in quantitative economics, community health, human-factors engineering, museum studies or entrepreneurial leadership? Are you itching to take Stephan Pennington’s class on black divas? Maybe David Kaplan’s tissue engineering research makes your palms sweat? (That could pose a problem as you handle the instruments…) Perhaps Tufts’ a capella scene calls out to your musical soul or you want to help Jumbo Nation win another National Championship in diving, field hockey or softball.
Maybe a “warm fuzzy” reason prompts your application: you had a strong reaction to the place. You loved the sight of the Boston skyline from the roof of Tisch Library or the playful, happy aura of the students you encountered on your campus tour. In short, you could see yourself here, sledding down the President’s Lawn after a snowstorm, and that’s useful information for us to know. “Fit” counts.
Any of these responses would suffice. We ask for 50 to 100 words: it’s just a couple of sentences. It’s just a little longer than a robust Tweet. Don’t over think the question. Just react. It’s not calculus: there’s not an absolute answer to the question.
Our two 200-250-word “Short Responses” channel an autobiographical impulse. The first question probes the world around you: “There is a Quaker saying,” the question begins, “Let your life speak.” It asks you to “describe the environment in which you were raised—your family, home, neighborhood or community–and how it influenced the person you are today. We don’t know what we don’t know about you, so tell us. As a reader this is my favorite question: it’s a welcome window into your world, your home, your faith, your school, your life. It can be poignant or funny, dramatic or “normal.” All of it matters. Your environment has shaped your outlook, aspirations and achievements. Share that with us.
The second question—which can be answered via six different options--is about you. For example, if I had to answer one of these prompts it’d be a close call between “What makes you happy?” and “Celebrate your nerdy side.” Let’s choose the latter. Gardening, Broadway musicals and politics come to mind as “nerdy” passions but, as much as I love my tomatoes and show tunes, my deep and long-term interest in all things political would be a better representation of me. I’m a political animal. It’s what I discuss and debate with friends and colleagues (but never with my father or brother-in-law…); it reflects the blogs that are bookmarked on my Mac; it’s where my idealism and pragmatism crash together like a cold front interrupts a heat wave in July. What's so nerdy about a love of politics? I really like the stats that are associated with it: the polling, the voting patterns... (It makes me great at fantasy football.) For you, maybe the answer is food (cooking it or eating it) or athletics (watching it or playing it) or technology (using it or tinkering with it). It’s your call. And there’s no right or wrong answer. Something makes you hum. Tell us what it is.
And that’s it. Those are the “required” 550 words that Tufts asks you to add to your application via the writing supplement. What you write or say or mime (if you choose to submit a video) is up to you.
Think about how these “extra” pieces might shine a different light on your candidacy. Be candid and straightforward. Argue your case. Be authentic. And have some fun with it!