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Amherst College 2020-21 Supplemental Essay Prompt Guide

Regular Decision: 

The Requirements: One essay of 300 words, one short essay of 175 words, one short answer of 75 words

Supplemental Essay Type(s): Activity, Essay of choice

Amherst College 2020-21 Application Essay Question Explanations 

At Amherst we know that identity is more than checkboxes. If you would like to share more about your identity, background, family, culture or community, please tell us more here. (Maximum: 175 words)

Amherst is giving you this opportunity to further distinguish yourself from other applicants — not with amazing test scores or impressive grades, but by painting a more detailed picture of who you are. We encourage you to use this space to write about something that hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere on your application. Maybe you’d like to write about your experience growing up in a military family, or competing in the Junior Olympics, or playing Mancala with your grandpa. The options are endless!


In addition to the essay you are writing as part of the Common Application, Amherst requires a supplementary writing sample from all applicants. There are three options for satisfying Amherst’s supplementary writing requirement: Option A, Option B and Option C. You may select only one of these options. Before deciding, carefully read the descriptions of all three options.


Option A: Please respond to one of the following quotations in an essay of not more than 300 words. It is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts. Remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay.

Before you even get to the quotations, there’s a lot to take in about Option A, so let’s take a breather. Don’t let the seemingly academic nature of this assignment fool you; at the end of the day, Amherst admissions is still looking for a personal story. Rather than offering a series of direct questions, though, they have buried each question in quotation from some notable Amherst figure. Your main challenge, then, is to distill each quotation down to its core question. Penning your answer is the easy part.

“Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight—insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments.”
Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

With such a structured line of logic, this quotation is begging for a rebuttal. So, your first challenge is to restrain yourself. Remember that Amherst doesn’t want an argumentative essay, but a personal narrative. So, science and math whizzes, aim to address the core tenets of Jagannathan’s statement (reasoning, insight, evidence) with a personal story or series of anecdotes. Maybe you can reflect on your earliest encounters with empiricism when you started a mineral collection at age 7. Or perhaps a failed lab experiment taught you the importance of rigorous attention to detail. In other words, a few questions you might distill from this quotation are: (1) What makes a good scientist? (2) What makes a good mathematician? (3) Where is the intersection of scientific instinct and mathematical skill?

(Oh, and by the bye, while this quotation may seem like the obvious choice for the scientifically-oriented, humanities folks shouldn’t rule it out. You have clearly had to study science, so think about what it’s like to master a subject that doesn’t come naturally to you. What qualities do you bring to the table? What’s it like to be an outsider looking in?)

“Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… Translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation– that is, I untranslated.”
Ilán Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College, Robert Croll ’16 and Cedric Duquene ’15, from “Interpreting Terras Irradient,” Amherst Magazine, Spring 2015.

Ok humanities nerds, it’s your turn. This quotation, like the first, posits a series of definitions for an academic practice. Translation might be a literal task, or it might simply be a figurative framework for understanding any human act. So, maybe you should pick a definition that works for you and build your story around it. If you err on the literal side, ask yourself: When in my life have I experienced a bridging of cultures? What does it take to draw people with disparate perspectives into a state of mutual understanding? When have I experienced difference? When have I mediated conflict?

If you prefer a wider definition, you might focus on moments of creation or transformation: When have I brought an idea to fruition? When have I had to improvise in order to solve a problem?

“Creating an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries…requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create.”
Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, 19th President of Amherst College, from Letter to Amherst College Alumni and Families, December 28, 2015.

Unlike the first two heady options, this passage takes a broader look at academic life. A few basic questions that spring out: What is the ideal environment for learning? How can discomfort lead to intellectual and personal growth? How can an academic environment facilitate personal connections between totally different people? And so on. In other words, this passage is an invitation to describe the relationship between intellectual and personal growth, so think about your most challenging experiences at school and in other academic environments. When have you had to admit you were wrong? Have you ever had an academic rivalry that turned into a personal feud or vice versa? What’s the most heated debate you’ve ever had in a classroom setting? This quotation is all about discomfort, so should you choose to write about it, you need to be willing to get a bit vulnerable with your storytelling.

“Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather, achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted.”
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst College Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals

What’s that feeling? Could it be deja-vu? You have definitely seen this prompt before. Although Amherst has repackaged it as a quotation, the core question has popped up on the Common App and Coalition: how do you deal with challenges? The ideas embedded in this quotation may be the most familiar, but they also require some of the most vulnerable storytelling. When have you struggled? What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done? When have you failed? When have you given up (or almost given up)? While it can be relatively easy to enumerate achievements and skills, knowing the limits of your physical and mental capabilities is a challenge. In order to nail this prompt, you’ll need to bring a bucketload of self-awareness to the table and tell a story that reveals your approach to life’s greatest challenges.


Option B: Submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological or historical evidence. You should not submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample or in-class essay. Also, if you have submitted an analytical essay in response to the “essay topic of your choice” prompt in the Common Application writing section, you should not select Option B. Instead, you should respond to one of the four quotation prompts in Option A.

Okay, we’ll keep it short. Although this is technically an option, the wording should make it clear that admissions is really angling for a response to option A. We only see two sets of circumstances where an applicant might want to consider option B: (1) if you somehow procrastinated to the eleventh hour and have no time to write an original essay or (2) you have written something you are so proud of that it could have won an award (and maybe it did).


Option C: If you are an applicant to Amherst’s Access to Amherst (A2A) program, you may use your A2A application essay in satisfaction of our Writing Supplement requirement. If you would like to do so, please select Option C. However, if you would prefer not to use your A2A essay for this purpose and you want to submit a different writing supplement, select either Option A or Option B. [Please note that Option C is available only to applicants to Amherst’s A2A program.]

No explanation necessary! If you think that this essay will be the best way for you to reflect yourself to Amherst admissions, then feel free to use it here. If it’s so nice, why write it twice?


If you have engaged in significant research in the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science, social sciences or humanities that was undertaken independently of your high school curriculum, please provide a brief description of the research project: (Optional) (50-75 words)   

There’s not a lot of room for embellishment in this brief prompt. So only answer it if A) you have actually done research that fits the bill, and B) you haven’t already written about it in detail. (In the first prompt of this supplement, for example.) If your work meets the criteria, don’t worry about getting too clever with your description. In fact, you’ll do yourself a favor if you adhere to the standard academic practices around presenting research in your chosen field. If it’s scientific or medical research, cover the bases of a report: research question, methods, and results (with special emphasis in anything you found particularly interesting or central to your experience). If it’s in the social sciences or humanities, a basic synopsis that focuses on your main argument will do. Once you’ve filled in the basic details, you might consider giving a little background on how you came to participate in this extracurricular research: how did you get connected with the lab or program? This small narrative element will help you show admissions that you’re motivated, engaged, and already out in the world impressing people.

Please note: the information below relates to last year's essay prompts. We are going to update this guide with the prompts for 2021-22 as soon as they become available. Check back soon!
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