Barnard College Application Essay

As a Senior Associate Director in the Barnard admissions office for eight years, I had the privilege of reading the college application essays of many wonderful Barnard applicants. Those that stood out had a fantastic sense of self, and were able to convey their personality through writing. It truly is a special community where women are encouraged to reach their potential. When writing your Barnard supplemental essays, it’s important to keep these ideas in mind. Here are the essay prompts for this year’s Barnard supplement with some of my thoughts on answering them:

What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? (100-250 words)

This is a standard “Why do you want to attend this college?” type of prompt. Anytime a college asks this type of question, the key to a great answer is to make it personal and specific to you. The college already knows why they are well-regarded, highly ranked, or prestigious and what their top-notch programs are; there is no need to tell them that in this essay. What they don’t know is how you, as a Barnard student, would use those resources. It requires a strong applicant to do her research and relate the classes or clubs they are interested in to their past experiences. Do you have a major in mind? Great! Research the major and name classes you would like to take or professors whose research intrigues you. Are you undecided? Also great, but make sure that undecided doesn’t come across as intellectually unengaged. You may not know your precise major yet, but be sure to convey a few academic areas that are currently piquing your interest. Basically, Barnard wants to know what type of student you see yourself as on their campus.

Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about? (100-250 words)

Barnard is very proud (rightly so!) of its long tradition as a women’s college. As such, they seek to empower young women to be leaders of tomorrow. The question is truly asking about the women who have inspired you in your life. Try to make your choice relevant to your interests. Are you a scientist, a dancer, a writer? Pick a woman who has motivated you in your field, but make sure you say why she is your inspiration. What qualities do you admire about her? What questions would you be dying to ask her? The woman you choose does not need to be a known women’s rights activist (in fact, many applicants pick famous feminists, so that choice may not distinguish you), but they do need to have character traits that you admire and can relate back to your past experiences. For example, if the woman you pick is an excellent public speaker, and you admire that trait because you have developed your speaking skills through your involvement in high school debate, make that connection in this essay.

Barnard women seek to make a difference in their community, whether through the residence hall, classes, clubs, volunteer work or a part-time job they hold. Describe how you make a difference in your community and what you have learned from that experience. In what ways do you see yourself contributing to the community at Barnard, inside or outside of the classroom? (100-250 words)

Barnard is committed to fostering young women who are difference makers, those who see a problem and take action to rectify it. Make sure to answer both parts of this question. First, what have you already done to make a difference in your community, and second, how will you seek to make a difference at Barnard? Again, this essay requires research and thoughtfulness. Great answers do not have to be the traditional community service route (many weren’t when I read!), but often dealt with the impact that a student had on an issue in high school. Think about ways in which you better the activities you are involved in. Are you the organizer, the “rally the troops” type, or the “glue” student that holds everyone else together? Your impact could be in activities, or academics, or in your community, but make sure to convey your role and how you wish to bring that strength to Barnard.

Finally, when you are all done with all three essays, take another look. Stand out supplements often told about several facets of the student’s life, not just one repetitive theme throughout all three responses. One essay might be academic, another more personal, and the third more activities based—but together they gave a fuller picture of the applicant.

Good luck with these college application essay questions, and may you be on your way to becoming your own strong, beautiful, Barnard woman.

Barnard College is an all-women’s college in uptown New York City. 2,500 undergraduates attend Barnard, which has a unique relationship with Columbia University, just across the street. Barnard students are able to take advantage of the resources that Columbia has to offer paired with the smaller, more intimate community culture that is cultivated at Barnard. As such, Barnard is one of our favorite colleges. Its supplement has 4 questions, all of which are incredibly different. Our breakdown of the supplement follows: 

1. What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? (100-250 words) 

This is a super brief “Why X School?” prompt. In order to complete this in a fashion that exhibits your knowledge, you have to do some research. That said, your response should not be overloaded with too much information. It should be a narrative about you where you’re able to weave the college in. It should be focused and highlight 1-2 things about the culture, academic environment, and most importantly, your interests. Your interests are the glue that holds it all together, and from there you incorporate aspects of Barnard that make it an ideal setting to expand and deepen your knowledge about whatever subject you choose. Additionally, make sure to tell them why it’s an ideal culture within which to exist for 4 years. The only way that you will be able to write so little, so well, on this topic is by fully understanding what the school is like. You can do this through visits, talking to students and professors, as well as exploring their website. 

2. Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about? (100-250 words)

This is one of our favorite questions. It’s also one of those questions that is very easy to write a response that blends in with the tens of thousands of applications that are flooding Barnard’s admissions office. Don’t worry. We’ll help you stand out. First, the choice of woman. Your choice is just as important as the explanation. The choice should speak volumes (or at least paragraphs), and illustrate an interest, knowledge, and aspect of your personality that makes the admissions readers raise their eyebrows. In a good way. Read: impressed. Don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.  

One thing to remember when you’re writing about this person and your conversation is that Barnard is asking you to identify someone to speak with, peer to peer. Of course you’re going to choose someone that you look up to, but they are asking you to converse, not interview or learn from. You’re in the same space as them, experiencing the same environment. They’re not on a pedestal.

When you’re choosing your person, you should choose someone in the industry/field/arena that you’re interested in, but we always advise our students to go less obvious with their choice. Don’t choose the head of that industry. For example, don’t say you want me meet with Hillary Clinton unless you’re the National Chair of High School Democrats of America. We’ve come up with a list just off the top of our heads of women you shouldn’t write about:

  1. Hillary Clinton

  2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

  3. Beyonce

  4. Anna Wintour

  5. Michelle Obama

  6. Meryl Streep

  7. Kim Kardashian (and the rest of them)

  8. Amy Schumer

  9. Elizabeth Warren

  10. Amelia Earhart

  11. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  12. Oprah

  13. Julia Roberts

  14. Mother Theresa

  15. Anne Frank

  16. Coco Chanel

  17. Gloria Steinem

  18. Tyra Banks

  19. Kate Middleton

  20. Eleanor Roosevelt

This is just a starting point, but you should choose someone who is more niche than mainstream. After all, the person that you choose is serving as a vehicle to explain an interest of yours that you want to share with the college.  

Onto what you’re going to discuss. Don’t think too hard about what to talk to this person about, but definitely make sure that you don’t ask any questions or provide topics that you already know the answer to. For example, don’t ask Roxane Gay what it’s like to be a feminist author. Think about more in-depth, illustrative questions that you might ask a friend after she comes home from a substantial trip. Talk about the content that you’re personally interested in—the in-depth, sometimes tough, inquiring questions that aim to dig up the details. Barnard wants to see how you think about the world through this question. They want to know how you uncover stories, how you engage, and what you’re interested in. It’s your chance to show your expertise in a subtle, intelligent way.

3. Alumna and writer Anna Quindlen says that she “majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Tell us about a time when you majored in unafraid. (100-250 words)

Though “unafraid” is a new word and we can see why that might be intimidating, we assure you that this is not a scary question. This question is simply asking you for a time when you conquered a fear. We recommend that our students tell a story about a time that they conquered a unique fear—not just an, “I jumped off the high diving board and I didn’t drown,” or a typical savior story where you came out looking brave. Remember, women will be reading this essay. It’s important to take your audience into consideration.

Think about a time when you truly did something that you feared. This might be something that stems from a point of anxiousness for you, or it can be something that might seem small to others but to you was a big step. For example, one student of ours wrote about how she had been going to the gym for months, and though she had conquered the cardio machines, she wanted to get strong. She wanted to be able to do 10 pull ups, but only men were in the weight area. She began to conquer her fear by entering the weight room. Other women followed suit. In doing so, she created a community, conquered her fear, and worked up to doing 10 pull ups.  

Another one of our more introverted students wrote about how she hesitates to participate in class. It gives her a lot of anxiety. One day she surprised herself and volunteered to go first for project presentations because she figured it might be more relieving to get the whole thing out of the way. She prepared for it extensively, and she ultimately did it. She did a great job on the presentation. She sweat a bit more than usual and excused herself to use the bathroom/throw up immediately afterwards, but she did it. Both students in these scenarios, through one small action, learned that they have control over their own emotions and abilities. That in and of itself is a time when they majored in unafraid.

Additionally, we’d like to comment that this essay doesn’t need to be all that serious. You can have a bit of fun with it. Perhaps you could discuss a time that you truly ate your words and learned an important lesson or were confronted with a peculiar scenario that tested your limits in an unexpected way. Ultimately, the specifics of the situation will illustrate the story, and the story will speak to how you conduct, challenge, and motivate yourself to expand your understanding of the world. That’s what Barnard really wants to know, after all.

As always, let us know if you need any help. We’d be happy to help you come up with some great content for this supplement.

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