How to Write the University of Colorado Boulder Supplemental Essay: Guide + Examples 2020/2021
Here’s a great question to ask as you’re brainstorming possible topics for this essay: What communities am I part of?
Create a “communities” chart (see link below) listing all the communities you can come up with. Keep in mind that communities can be defined by …
Place: Groups of people who live/work/play near one another
Identity: Groups of people who share a common race, sexuality, ethnicity, or other marker of identity
Action: Groups of people who create change in the world by building, doing, or solving something together (ex.: Black Lives Matter, Girls Who Code, March for Our Lives)
Interest: Groups of people coming together based on a shared interest, experience, or expertise
Circumstance: Groups of people brought together either by chance or external events/situations
Note how each of these communities … is an identity.
Example: You’re a member of the Greek community. Or the social justice community. Or the stamp collecting community. Those are all identities!
Next, as you consider which community/identity to write about in this essay, ask yourself:
Which of my communities would give me a chance to show readers a side of myself that isn’t already featured in my application?
Which would allow me to demonstrate the skills, qualities, values, interests that I’ll bring with me to a college campus?
Consider choosing the one that you feel gives the best chance to help you share more about yourself. You can also think about how several communities intersect or complement one another. Some of the most interesting essays occur in the space between two different communities.
After you’ve brainstormed a good list, here are some general tips to get you started:
Don’t repeat what’s in your Common App personal statement. This is an opportunity to talk about something new.
Get specific. Don’t just give a generic answer followed by a generic reason for your generic answer. Be creative and use details that you’re pretty sure other students won’t be using in their essays.
If possible, connect your essay back to the school. The prompt specifically references CU Boulder and its school community, so clearly school officials want you to connect with the specific resources and opportunities they offer. So name a few in your essay (see example essay below).
Write it long first, then cut it. In our experience, this tends to be easier than writing a very short version and then trying to figure out what to add.
Here’s a great example essay for this prompt.:
I am ready. My sign says, “Climate revolution coming your way” in bold red letters. My face says I’m fed up. I jump off the bus. Run towards the crowd and join Greta Thunberg and four thousand other protesters in the middle of Lausanne. We collectively chant “One, two, three degrees, it’s a crime against humanity!”
I am an activist.
As a head of my school’s Amnesty International Club, it is my mission to highlight the importance of universal human rights to my peers. Supporting Amnesty’s mission, I participate in climate strikes, because, if we fail to protect our earth, we fail to protect humanity.
In addition to climate activism, I fight for human rights on a global scale. Last fall, I attended the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, during which I had the opportunity to discuss the wrongful arrest of Raif Badawi, charged with insulting Islam through an online forum, charges which violated Badawi’s right to freedom of expression. Through speaking with Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidir, I learned more about the injustices and torture he has suffered. Both the conversation and my visceral reaction emphasized the importance of confronting human rights violations. Haidar taught me that that fear is not a barrier to change, but a mechanism that can be transformed to change society’s unjust laws.
Through my leadership with Amnesty, I have proven to myself and my peers that a group of four students can make an impact. Committed, I fight for the right to protest, speak freely, and choose one’s own sexual identity. While spearheading the “Write for Rights” campaign, I was invigorated to see the entire student body engaging through interactive assemblies and letter writing workshops. We ended up sending over two thousand letters of support last year! I can’t wait to continue campaigning by joining CU Boulder’s Amnesty International chapter next fall.
In my school, I volunteer in the special education needs (SEN) department, and advocate to reduce the stigma surrounding students with disabilities in our community: I believe that activism begins in the classroom. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding special needs is far too prevalent today, especially in schools. I witness disabilty discrimination daily and I am aware of the effect this behavior has on the SEN students. For the past two years, I have spent many hours in SEN with the same children, working to both gain their trust and better understand their needs. It’s been fascinating working closely with the students and observing how winning games of Bananagrams motivated them. From working on simple maths problems to sensory art projects, I have observed a constant increase in their self esteem and self reliance. I realize that I have probably learned just as much, or even more than any of my students. Spending time with them has improved my communication skills, taught me to be a better listener and brought me realize just how much work there is to be done to get rid of the stigma that those with different abilities face.
At the University of Colorado Boulder, I aspire to further reduce the stigma by continuing to encourage students not to surrender to the barriers society creates. I look forward to joining Boulder Assets, a student organization committed to inspiring social change within the classroom, while volunteering at University Hill Elementary School will allow me to make a positive impact on my new local community while gaining teaching experience. I cannot wait to bring my activist identity to campus, and I intend to continue advocating for the human rights of every single one of my fellow Buffs.
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Tips + Analysis
Note the specific visuals. One of the most compelling parts of this essay is the intro. The author drops us right in the middle of a moment in her life, the moment when she joined young protestors at a climate strike. The details here are great. The bright red sign. The description of the chant. The specificity of the location. You really feel like you’re right there with her, fighting for change. You have a lot of words to work with in this essay, so you have time to include a powerful intro. Yours doesn’t have to look exactly like this one, but think about how you can put your reader in your shoes. Think of the first paragraph as a way to prime the reader for the rest of the essay. You want them to feel what you felt. You want them to empathize with and understand your point of view.
Balance broad, powerful declarations with specific details. This author makes a lot of bold claims about her role as an activist and leader in her community. She talks about abstract, distant concepts like “saving humanity” and getting rid of the stigmas against disabled students. Those are impressive goals, but what makes them seem genuine is the fact that she also includes thoughtful details to contextualize why she cares about these big issues. The way she describes her conversation with Ensaf Haidir and her Bananagram games with disabled students adds a level of specificity that humanizes her to readers. Whenever you feel like you’re making a big overarching generalization or statement, check back to see if you’ve supported it with details that give it life.
Vary your sentence length. This is more of a technical tip, but notice how the author switches back and forth between long and short sentences. She has short punchy lines like “I am an activist” and “I am ready” next to longer descriptive sentences that propel the narrative forward. The long sentences help the short ones pop, and having variation makes the essay more compelling to read. As we begin to lose steam reading a long sentence, we are refreshed with a short one that reorients us to the main points. Conversely, when we read a short sentence, a longer one afterwards might help us contextualize it at a deeper level.
Connect your interests to resources at CU Boulder. This question asks you to explain what you specifically could add to the CU Boulder community. One part of answering that question is explaining what you’re interested in, but the other component is relating those interests to the university. If you’re not totally sure what you like about UC Boulder or what it has to offer you, take a look at our “Why us?” guide before you start writing. This author mentions specific clubs and nearby schools she’d like to engage with during her time in college. This shows that she cares enough about the school to do her research and would be prepared to fully immerse herself in what it has to offer should she get in. This is something you can do too! You don’t have to have started a campaign or a company to be a stand-out applicant. The quality of your essay is much more about the care you put into explaining the impact and connections of what you’ve done than the thing itself. You can write a great essay about just about anything as long as you convey why it was meaningful and connect it to specific opportunities at UC Boulder.
Here’s how most conversations used to go for me: Just say something. Now. Wait, nevermind. Now. Come on, just say it! And when I finally gathered enough courage, the conversation was over. I probably looked kind of weird, silently sitting there with my mouth opening and closing like a goldfish. I became so frustrated that I decided I should simply become an extrovert. Surprise, surprise. Trying to change a major personality trait didn’t work. However, in my quiet plotting, I came to a realisation. It wasn’t a grand “ah-hah” moment. It was more like something that had always quietly and patiently been there, but I hadn’t noticed before: the countless ways my introversion had already helped me.
As an extrovert, I wouldn’t have found baking, which helped me understand happiness–both what it means to me and how to share this with others. My first baking effort (on Mother’s Day 2006) yielded a lump that overjoyed my mom for reasons I didn’t yet understand. Here’s the scientific reason: dopamine in the brain activates when looking at a loved one or at your favorite food. My reason is the warmth that blooms in my chest from showing affection and strengthening my connection with my friends and family.
My introversion also drew me to music, which helped me find self-respect and confidence. When I started the flute seven years ago, my brother “coincidentally” played his saxophone no matter when I practiced. He blared so loudly that I couldn’t hear myself playing. Asking him to be quiet only demonstrated that words would not work. So I took extreme measures, in the form of the next biggest instrument from his: the tenor saxophone. It felt like a sack of bricks on my neck, but blasting sobbing duck noises through the house clearly said to him, “I live here, too.” The expansiveness of taking up space through my music – although only in the safety of my home – sure was worth it.
That unapologetic self-respect I found in sibling vengeance gave me a new way to be in the world. Before, I disliked raising my volume because I shied away from attention. Even at basketball games, where my friend encouraged me to shriek “WHOOO,” the best I could muster was as pitiful as the cry of a newborn kitten. But by leaving the anonymity of the flute section and becoming comfortable filling the concert hall with the sound of my saxophone, I also became more confident. Now, I can “WHOOO” with the best of them.
Don’t get me wrong; the world of quiet, where I listen thoughtfully to others, has its perks. However, when combined with anxiety, I feel like I’m stuck in a self-conscious hidey-hole. But I’ve learned to break through, turning up the volume to embrace confidence. This, in turn, makes it easier for me to live in the moment and to share myself more openly with both strangers and loved ones.
Besides affection-baking and confidence-boosting music, introversion has most importantly deepened my self-acceptance.
Although the ways I communicate in public continue to evolve, they’re all anchored in the language of home: laughter. In my brother’s snicker, I listen for the remnants of the little boy who used annoying saxophone antics. In my dad’s laugh, I feel the irrepressible urge to smile. In my mom’s explosive chuckle, I know everything is going to be alright.
But my laugh tells you I am one-hundred-percent comfortable. I don’t care where I am or if people stare. I could be driving with my friend through Pike Place blasting Yackety Sax; or at Pacific Science Center, playing Amoeba Tag just as enthusiastically as my elementary school campers. As I feel warmth fill my chest and the howling laughter in my lungs, I know it was my introversion that got me there.
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Tips + Analysis
Use humor … or don’t. This author is funny, and she uses it to her advantage. Little sarcastic sidenotes like how her first baking attempt “yielded a lump that overjoyed my mom for reasons I didn’t yet understand” give this piece life. Put simply, her humor humanizes her. We want to be friends with her and get to know her better as we read through her various musings. That being said, you don’t have to use humor if you feel like it doesn’t come naturally to you. It’s better to avoid trying to be funny if it may just come out sounding forced. If humor isn’t your forté, think of other ways in which you can inject personality into your essay that will make it a memorable read.
Set up a conflict and, if possible, resolve it. If you think about it, this essay doesn’t exactly have a plot. It drifts through different moments and feelings in time as the author considers the way in which she interacts with the world. However, the reason this piece reads like a cohesive narrative is because the author sets up a conflict between her natural inclination towards introversion and her desire to be more extraverted. This “conflict” propels her essay forward, allowing her to explain how her introverted tendencies enabled her to take up more space and appreciate the people around her more fully. In the end, we see that these two parts of herself are not actually in conflict. Rather, they’ve complemented and bolstered each other as she’s grown into the person she is today. “Conflict” can be interpreted very broadly in this context. You don’t have to have had a major event or milestone happen to experience conflict. This essay is a perfect example of how you can create intrigue out of mundane or everyday moments. In fact, being able to reflect about seemingly “normal” feelings or memories shows a level of depth and introspection that can be compelling to college admission readers.
Find a common thread. In this essay, the common thread is the tension between the author’s natural introversion and aspirational extroversion. Throughout the essay, she turns her introversion/extraversion into a clothing line on which she can hang memories or snapshots of life that add nuance to her application. By setting up the introversion vs. extraversion theme, she gives herself an easy access point into all the aspects of her identity that she wants to talk about. It gives her an excuse to mention the tenor sax, baking, and basketball games without it feeling forced or awkward. Without explicitly saying anything, we learn that she loves music, self-reflection, and family. We also see how her thinking has evolved and the confidence she’s gained through vulnerability. If you’re struggling to think of that common thread, whatever it may be, check out our Essence Objects Exercise. Doing so will clarify the structure of your piece and allow you to include a lot of different aspects of your identity in a single essay.