Vanderbilt Essay Prompts

View our complete guide to Vanderbilt University.


Vanderbilt asks for only one supplemental essay, alongside the personal statement. They have two potential prompts, each of which with a 250-word limit; you may answer one of them. 

While Vanderbilt is not as famous as many Ivy League schools, it is still a premier institution, and is very proud of its academic prowess and accomplishments. They are looking for dedicated and intelligent students, who are eager to learn and participate in the campus community, and who will contribute positively, both to the campus culture, and the world at large. For this they look to students’ essays, to see who they are, and what they care about.

Extracurricular - Example

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150-400 words)

There are more things on heaven and earth than I dream of in my philosophy, any one of which could have provoked the error message that snickered at me as I faced my nascent Hurricane Harvey Rescue coordination system.

Everything seemed in order, but none of the functionality – posting locations for rescue, marking rescues as completed – was working. After sifting through the backend PHP, I arrived at the paradoxically frustrating conclusion that everything was perfectly fine. Could the server itself be the problem?

Hoping to untangle the network error preventing my app from coordinating the rescue of Houstonians, I faced a dilemma: maintain my self-image as a perfectly self-sufficient coder or ask GoDaddy’s support hotline for help. Putting hubris aside, I gave them a call.

The first employee to answer had no intention of complicating his night with an intricate problem that could disappear with a dial tone.

Next try, I reframed. “My neighbors are drowning, and I need your help to save them” was a plea far beyond the average call center employee. However, I didn’t reach an average call center employee and I didn’t call as an average honors student.

I reached Ryan, who like me, codes in his spare time. Also like me, he realized the best weapon against terrifyingly enormous problems is a new paradigm. Our conventional philosophies of life and coding cast aside, we found together what I could not find alone.

We discovered the system’s server was more up-to-date than my self-proclaimed cutting-edge programming techniques. Ideally, I’d bring my code base up to speed. With water still rising, we favored the pragmatic solution and restored an older codebase on GoDaddy’s server, allowing my app to function unhindered. At 4am, we launched.

That night, I refined my philosophy. I learned that the world itself is malleable. Working with GoDaddy to save Houstonians by changing the server when we lacked the time to change the site wasn’t just a matter of leaving established technical solutions behind. It was about having the courage to find new approaches. With hours left and water rising, dreaming new things into my philosophy saved over 100 Houstonians.

That night, seeing the world as something to be molded by my hands confirmed that I need to attend Vanderbilt, where I can truly shape the future.

Extracurricular - Analysis

The first thing to note is the word count of the essay. You have anywhere from 150 to 400 words to tell this story with. We recommend using all or most of them, to make sure you don’t leave out any necessary details or information. Even in a longer essay, however, every word used should be put in with purpose. Don’t include empty phrases simply to fill space.

This is an incredibly open ended question. Vanderbilt doesn’t ask you anything specific about the extracurricular you were involved with or the job you did; instead, it is up to you to choose which values you impart in the essay. This makes it very easy to reuse other essays you have written which discuss a value you exemplified through your experience in an extracurricular activity. If you wrote a community or leadership essay which centers around one of your extracurriculars, this is a good place to reuse it.

If you do reuse an essay, you should make sure it fulfills the prompt. Just copy and pasting an essay from another school can work, but adding more details to fill out the word count is recommended. Also, showing other values beyond the main one adds more depth. Vanderbilt only asks for the one essay, so you need to say as much as possible with it.

In the essay above, the author relates a number of their values, and new things they learned. They demonstrate their speed and skill as a coder, and their care for their community. They show their humility in a willingness to ask for help, and admitting that they do not know all the answers. Finally, they learn that sometimes there is a solution beyond the obvious, and it requires looking at a problem in a different light to uncover the best way forward. While the essay has a single theme and story, it relays a great number of the author’s talents and values. The last sentence is not strictly necessary, but does a nice job tying the essay to Vanderbilt specifically.

While the specific values you choose to include can be different, the overall goal of the essay is to show who you are as a person, and how that will contribute positively to Vanderbilt. An essay which merely states the facts of what you did will not work, no matter how well written. Admissions officers want to know how you will fit into and contribute to the school’s campus and culture.

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Wendy Y.
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