Amherst College is a pretty small college in Amherst, MA. It has 1,849 undergraduates and is a part of the 5-college consortium, enabling students to take classes at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, and Smith College in addition to Amherst. Amherst is known for having strong science programs and for fostering a particularly intense academic atmosphere. Their acceptance rate last year was 8%, making it the #2 most competitive liberal arts college. Its supplement can be a bit overwhelming with the number of options and sub-prompts, so we’re here to break it down for you.
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 or Option C. You may select only one of these options. Before deciding, carefully read the descriptions of all three options.
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.
We just want to begin by saying that we’d strongly encourage you to choose Option A. We will explain more below, but we think that their specification of desiring “original, personal responses,” should extend to the entire application process. If you have the option of choosing to answer a prompt that gives you an opportunity to tell a story, we choose that over any other option every single time. That said, there was some chatter amongst us about the potential benefits of simplifying these prompts down to their essential elements. We’ve tried to do that for you to assist you in your decision-making and navigating of this supplement. Continuing on.
Prompt 1: "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
To put it simply, this prompt seems to encourage you to consider the right brain vs. the left brain. Meaning: emotions, creativity, and “insight/gut” vs. logic, analytics, and black/white thinking. Our brains need both of those systems in place in order to make informed decisions. Because they explicitly state that they do not want your response to be a debate or an argument, that means your response should be in essential agreement. Amherst seems to want you to write an essay about emotional intelligence and intuition here. If this prompt speaks to you and makes you think of a particular time in your life when your “gut” or instincts served you or others in a worthwhile way, then this is the prompt for you. Remember: this should be a story. It’s hard to do that in 300 words, but there needs to be a clear beginning, middle, and end here.
Prompt 2: "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, untranslated."
Ilan 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.
The line that stood out to us most from this was: “No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation.” Our translation of this is that Amherst is asking you to dig deep and discuss the importance and complexities of community, interpersonal connection, and communication/miscommunication. Communication and miscommunication act as forces that either enhance or detract from the creation or promotion of community and/or connection with others. They are also inevitable in life and can lead to crucial realizations or challenges. If you’ve personally experienced something like that or have a story related to the importance of language and communication, then this prompt is perfect for you to respond to. The key thing to remember before you decide to go for it, though, is to ask yourself: what value does this story add? It should clearly show an example of you utilizing language or communication to help solve or grapple with a problem at hand.
Prompt 3: "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, President of Amherst College, Letter to Amherst College Alumni and Families, December 28, 2015.
No shade, but we think that Amherst might as well have had this prompt say: “300 words or less on diversity: go.” It’s quite an elaborate quotation to simply suggest that what they’d like to hear are your reflections on the importance of diversity. In our opinion, Amherst has directed this question to their majority white applicants. Not because they don’t want to hear what everyone wants to say on the matter, but to ask about the “inevitable tensions” and “wonderful opportunities” that result from diversity suggests that this is a question by, and for, white people. It makes sense when you consider the racial breakdown of Amherst: nearly 45% of its undergraduates identify as white, non-hispanic. We believe that it’s quite challenging to write an essay about the value of diversity as a white person without coming off as trite. That said, if you have had an interaction or experience that directly speaks to the concept of diversity directly and profoundly impacting your life, then we encourage you to go for it.
Prompt 4: "Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted."
Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals
Not to be all prompt #2 about this, but let’s translate this for you: “Tell us about a time when you persevered or overcame something in the face of a significant challenge?”
Option B: Please 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. 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.
Don’t choose this. Do not @ us. Don’t choose this.
We strongly encourage students to steer clear of these opportunities to submit something that they have already written. While it can be tempting--trust us, we know, we love efficiency more than you can imagine--a paper that you wrote 6 months ago on a book that you read in English is not going to help you stand out. It’s odd to us that for Option A they are encouraging a personal, non-persuasive and non-argumentative essay, but then for Option B they are disallowing creative pieces and encouraging a piece containing a persuasive argument. It tells us that they’re not sure they know what they want. But we know you can do better than that paper you wrote in February on the threats to biodiversity. Even if you got an A. Why? Not because it’s bad, because it’s out of context. Your application should be cohesive, each part playing its role. When you sub in one portion that wasn’t written or created within the context of your application as a whole it ends up sticking out. It’s a bowl of kelp at the Thanksgiving table. We suggest that our students create something new, interesting, and reflective of your ways of thinking that align in tone and concept with the rest of their application instead of recycling.
If you were an applicant to Amherst's Diversity Open House (DIVOH) weekend program, you may use your DIVOH 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 DIVOH 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 students who were applicants to Amherst’s DIVOH program.]
To the DIVOH weekend participants reading this blog post: choose Option A. Although you have a specific and seemingly “okayed” way out of writing a new essay for this, we encourage you to go above and beyond here and write a response to one of the prompts in Option A. We think that applications should be reflective of the type of student that you’ll be on campus: unwilling to take shortcuts, eager to make your newest, freshest, and most exciting thoughts heard, and desiring of a challenge. Show that by giving Amherst 300 thoughtful words on the prompt that resonates with you most. We promise it’ll be worth it.
Let us know if you have questions. We know that it can be overwhelming. This supplement in particular is quite dense. Contact us if you need help--that’s why we’re here.