Tips on Writing Successful Boston College Application Essays for 2019-2020

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 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:

Boston College 

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 permitsHumanities Core. Keep clicking and reading until you have more information than you need. Then start writing.

How to Write The Dartmouth University Essay Prompts for 2019-2020

Dartmouth’s prompts for prospective members of the Class of 2024 are up and ready to write. I include the prompts in this post, below, with some early analysis, but before we get to them, the usual caveats: These prompts are ready to write, as are Stanford’s short essays, U Virginia and a range of other universities, linked here–(Prompts from Stanford to Urbana-Champaign that are Ready to Write, Right Now) , but that does not mean that the Common Application portal is ready. If you set up an account with the Common App before August 1st (or thereabouts), it will be deleted, along with any information you uploaded. The Common App will go offline for 2-3 days at the end of July, then come should come back online for 2019-2020 on August 1st.

So write as many of the confirmed 2019-2020 essays as you like, but upload nothing . . . yet. Also note that the essays I feature and link are those that I have personally confirmed are live for 2019-2020. However, most essays posted on university web sites today are those from last year and may change for this year. So come back to CollegeAppJungle to check for confirmed prompts. . . I am updating as I confirm them)

With that, Here are Dartmouth’s essay prompts for 2019-2020:

Writing supplement prompts included in Dartmouth’s application for admission to the Class of 2024

Updated June 25, 2019

Dartmouth’s writing supplement requires that applicants write brief responses to two supplemental essay prompts as follows:

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

This is a standby prompt that has been featured on the Dartmouth application for years. One simple reason–Daniel Webster’s connections to Dartmouth. A second reason–it’s also a classic why you want to go to our college question. Sadly, you only have 100 words, so let’s call it a paragraph response. And the prompt suggests that you should do your due diligence before writing, looking at the programs and majors at Dartmouth to prepare, and say something specific about what you are going to do at Dartmouth that ties into your interests and goals. . . As an example, if you were interested in, oh, Political Science and government, how you plan to leverage your studies under Dr. Muirhead in the Department of Government, to examine the changing nature of political rhetoric and offer solutions to the problem of political dialogue today . . . . (Note my link . . . and try to find a link of your own that ties in to your own interests and that gives you that key sentence or three on specific things you might do at Dartmouth.

And for more on Mr. Daniel Webster, and some background on writing for Dartmouth, scroll down this old post, past the Yale prompt, to find my discussion of Webster and of Dartmouth: Daniel Webster fights for Dartmouth.

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself. 

Well, many legends are based on some kernel of truth, so if you want to be cheeky, perhaps you could write about yourself as a future legend.

Turning to some background for this prompt, history, of course, is not all that old compared to the vast scope of human history–it was pretty much invented by Herodotus as a kind of storytelling mixing what we call fact with other things we would call legend as well as myth–Herodotus wrote the foundational history of the Persian Wars between the ancient Greeks and the Persian empire under Darius and Xerxes. Of course, Herodotus also wrote of those interesting creatures he had heard lived in Libya, like the hoop snake, which bits its own tale and gets about by rolling, and let us not forget his description of the baselisk. Sadly, these animals have never been seen outside of folklore and the pages of Herodotus, who also discusses the geneology of rulers and passes on juicy tales that straddle legend, history and anecdote–like the story of Xerxes ordering that the sea be whipped for to punish it for destroying his pontoon bridge in a storm. So at its origins, History in the Greco-European sense shares a lot with the word mo’olelo. It started as a real mashup. Maybe your essay could take something from that example.

On the other hand, while you could be a creative and use some tongue-in-cheek legend-building about yourself and your family, humor is tricky. So more commonly for an essay like this, you would talk about family traditions and inheritance. Maybe you come from a family of public service-oriented lawyers and teachers and you have a sense of mission from them, for example, a tradition of changing the world for the better. Or maybe your family was scraping by in a rural village a generation ago, and you continue their tradition, supported by but grateful to them and working just as hard to advance the family as you advance yourself. What tradition are you continuing or planning to extend? If you have a good answer to that question, this prompt may be for you.

B. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

The danger of this Big Problem prompt is the risk of writing a “Miss America Essay,” which I discuss in earlier posts on the problem essay, like this one–How to Write the Problem Essay. I am planning an entire post on the Problem essay for the coming weeks, and end by pointing out that the passion essay, the second-to-last in this list, overlaps with this essay–if you have actually done something about the problem, which would make that a stronger prompt, therefore. Theory is one thing, acting on principle is another.

C. In The Painted Drum, author Louise Erdrich ‘76 wrote, “… what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?” Tell us about something beautiful you have made or hope to make.

It’s always a good idea, in my opinion, to know something about the source of a prompt. That in itself may give you some ideas for writing, and in this case, Erdrich writes from the perspective of an Ojibwa, also known as the Chippewa, Native Americans who ranged across what we now call the upper Midwest and the Dakotas into Canada. Now their traditional lands are limited to the reservations noted on this map–Ojibwa Land. So behind a quote like this is a specific life experience, a specific family experience, and the persecution and pain inflicted on a specific culture–in this case, a culture that our culture did its best to destroy for a long time. View the quote in that context, and you get a different shade of meaning.

Notice also that this quote does not ask, How can I leverage my startup idea to make as much money as possible?” Beauty and elegance are not being referenced here as something to monetize. Erdrich is coming from a much different place, and as her quote suggests, takes a view of value arising from community.

Note Erdrich’s family background: her grandfather was a tribal leader, and both of her parents were teachers. I’d like to add that her most recent novel is amazing–Future Home of the Living God-and that she also started and continues supporting a book store in Minneapolis. This is not a person who just goes with the flow.

And a final word on background would have to involve the novel that this quote comes from. It’s a great novel, and to introduce you to it, to the ideas in it, and to Erdrich’s other work and perspective, have a look at this discussion of Erdrich and this novel– NYT on The Painted Drum. And before you move on, have a look at my advice on How to Write about a Quote for U Chicago–the prompts are different, but the general idea is the same–Writing About a Quote.

D. “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

So one suggestion on this would be not to write about classroom standards, something like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is read by most sophomores in America, simply because it is a core (required) book across most of the country.

Of course, adding to that ubiquity problem of a required book, Mockingbird’s ideas are not really all that radical anyway, are they? (Notice that the hero is a super-noble white man, and that the innocent African American he defends is disposed of at the end of the book after the hero does his best. Then we move on to the problems of his too- white neighbor. Doesn’t read so well when you look at its basic elements, i.m.o.)

On the other hand, if a required reading book really did captivate you, that energy might be enough to overcome the ho-hum response of a reader who knows the books that are most commonly read in high school. For me, Catch-22 comes to mind as a required reading book that had dangerous ideas and captured my imagination. Though as I later learned, Heller was using his experiences as a bombardier stationed in southern Europe, and that setting, as platform for critiquing Cold War American and laissez faire capitalism, particularly as represented by the ad agencies for which Heller worked. Yep, he was an ad man. He also said that he had never had a bad officer in the Army Air Corps. Look at Major, Major, then, as a mid-level advertising executive, and consider Milo Minderbinder as a Tech Entrepreneur . . . instead of selling eggs for less than he what he bought them for, while still making a profit, a Milo of today would be telling you privacy is old fashioned and in fact does not exist, while making money off of a service he gives you for “free.” Sound familiar?

It’s by applying the dangerous ideas of a book from yesterday to the issues of today that will make your essay fly. So to speak. I have posted on writing about books before–take a look at this for more: How to Write About Books.

E. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

First thought–Yeh, right Albert. Second thought is that this prompt writer was obviously using Albert as an easy way to come up with a prompt–using any gnomic quote by Einstein pretty much lends any prompt an air of respectability.

But Einstein’s curiosity indeed worth exploring, so the second thought is, Sure Albert. No special talent at all. One thing that aided Einstein’s curiosity was his stubbornness–and his youthful arrogance and certainty. Einstein struggled for a long time, and was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland (third class, no less) when he had his annus mirabilis. This is a pretty good explanation of that “wonder year” and what he came up with—Einstein’s 1905 and that Equation. His great biographer, Walter Isaacson credits Einstein’s stubbornness and rebellious streak as his greatest assets–along with a “childlike sense of wonder” which is pretty much what that quote describes. Well, those and the fact he was a genius. That stuff about him being slow learner is mostly hogwash. In particular, Albert was far ahead of his peers in math.

But you get the drift of this prompt–celebrate your curiosity here by showing either your unique way of looking at the world–again, see Einstein (and some more tasty quotes)–or the things you have explored through your curiosity. The key in the latter case is to create a narrative center, rather than presenting a laundry list of ideas or activities. This needs to be more a “compare” than a contrast essay, and your interests need to have some central drive that unites them. Oh, and they should be interesting in themselves as well, or you need to make them seem interesting. Which if they interest you should be doable.

The issue with making your curiosity itself interesting is in actually making yourself interesting as you do so, without obviously trying to present yourself as such. What you are doing through curiosity should in a sense speak for itself. And if you like physics and math, you could hitch your wagon to Albert, just be sure not to use his quotes quite as naively as this one is being used–you want to do more than write a cliche in your essay. Here are some other nice quotes by Albert, and if you feel like doing some reading, a great intro to Einstein and that miracle year is E=Mc2 : A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

If you can honestly say two things, this prompt is good for you: 1) That looking back, you can see how curiosity has shaped you and, 2) That it will be interesting to write about and to read.


F. Labor leader Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the organization now known as United Farm Workers. She said, “We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We’ve got to jump right in there with both feet.” Speak your truth: Talk about a time when your passion became action.

So this is a social justice prompt if I ever saw one. Your passion becoming action, therefore, should not be leading, oh, a rebellion against a teacher you thought was too hard a grader. Your passion should probably be a bit selfless. As usual, some background to those in a prompt can help frame the prompt: Dolores Huerta is, first, a labor activist–and a union organizer. It’s interesting to note that, in the late stages of their decline in the U.S.A., unions are having a bit of a moment as we head toward the 2020 election. Which is connected to that whole income inequality thing you may have been hearing about. If you have not been hearing about it, take this as an opportunity, and click to read: Why the Rich are so Much Richer. If your plan for dealing with that is to ignore it while also getting the right education solely, or mostly, to have the highest-paying job possible, then this prompt is not for you.

And my, there are a lot of things to get passionate about changing lately. The whole issue with our ongoing weather and its changes, for example–as discussed here.

As for this prompt’s background–Having grown up in California, and seen the labor movement at a time when workers had to fight just to keep from being poisoned by what they were required to apply to grapes, it makes some sense to know who Dolores is–and who her cofounder of the United Farmworkers was. You might start here: Dolores on PBS.

And for people who act on passion, you should know who this is: Greta Thunberg. I will be writing about her again soon, when I do more on the Problem Essay. But have a look now. Something to think about as you plan for your future. If you have taken a stand on a problem that really matters, then this is a good subject for you. But beware of preaching–describing what you have done, and using the right details, is the best way forward here. leave the soapbox in the garage.

I think that is a good place to leave this post. Think hard, write well. And it’s okay to simultaneously work for your own future while doing things that will make everybody’s future better.