written by
Tyrah Green

Yale University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 16 min read
Image courtesy of Yale University

In this Yale University Essay Guide, Bullseye advisors Zoe and Tyrah will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Yale University supplementary essays. 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.

It’s no secret that some universities, including Yale University, require a lot more than one essay as a part of their application process. We will address each essay question Yale requires and provide suggestions about how to make your answers stand out!

Short Answer Questions

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application, Common Application, or QuestBridge Application will respond to the following short answer questions.

Students at Yale have plenty of time to explore their academic interests before committing to one or more major fields of study. Many students either modify their original academic direction or change their minds entirely. As of this moment, what academic areas seem to fit your interests or goals most comfortably? Please indicate up to three from the list provided. Why do these areas appeal to you? (125 words or fewer)

Tyrah: Don’t be too intimidated by this one, or feel like you have to decide here and now what academic fields you want to participate in. Alongside information like your extracurriculars or other essays, this gives officers a sense of your interests and intellectual curiosity. Many of us have multiple subjects that intrigue us — use this prompt to express that!

Additionally, don’t feel the need to choose three academic areas; it’s better to expand upon two that you genuinely like in the next question than to try to choose what you think they want to hear.

It’s important to keep length in mind here — this question is not asking for a statement of your purpose or calling in life. This is an opportunity to show what themes and concepts drive you. You will have other opportunities in your application to showcase your passions in detail. In these shorter questions, let your natural curiosities guide you.

Zoe: It’s no small feat to explain your academic interests in 125 words or fewer! To answer this question, you should follow a few basic guidelines.

First, be specific about a concept or line of inquiry that makes you excited to pursue this field of study. For example, saying that you want to study neuroscience because you’re interested in the mysteries of the brain is much less compelling than saying that you want to investigate how neuroplasticity affects trauma recovery.

Second, connect your academic interests to personal experiences — this helps explain why you’re interested in this field of study. For example, you might explain that you want to study neuroplasticity in trauma recovery because of the time you’ve spent volunteering in your local hospital’s mental health wing.

Finally, try to relate your academic interests to your future goals. In this case, you might discuss your goal of working in psychiatry and using your study of neuroplasticity to support children experiencing chronic depression.

If you’re not sure what you want to study, you can discuss a general intellectual interest. However, you’ll have to dig a bit more deeply to explain why you’re drawn to this area. For example, maybe you’re drawn to literary and historical analysis because you like investigating the motivations behind recurring patterns of human behavior.

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

Zoe: This is similar to the standard “why school” essay, but you’re limited to a very brief response. To answer this question, you should do equal parts research and self-reflection.

Your first step is research: identify the aspects of Yale that appeal to you most. These can be tangible resources (the creative non-fiction course taught by Anne Fadiman; the bookbinding studio in the basement of Davenport College; the intramural pickleball team) or they can be intangible aspects of campus culture (the palpable curiosity felt in silent libraries and humming dining halls).

Your second task is to imagine how you would take advantage of Yale’s offerings. What research projects would you pursue? What op-eds would you add to the Yale Daily News? What community-engagement initiatives would you spearhead?

In this essay, you have to show how you would fit into the landscape of Yale; and what you would add to it. In my case, I was drawn to Yale’s indelible sense of community. I imagined myself animatedly discussing the ethics of late-stage capitalism while harvesting lettuce greens on the Yale Farm; I saw myself choreographing multimedia, post-modern, feminist performances with student dance companies. Your version of Yale will undoubtedly look different — and it should! The portrait of Yale that you paint in this essay should reflect your values and your interests.

Tyrah: Obviously, Yale has a prestigious reputation. Any person applying to Yale is aware of that! You should have reasons beyond prestige for why you are drawn to Yale over other schools — think about what makes Yale unique.

Maybe it’s the local area, or Yale-specific opportunities or traditions. Citing these will help establish that you are interested in Yale rather than just an Ivy. If you’ve had the chance to visit Yale or participate in any events for prospective students, this would be a good place to reference them. I was able to visit Yale multiple times before I applied, and discussed some of my observations about campus, as well as the Yale traditions that intrigued me most.

Applicants applying with the QuestBridge Application will complete the questions above via the Yale QuestBridge Questionnaire, available on the Yale Admissions Status Portal after an application has been received. Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application will also respond to the following short answer questions, in no more than 200 characters (approximately 35 words):

What inspires you?

Tyrah: Two hundred characters is not a lot of space to respond to a question, and admissions officers are aware of that. While the longer essays have a lot more potential for creativity or story, a question like this requires a direct, concise answer. What drives you? Think about your ambitions and accomplishments — what do they have in common?

Zoe: Feel free to get creative with this response. If you want to name a person who inspires you, make it evocative; for example, instead of answering simply with “my mom,” you can say “the scent of my mom’s rose perfume, which reminds me to value beauty and tenderness in the face of uncertainty.” I also encourage you to broaden your perspective. Is there an experience that inspires you? A place? A concept? Write your answer vividly, so your admissions reader will be able to feel the inspiration.

Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?

Tyrah: Here is a question that combines the personal with the intellectual. Highlight the importance of connection and community in your college experience. Don’t shy away from tough or complex questions here, and show your desire to genuinely engage with others.

Zoe: Consider how your answer to this question can reflect your unique interests. Instead of naming a cultural figure with universal renown — Barack Obama, Malala Yousafzai — think of a figure who has made a (perhaps smaller-known) contribution to a field that you love. For me, it would be Pina Bausch, a dance-theater choreographer known for integrating natural elements (soil, water, boulders) on stage. With the question you craft, try to reveal how you think and what you care about.

You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called?

Zoe: Before you answer this question, do a thought experiment. What would your course’s curriculum be? What is the course objective? The more your course reflects your niche interests, the more compelling it will be. If you have space, you could even include a bit of your course objective in your response. For example: “Society v. Nature: A False Dichotomy examines the neo-colonial worldview that defines society in opposition to nature and investigates cultures that provide a different paradigm.”

Tyrah: Remember: no more than 200 characters! Rather than getting bogged down by the intricacies of how your course would function, focus on creating something funky (and hopefully catchy)! In your answer, you don’t necessarily have to shy away from seemingly mundane or simple topics. It’s perfectly acceptable to come at the familiar from a new angle.

Most first-year Yale students live in suites of four to six students. What do you hope to add to your suitemates’ experience? What do you hope they will add to yours?

Tyrah: Many of the questions we’ve seen up to this point ask about you as a learner and thinker. However, the college experience is about much more than studying and working. It is also about being among people, and admissions officers are looking for people who are enthusiastic about all aspects of the college experience. Yale University brings together students from many places in the world, all with different experiences. When answering this question, think about what excites you about this opportunity.

Zoe: With this question, Yale is asking you to think intentionally about how you want to build community with the people you live with. First, you must consider what you bring to a group dynamic. You can be as conceptual or as literal as you wish: consider what qualities, skills, habits, and prized possessions you will contribute to your suite. Second, you must consider what you hope to receive in this group dynamic. I encourage you to think about personality traits, strengths, world views that might balance your own or challenge you to grow.

Applicants submitting the Coalition Application or Common Application: use the two short essays (250 words or fewer) below to reflect on topics and personal experiences that will help the Admissions Committee learn more about you.

1. Yale’s extensive course offerings and vibrant conversations beyond the classroom encourage students to follow their developing intellectual interests wherever they lead. Tell us about your engagement with a topic or idea that excites you. Why are you drawn to it?

Tyrah: This question is purposefully broad! A “topic or idea that excites you” does not have to be from a textbook or class. Here is a great opportunity to discuss hobbies or interests outside of the classroom. Think about some of the most interesting conversations you’ve had, books or articles you’ve read, or even just spontaneous trains of thought.

Zoe: Yale values students who are intellectually driven and curious. In this essay, Yale wants to see those qualities in you! As you choose which topic or idea to discuss, be as specific as possible. For example, instead of discussing psychology (a huge discipline that many other students will name), you can discuss your interest in the effects of systemic racism on early childhood development. Alternatively, you can choose a more abstract topic to discuss, like whether humans are innately good. Whatever topic you choose, it should be one that excites you.

Because the subject of this essay is intellectual passion, your passion should be palpable! If your writing comes off as disinterested, it’ll undermine the excitement you’re trying to convey. In the content of your essay, you have two tasks:

First, you must demonstrate what you’ve already done to pursue this topic. This can include work you’ve done inside or outside the classroom: papers you’ve written, books you’ve read on your own time, debates you’ve had around the dinner table.

Your second objective: demonstrate why you’re passionate about this topic. Think about what first inspired your interest. Consider if there are any personal reasons you’re invested in this line of inquiry. For example, maybe you’re interested in studying epidemiology because of the high incidence of asthma in your neighborhood, which is located within five miles of an oil refinery plant.

2. Respond to one of the following prompts:

Tyrah: Having to choose which prompt to respond to can feel daunting, but it’s actually a great opportunity! Considering your previous responses and your application as a whole, choose a prompt that shows something indispensable about you. Not every prompt will inspire you, and that’s perfectly okay! Brainstorm possible responses to each prompt, and don’t be afraid to experiment in the planning stages. If an issue does not come to you rather easily, you really may want to go for a different prompt. Choose the essay that feels the most essential to who you are as a learner and a person.

2A. Reflect on your membership in a community. Why is your involvement important to you? How has it shaped you? You may define community however you like.

Tyrah: You’ve probably indicated elsewhere in your application some of the groups or communities you’re a part of (i.e. extracurricular activities). However, as the prompt says, you may define community however you like. So, if you’re inspired by a community or group that is more abstract or symbolic, feel free to write about it. You’re also free to talk about more literal groups you’ve been a part of and go into greater detail about what they mean to you.

Zoe: To answer this question, you must first identify which community you want to discuss. You can talk about a tangible community you belong to like your family, a sports team, or your kazoo ensemble. Or, you can define community more abstractly. For example, maybe you want to explore how you belong to a movement of “eco-freakos” (those who care deeply and advocate loudly for environmental sustainability).

Whatever community you choose, make sure it is a community in which you are actively involved. And make sure it is a community that has actively shaped you. Keep in mind, this might be more difficult to explain if you choose an intangible community. As you begin writing, you have three tasks:

First, you must clearly establish the community you have chosen to discuss. Help the reader envision this community: who are the members? How do you relate to one another? What defines your group identity?

Next, consider your place within this community. Think beyond “I’m team captain” or “I’m the middle child.” Instead, think about your meaningful contributions to the group. For instance, maybe your quiet and consistent presence provides your community with a sense of comfort.

Finally, consider what you have gained from this community. This is the meat of the prompt. Yale really wants you to investigate how you’ve grown by virtue of belonging to this community.

2B. Yale students, faculty, and alumni engage issues of local, national, and international significance. Discuss an issue that is important to you and how your college experience could help you address it.

Zoe: Make sure the issue you choose reflects your genuine passions. It’s easy to name a broad issue like global climate change, but that doesn’t say much about you. Instead, you could explain that you want to address mass species die-off in freshwater sources, inspired by your summer research with a college professor. Or maybe you want to address food insecurity in your local community.

In the first section of this essay, explain your personal connection to the issue. In the second section of this essay, outline discrete actions you can take at Yale to address it.

To answer this part of the question, I suggest you really think this project through. What classes can you take to build an essential foundation of knowledge? What professors can you work with to pursue advanced research? What student initiatives can you lead to gain important skills and mobilize support? Yale wants to see that you’ve done your research, both about their school resources and about the steps you can take to affect change in the world.

Tyrah: If this prompt inspires you, remember that the issue can be of local, national, or international significance. A friend of mine wrote about the public works budget in the small town that they grew up in, something that few people outside of that town (or even within it!) know a lot about. However, it was significant to them, and influenced the way that they thought about their own future. As with many of the prompts we’ve seen, this one is intentionally broad. The issue that is important to you can be from a variety of contexts.

2C. Tell us about your relationship with a role model or mentor who has been influential in your life. How has their guidance been instrumental to your growth?

Tyrah: Admissions officers are not looking for people who are perfect — they’re looking for people who are reflective, and use the opportunities that they’re given to improve and grow. In this essay, you have an opportunity to reflect and be a bit more vulnerable in the way that you present yourself. The most important thing to communicate is the way that your experience with this person contributed to your growth, and how you view that growth process.

Zoe: When choosing a role model or mentor to write about, think about the different kinds of guidance you receive in your life. Maybe you have a parent, teacher, or sports coach who has significantly shaped your worldview. Or maybe you have a younger sibling who always knows how to comfort you, or a friend who has seen you through hardship. No answer is better than the other; what matters is that you honestly discuss a relationship that has shaped who you are.

Your first task in this essay is to paint a picture of this relationship. A strong strategy is to tell a story or provide a series of short scenes that embody your dynamic. Help the reader understand why you value this person as a role model.

Your second task is to demonstrate how this relationship has helped you to grow. Does your mentor challenge you? Expand the way you think? Provide an example you want to measure up to? Whatever your dynamic is with your role model, it’s important to show how you’ve changed, thanks to your mentor.

Engineering Essay

If you’re submitting the Common Application or the Coalition Application and you’re applying to one of Yale’s engineering majors, you will have an additional essay supplement:

Please tell us more about what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you. (250 word limit)

Zoe: The beginning of this question is a simple “why major” prompt. Describe your previous experiences with engineering to explain why you’re interested in this field. These can include academic pursuits (STEM classes, research fellowships), extracurricular activities (robotics clubs, science fair competitions), or even hobbies and passion projects (for instance, the time you deconstructed the family computer computer, just to put it back together).

The second part of this essay is a combined “why major” and “why school” essay. In this section, you should discuss why you want to pursue engineering at Yale. This requires significant research. Investigate Yale’s engineering curriculum, research opportunities, student groups, and engineering facilities. Then, imagine what you could do with those resources. What you like to research? What would you like to innovate? Be clear how Yale’s engineering program can help you meet your future goals.


This Yale University essay guide was written by Zoe Reich-Aviles (Yale University ‘16) and Tyrah Green (Brown University ‘20). If you want to get help writing your Yale application essays from Zoe, Tyrah, or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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