Who Should Read This Post: Anybody applying to Boston College or another Jesuit or Catholic college, like Georgetown; anyone who needs to write a supplemental essay about art or a book as inspiration; anyone who needs to write about a social justice or problem essay for College Applications. And if you do need support in writing your essays, Contact Me for world-class essay development and editing.
Overview: Beginning a Successful Boston College Supplemental Essay
Boston College is on the Common Application, so you will write one of the Common App essays (650 word limit) and choose one of the prompts below to write about, for a maximum of 400 words on this B.C. supplemental essay.
Also note that the Common App site does not go live until on or around August 1st, so you should not set up an account there until the site reopens for this year’s application cycle, but you can choose and write both the Common App essay and the Boston College essay now–the prompts are live for 2020. I do link sources of inspiration and information on multiple topics associated with the Boston College prompts below, but remember that you should seek inspiration rather than copying inspiration directly. So to speak. Many colleges do use Turnitin.com or their own, proprietary software to look for plagiarism on application essays.
Let’s start with a look at all of the Boston College prompts, then break them down one at a time:
The writing supplement topics for the 2019-2020 application cycle (400 word limit); prompts first, then a discussion of each prompt to follow that:
1. Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?
2. When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?
3. Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
4. Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?
Boston College Supplemental Breakdown and Analysis
Now let’s take a closer look at prompt #1, Great art evokes a sense of wonder. It nourishes the mind and spirit. Is there a particular song, poem, speech, or novel from which you have drawn insight or inspiration?
So first of all, they do not want an essay explaining meaning in the same mode you do for an English class, so close that essay doc that you wrote for Catch-22 or Beloved or whatever other required reading and essay you did for your English class last year. For the moment. The prompt did not ask you to write about the meaning of poem x or novel y per se–though obviously the meaning matters–instead, they want first to understand its impact on you, how you relate to it, and what this shows about you. Of course the meaning will come up in discussing that, but not in the way you would argue for or prove a meaning in an Essay for an American Lit class, though at some point you might reopen that doc from your English class to help–just be wary of directly inserting high school English essay-style content into this college application essay.
A second reason to (maybe) not write about a novel written for a class is the nature of required reading. Novels from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Great Gatsby to Lord of the Flies are required reading or commonly read novels for high school students across the country, and the typical titles are widely known among college admissions readers, both for the public schools and for those elite private schools that still take their students on the voyage through things like Moby Dick (which was a standby at one time but has largely vanished from public high school curricula, though it is still a part of some private school curricula). If a required novel had a big impact on you, okay–your passion should override the fact that you had to read the book for school. And you have the advantage of having read the book with the help of a teacher, and likely have written about it already, after class discussion.
But if you have read a novel not for a class that had a big impact on you, then maybe start there–this automatically shows that you do more than the required reading; you could and probably should also suggest your own widespread and independent reading habits, driven by your natural curiosity, by explaining how you discovered obscure but great Novel X, the subject of your essay. Perhaps you still haunt that most archaic of businesses, the bookstore and found it, or you have a habit of reading book blogs. The disadvantage of writing about this more obscure novel that was read independently is the fact that you are on your own when it comes to interpreting the book, but if it is an important book, you might find help by searching for it and/or its author in the New York Review of Books–which is s serious book and culture site, but that does not mean that they will not tackle serious YA Lit, like Hunger Games or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (Amber Spyglass, et al), or search for the book title on your favorite search engine with the term criticism, and you might find a stand-alone article or an article like this one, that looks at a set of YA Dystopian novels. I have written about how to write an essay on a novel multiple times before, so take a look at that as well–how to write about books.
Of course, there are many other kinds of art you could write about, and the most important thing to start with is art that impacted you, then to decide if it’s worth writing about. Even pop art is legit if you can take the write approach. Take a look at this on Lady Gaga.
And look at the work of critics for inspiration, like the pop music critic for NPR, Ken Tucker, who covers everything from country to hip hop, as seen here: Old Town Road.
And finally, consider a wide range of art to write about–from opera and bluegrass to sculpture and painting. And seek critics in these fields for examples of how to write. But write about a work of art that inspired you.
For an example of how to write about art that inspires, see this critic discuss his favorite paintings in New York: Jerry Salz takes a Grand Tour.
Now let’s turn to the second prompt:
When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?
The first thing I want to point out is that this prompt is nearly identical to the Common Application Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
So of course, if you have already written about prompt one for the Common Application, that nixes using Boston’s prompt two as a supplemental essay. But if your family/personal experience is unique, and you have not delved into it in depth on your Common App essay, this prompt is for you. And of course, in particular, this prompt tends to be selected by those who have some sort of personal of financial struggles in their background. This prompt is obviously a slow pitch through the strike zone for those who have emigrated to the United States under duress, or whose family has unique cultural inheritance and practices or who has just had an unusual upbringing.
However, beware of the Woe is Me essay. Long ago, students started writing essays on their suffering because they heard that their target school was trying to select students with compelling personal stories, particularly if those stories suggested some kind of poverty/minority application/personal struggle to overcome incredible obstacles angle. If this is true of you, your suffering may now provide you with something to talk about. But be wary.
If you are writing about a family member’s illness, for example, keep in mind that you are presenting this experience as a reason to admit you to college. And if the suffering or struggles are your own, beware of trying to get into a contest of suffering by suggesting that your tribulations are unique and make you a person they should admit above others (subtext: because you alone have suffered so much). If this background has involved you stepping up to work to help support your family, or to care for siblings or family members, that is always an aspect I ask to see emphasized–to show more about doing, about taking action, rather than focusing on affliction and misery as conditions. How did you respond? That is key.
You don’t need to write up a tidy story which reaches “closure” but there needs to be more than trials and woe. If you have suffered deeply, so be it, but be sure that it in some way shows who you are or explains your academic record or has shaped your view of the world.
Some examples, to make my point: I have been doing this for a long time and have edited essays for applicants who have dealt with a cancer diagnosis and multi-year treatment during high school, while staying enrolled and pulling down good grades; or an applicant who fled Vietnam on leaky boats and watched some of her family members die on that boat before moving from internment camp to interment camp, then to three different American states, in high school working two jobs at a time while pulling a nearly perfect GPA (a tale from a Valedictorian in the mid 1990’s–like I said, been doing this for a long time); or, more recently, the kid whose introduction to America was to hang on a border fence near Tijuana for several hours in the middle of the night after his sweatshirt snagged at the top and his party went on without him . . only to be rescued hours later by somebody else coming through . . . then moved from house to house with relatives while putting together an education, to finish as salutatorian of his high school class . .
If you have faced significant obstacles that have shaped who you are, by all means write about them. Just be sure to have some perspective. Writing an essay about how unfair a coach, or coaches have been, and how you overcame that to become an all-league athlete or to make some uber-competitive travel squad . . . Okay, but don’t overdo the suffering there, and let’s face it, the coaches had a perspective on things too. As a rule, avoid dissing adults, particularly teachers and coaches. You are applying to a kind of school, after all, when you write a college essay. There is always someone who has suffered more. Be sure that you did something that is remarkable rather than just suffering passively, or watched someone else suffer. ‘Nuff said.
For Boston College Prompt 3, Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
I would go either philosophical or World/Society Problem. Or . . . slightly tongue-in-cheek. Notice, however, how the prompt focuses on liberal arts (suggesting an emphasis on the humanities) and critical issues (suggesting social justice, environmental issues, etc) against a background of personal formation (suggesting that old-fashioned idea that you should go to college to find out who you are and develop yourself as a human being) and it ends by looking at an “enduring question” or “problem.”
So I would look at social justice, environment, energy and the ideas bandied in ancient Greek philosophical dialogues or in Christian ethics. For example, how about this class title: “The Other and Us: Ethics and Other People, which would look at everything from migrants to those among us who have less to ethical business practices. Or: “Trash: The Ethics of Consumption” which could look at a range of issues, from consumerism and materialism to all that plastic out in the ocean.
Or maybe slightly tongue-in-cheek: Survival in the Age of Facebook ant TikTok . . . how to live in a world of constant sharing and personal revelation without sharing away your soul.
Notice how I combined the ethical and philosophical with the practical problems we face in our environment today in these “classes.” A perfect combination of the intellectual and the pragmatic, which in particular suits a Jesuit school.
Speaking of which, our last prompt for Boston College:
Prompt 4–Jesuit education considers the liberal arts a pathway to intellectual growth and character formation. What beliefs and values inform your decisions and actions today, and how will Boston College assist you in becoming a person who thinks and acts for the common good?
You should be noticing the overlap betwen this prompt and the more specific question on a class that preceded it. Boston College is among the great Jesuit colleges in the world, teaching in a humanistic, Catholic tradition, with a concern both for the whole person and for the person as part of a larger community. Unbridled capitalism and personal success at all costs are not part of their ethos. I think the easiest way to introduce this communal and ethically-driven way of thinking is to hook you up with a famous modern practitioner of this way of thinking and acting: Charles Taylor. Read that entire linked page and see the video and you will have considerable insight into Jesuit humanism.
And then you should start doing some research on the things you can study at BC while thinking about how your career could be about improving society or the environment rather than just being about making money. Start by looking at the BC Humanities Core, but be sure to check out specific classes that might tie in to your curiosity or sense of mission, and mention them, as word count and context permits—Humanities Core. Keep clicking and reading until you have more information than you need. Then start writing.