written by
Clay Phillips

Vanderbilt University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 7 min read
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University

In this Vanderbilt University Essay Guide, Bullseye advisors Clay (Vanderbilt ‘20) and Rashmi (Vanderbilt ‘21) will discuss how to approach the 2020-2021 Vanderbilt University supplementary essay. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


Vanderbilt University is a private research institution in Nashville, Tennessee with an undergraduate student population of around 6,900. The acceptance rate for the Vanderbilt class of 2024 was about 10%, with 96% of admitted students in the top ten percent of their graduating class. The supplementary essay on the Vanderbilt application provides you with another opportunity to stand out and showcase your personality amongst a competitive pool of applicants.

Essay Prompt: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (200-400 words).

Step one: Select Your Activity.

Clay: The first step to tackling Vanderbilt University’s sole prompt is selecting the activity you want to center your essay around. This step can make or break the quality of your essay, yet most people don’t invest nearly enough thought into it, because it seems painfully obvious.

So, which activity should you pick? Keep in mind that Vanderbilt isn’t limiting you to school-sponsored clubs or sports. You can choose to write about anything you’ve done outside of school, whether it is through a formal organization or just simply a hobby.

For starters, don’t write about the activity that you centered your Common App essay on — you want your application to reflect multiple facets of who you are, rather than being repetitive or one-dimensional.

In fact, you should consider selecting a topic that doesn’t appear anywhere else on your application, or a topic that opposes the general theme of your application. For example, a prospective engineering student who emphasized how robotics helped them appreciate the design of the world around them in their Common App essay might choose to write her supplement on how an interpretive dance recital introduced her to the freedom of self-expression. Or a self-proclaimed history buff might discuss how a summer job with his local sustainability office showed him that perhaps he should be placing more of his attention on the future. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box!

The best response might not necessarily be about your most impressive activity or the one that you’ve spent the most time on. It might not even be about your most unusual or unique activity that you think will help set you apart from other applicants. The best response will highlight an activity that has an extreme amount of personal significance, that encapsulates some of your best personality traits, and that exhibits that you have the potential to better the diverse community of Vanderbilt University.

Ideally, this activity will be one that you’re both passionate about and have achieved highly in (in addition to not already being included in your Common App essay). But let’s say you’ve already written about your Science Olympiad team winning nationals somewhere else in your application (and if you haven’t, you should!). Then, your next best topic might be how you combined your loves for community service and 3D printing by starting your own organization that prints and distributes clothes to the homeless. Or maybe consider writing about your experiences as a journalist for the school newspaper, where you brought stories in your community to life. Use your best judgment, but make sure the activity you select gives you the opportunity to showcase personal values, growth and development, and/or leadership skills.

Rashmi: With this prompt being the only one that all applicants complete (as opposed to the merit-scholarship essay prompts, which can be found here), it may seem daunting. However, this essay is your chance to share a story — one that has not already been told through your personal statement, activities list, or resume. It is important to keep your personal narrative in mind, because you do not want to take up space reiterating the basic duties of the activity, details that can easily be found elsewhere in your application.

Step Two: Structure your essay.

Clay: Now that you have your topic selected, how exactly should you write about it?

The key is to focus on one story only — the story within the story, if you will. Don’t try to fit years of involvement into 400 words by listing every single thing you did as a part of that activity without any detail or personal voice. Instead, go with a single anecdote that demonstrates your impact and illustrates why the activity is meaningful to you. The time it took you four days to fix three lines of code in a script you wrote for a summer internship, the first initiative you helped lead as student council vice president, the day you finally presented months of research on the effects of the LCORL gene to a faculty panel — any of these would make for great essays.

No matter what story you choose to tell, make sure to open with a strong introduction. Some effective tactics include leading with an in-the-moment description of an action scene, or beginning with the end and following with a reflection on how you got there. Be creative and draw the admissions committee in with a good first impression.

Then, explain the critical details of the story. Describe your role and what happened, interspersing your feelings, emotions, and perceptions throughout. Next, and most importantly, discuss why this story is significant to you. What lesson(s) did you learn? How were you able to impact others? What problem(s) were you able to solve and what effect did this have?

The worst thing you can do is ruin a great anecdote by making extremely common and cliche connections to your topic. Don’t be the person that writes about how their community service experience taught them that “we as a species share more in common than we think,” or that they discovered “the value of hard work” during their state championship-winning season in hockey. These are boring takes that admissions committees will likely roll their eyes at because they see them so many times. Instead, go deeper. Maybe your time at the food pantry sparked an unexpected lifelong friendship. Or you utilized the format of your highly regimented hockey practices to completely transform your study habits. Find those connections and write about them!

Rashmi: In your essay, I advise you to focus on one or two aspects of your favorite activity. Talk about why you decided to participate in the experience, or what you have learned about yourself from the opportunity. For example, if you regularly volunteer at a hospital, discuss why you chose to work with a specific demographic or what you have learned from your interactions with patients.

It is common to read “please briefly elaborate” and just jump into a description of the activity; however, elaborate is a broad term. Use that to your advantage as you decide how to explain your activity.

Final Step: Connecting your activity to the Vanderbilt community.

Clay: With this essay, Vanderbilt University wants to gain some type of understanding of how you will fit into the student body. What kind of impact will you make? How can you apply what you gained from this activity to improve the school community in some way? Perhaps you’ll join a similar activity in college or even start your own (make sure it doesn’t already exist, of course). Or you’ll use your experience to benefit the local Nashville community, assist you in your coursework, or bring together your dorm-mates. Whatever path you choose, use the last several sentences of your essay to look forward, bridging the past and future. Remember that nothing you say here is binding, so there’s no external pressure to follow through should you be admitted (although if you’re truly passionate about the activity, you should at least try!).

Rashmi: After submitting your application, you have the unique opportunity to apply to merit-based scholarships. Vanderbilt University is one of few leading institutions that offer such scholarships. You will receive an email with information on how to create your MyAppVU account within two days of submitting your primary application with instructions on how to apply for the scholarships.

For an in-depth look on how to apply for Vanderbilt University’s merit scholarship essays, check out our Vanderbilt University Merit Scholarship Essay Guide.


This Vanderbilt University essay guide was written by Clay Phillips (Vanderbilt University ‘20) and Rashmi Bharadwaj (Vanderbilt University, ‘21). If you want to get help writing your application essays from Clay, Rashmi, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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