How to Write the UNC Chapel Hill Supplemental Essays: Guide + Examples 2021/2022

As a public university, UNC Chapel Hill puts a lot of value in people and the experiences they bring to the table. Much of what school officials are interested in is how you relate to the world around you. The Common App personal statement is a great way to show off who you are as a person, but the focus of many of these supplemental prompts is everything outside of you. We encourage you to use these two additional short essays to show that you have an awareness about the influence of other people, communities, and perspectives. 

General Tips:

  1. Don’t repeat what’s in your personal statement. The prompts are explicitly asking you to talk about something new. Remember the Venn diagram analogy; each essay is a circle, and each circle should contain different details.

  2. Brainstorm a list of communities and see which ones you would be the most excited to write about. Several of these prompts (specifically #1 and #3) are asking you to think about different communities you’re a part of and expand on what they mean to you. Before you start writing, brainstorm. And don’t write about the same community for both your essays. Each one is a chance to showcase a new part of yourself. Here are different ways to approach the idea of community:

    • 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

  3. Get specific. Don’t just give a generic answer followed by a generic reason for your generic answer. Be creative and use details that give you a distinctive/memorable voice.

  4. Use the space they give you. You only get about 250 words per answer, so try to use it all up. If you don’t have 200-250 words to say about something, consider writing about something else.

  5. When you can, try to make your answers school-specific. Because it’s a big public school, UNC Chapel Hill receives a ton of applications. The more you can do to demonstrate that you’ve done your research, the better chance you have of standing out. Universities want to feel wanted. None of these prompts explicitly mention UNC, but imagine that each of them has an implicit “Why us?” at the end. Even if they aren’t asking you about UNC, you want to give them an idea of how you could fit into their school community.

  6. Expand on the impact of your topic. Why does impact matter? It helps the reader understand why they should care. Hopefully, the topic you’ve chosen is something you’re already pretty jazzed about. The key here is getting your reader to be just as jazzed as you, and showing impact is the way to do it. Here are some ways to think about impact:

    • Numbers. Perhaps what you choose to talk about has a particularly shocking statistic. Maybe your interest in that topic inspired you to do something that had a significant numerical effect. Consider adding specific numbers to bolster your claims and give your readers a sense of magnitude.

    • Anecdotal evidence of impact, or quotations. Impact doesn’t have to be quantitative to convey urgency, importance, or power. The more of you that you put in your essay, the better.

    • Personal impact (on you, the author) in the form of lessons learned, skills gained. It’s especially interesting to note if these skills transferred to other areas of your life. 

  7. 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 of an essay answering the first option:

Example:

Describe a peer you see as a community builder. What actions has that peer taken? How has their work made a difference in your life? (200-250 words)

When I met Bella, my ears didn’t work. I could hear, but not listen. When I conversed with friends, we were in our own universes. There was little empathy, just interruptions and distractions. And because nobody around me seemed to have the desire to listen, I gave up on it too.

From the moment Bella and I were crowned co-winners of a middle-school cup-stacking competition, each winning half of a coveted cookie cake, things changed. I soon realized how perceptive Bella was to people’s feelings.

Our chats morphed into meaningful conversations and fits of laughter. She was the first friend I came out to as bi. After telling her, I waited nervously for the uncomfortable acceptance and frantic search for other conversation topics. But instead, she looked me in the eye and said she loved me no matter who I loved. Then, she asked curious questions rather than trying to ignore my identity. And I was there for Bella too. When she told me about the emotional distance she felt growing up far away from her dad who lives in South Korea, I supported her, not trivializing her pain with dismissive reassurances. Since our cup-stacking battle, we’ve been strong for each other.

Bella unplugged my ears. That’s why she was the first person I interviewed for my podcast, Portraits, about people in my life. I know that as an empathetic listener, I am more vulnerable now, but, thanks to Bella, I understand how to communicate love. (246 words) 

— — —

Tips + Analysis:

  1. Consider starting with a punchy first line. This author’s first line is super strong. All she says is, “When I met Bella, my ears didn’t work.” This raises lots of questions. Who’s Bella? What do you mean your “ears didn’t work?” How did you meet this Bella person? This is the best kind of hook because it elicits more questions than answers. It’s also short and to the point. It’s not overly convoluted. And don’t worry, it’s okay to disorient your reader a bit in the first line. It intrigues people and makes them want to keep reading.

  2. Highlight your own values. Think of the peer you choose as an extension of yourself. By writing about what you admire in this person, you are essentially saying that you value those qualities. Although the author of this essay is talking about what a great listener Bella is, she’s also showing us that she cares about empathy and open dialogue. The person you write about becomes your surrogate, so think carefully about how you can represent yourself through the peer you choose. 

  3. Embrace vulnerability. This essay is chock full of vulnerability. The author talks about her sexuality and her journey toward a greater sense of empathy. A great essay isn’t just about showing off all your great accomplishments. In fact, reflecting on how you’ve changed over time shows that you’re introspective and adaptable. Nobody is perfect, and oftentimes it works to your advantage to embrace that. A great question to ask yourself if you’re writing for this prompt is: How did this person help me grow? Think of the answer to that question as the frame for your essay and fill the details in with the words you have left.

  4. Make your reader want to be friends with this person too. After reading this essay, we want to sit down with Bella and absorb her awesomeness. The author writes about her in such a way that we feel the love she has for her friend. Part of what helps us feel that love is the amount of details she includes. She tells us about the cookie cake competition that started it all and the kinds of topics she talked about with Bella. Those specific moments where she explains what it felt like coming out as bi or listening to Bella talk about her family situation in Korea give us a more visceral sense of what this friendship looked like. Get someone who doesn’t know the person you’re writing about to read your essay when it’s finished. That person should want to meet your peer after they read it. Remember, you might know the person who you choose super well, but your reader has never met them before and needs you to do as much legwork as possible in conveying all the aspects that make them worth writing about.

Here’s a great example if you’re choosing the second option.

Example:

Describe an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far? (250 words)

You wouldn’t think an American Asian Affinity Space would be diverse, after all its whole premise is centered around one specific identity. However, members of the affinity space at my high school come from several different grades, genders and ethnicities. The group included a sophomore from China, a junior from Pakistan, and members from Korea, Japan, and even Israel. We each had unique stories of living as an Asian-American, yet, we had all chosen to come to this affinity group. As we spent time together, we were able to find shared experiences, like our parents preparing packed lunches for us from our country and being too embarrassed to bring them to school. Whether eating humbow or biryani, we all knew what it was like to feel out of place.

My work with the AAAS got me thinking about what diversity can look like, and what it means to embrace diversity. On the one hand, you can find diversity even when people appear to be alike. By exploring our differences, we can continue learning from each other even when it seems we have shared backgrounds and values. At the same time, people who seem really different may have shared human experiences, feeling like the “other” or being embarrassed by their parents, that can bring them together. Moving forward, I want to learn about people’s differences, hearing their stories and learning about their backgrounds while also creating spaces for people to have shared experiences that bring people together.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Challenge a misconception or generalization. This applicant does a great job of subverting expectations when it comes to her American Asian identity. She highlights how her affinity group was more diverse than one might generally expect. By doing this, she demonstrates a compelling ability to self-reflect and see nuance within important cultural spaces. The idea that diversity is more than what meets the eye is a mature and complex insight that makes this essay stand out. This is a prompt that allows you to show off your ability to “see behind the curtain,” so to speak, when it comes to a specific community or identity. Acknowledging an assumption and then challenging it is an excellent way to do this.

  2. Highlight growth. When you answer this prompt, it’s great if you can create a narrative arc by showing how you developed within a specific identity. In this case, the author talks about her growing ability to find common ground with other members of her affinity group. In this way, she’s showing her values of inclusion, culture, and diversity. Although this is a short essay, having a “story” is very helpful. Think of the narrative arc as a rope that you can use to pull your reader through your answer. Showing how you changed over time or learned more about yourself compels people to keep reading.

  3. Use paragraph structure to clarify your main points. The author here uses her first paragraph to expand on a part of her identity (being Asian American) and the second paragraph to expand on how that part of her identity has shaped her values and perceptions. She also touches on how this ties into her ongoing interest in creating inclusive spaces and embracing difference. This is a really nice way to answer the prompt because it’s very clear which part of the question she’s answering in each paragraph. The first paragraph sets the scene of the past, and then the second one speaks more to the present and future. Having a paragraph break also gives the reader a chance to breathe before moving right into the second half of the answer. Try to use the structure of your piece to amplify your content.

  4. Connect to the future. As we mentioned, the author does a nice job of segueing into how the lessons she learned from her American Asian Affinity group have inspired her interest in creating more inclusive spaces. This is something you should do in your essay too. You don’t have to be super specific about what you want to do (although you definitely can!), but giving your reader a sense of how this aspect of your identity would impact what you do or who you’d interact with in college helps them better understand what kind of student you’d be.

Example:

If you could change one thing to better your community, what would it be? Why is it important and how would you contribute to this change? (200-250 words)

My earliest memory of orchestra wasn’t about the orchestra, but what happened after. I was ten, and a kind retirement community resident was so enamored by our performance, she invited my family to her apartment for cookies. This was a glimpse of what was to come: standing ovations, the tears in my neighbor’s eyes when my music reminded her of her hometown, the community my fellow string members and I formed over nervous glances before the curtain went up. I knew my peers could benefit from these rewards, so I started a strings club at my high school.

The school band teacher agreed to conduct, and I spread the word through social media and flyers. The club started off as a small-but-mighty group of four, but grew as we tutored beginner violinists. At the end of our first concert, I was moved by the shared hugs, the high-fives, and the satisfaction on the students’ faces as they saw a teary family member in the audience.

I’m proud of our strings club, but I still have the nagging sense that it isn’t enough. Our school was only the third out of thirty in the county to begin an orchestra club, so there are still hundreds of students who can benefit from being a part of the orchestra community. It would require school administrators to recognize the impacts orchestral music can have on teens’ growing brains, but I hope to one day see many more string clubs at schools across our county.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Be positive about a negative. This applicant skillfully addresses the need for orchestral music while not criticizing administrators or bashing the school for not having a strings club. She paints positive pictures of cookies with a retiree, students bonding over high-fives, and the tearful support of parents. If possible, acknowledge what’s already good or working, then frame what you’d change as something to improve or a way to make your community even better.  

  2. Show your advocacy or activism streak. This prompt is an invitation to all those with drive to serve a cause. Maybe you’re an advocate for the environment—could you propose safer crosswalks or more bike racks to encourage pedestrian traffic? Think about what gets you fired up, and how that energy could be used to better your community. What do you care about that hasn’t been addressed elsewhere in your application? Whatever you choose, whether it stems from a cause or a hobby, expressing genuine interest by flexing your values and conveying your enthusiasm will make the reader care too. Speaking of your advocacy work …

  3. Take the opportunity to showcase what you’ve already done. This student reverse-engineered the essay by starting with something she’d already done—established a strings club at her school—speaking to its benefits before advocating for a change for the better: more strings clubs across the district. If you take this approach, though, you’ll probably want to spend a bit more time than this student did on the actual change you’d make, since that’s a key part of the prompt and would allow you to speak to your solutioning skills.

  4. Keep it real(istic). Make sure you address a real issue—with realistic solutions. This author wanted a strings club, got the band teacher on board, started with just four participants, and things grew from there. This probably isn’t the appropriate time to showcase your imagination, unless you have creative and realistic solutions. Notions of solving traffic jams with flying cars or creating a utopian society where everyone sings while they skip to work may be fun, but this question is probing for your values and your problem-solving skills for real-world challenges. 

  5. Think in thirds. The 250-word limit may not feel like a ton of space for what’s essentially a three-part prompt—1) what you’d change, 2) why it’s important, and 3) how you’d contribute—so it may be helpful to divide the essay into three parts. In this example, those three parts looked like this: 1) getting wider support for strings clubs, 2) the rewards of standing ovations and community-building, and 3) … um … ? See how breaking it up this way exposes the gap in this essay? It doesn’t really speak to how this student would contribute to the change she wants to see. So try allocating roughly 1/3 of your words to define a unique challenge in your community that you want to address, 1/3 to explain its importance, and 1/3 to showcase your leadership and problem-solving skills. The division doesn’t have to be exact, but this approach will help you ensure you’re addressing all this prompt is asking for.

Essay Option 4:

Former UNC-Chapel Hill employee, community service member, and civil rights activist Esphur Foster once said, “We are nothing without our history.” Her words are memorialized on the Northside Neighborhood Freedom Fighters monument. How does history shape who you are? (200-250 words)

Much like history shapes who you are, learning from past responses can shape your own college application. Here’s the irony: This prompt about history has no history. Because it’s a brand new prompt. Which means we have no examples yet to share. What’s an applicant to do? Here are questions and tips you may want to consider:

  1. Find a historical moment that influenced you in some way. Maybe it’s a specific period of time, like the Renaissance (we see you, art history buffs), but keep in mind that it’s generally harder to write a strong essay about something that broad. So maybe it’s a specific event, like the first female American astronaut in space. Or you could make it more personal, exploring your family’s own  history, like how coming from a long line of musicians shaped your love of the ukulele or clarinet. How you define history is wide open here. The key is to choose something that brings it home to you.

  2. What role(s) does history play in your present? You can touch on a couple of those ways or explore one with greater depth. Does history shape how you interact with others? Does it give you context to appreciate your world in new ways? A cautionary note: It may be wise to avoid polarizing topics, to avoid the risk of offending your reader. But if you do go there, consider asking a few trusted friends/mentors for feedback on how your response made them feel about you. 

  3. If you choose a historical moment or event, don’t assume your reader knows as much about the topic as you do, so share enough to provide context. Just don’t get carried away talking about the historical moment and not about yourself. The better approach: As you’re explaining the history, make it personal to you. If it’s about the women’s suffrage movement, for example, maybe you’d share how Susan B. Anthony’s bold stance on labor rights and equal pay inspired you and paved the way for the kind of advocacy work you’re doing today. 

  4. What do you hope your reader learns about you? What are the values you hope your essay conveys? If you don’t know, do this Values Exercise, asking yourself that same question, then read your essay over again. Are those values coming through? If not, tweak it to make sure it does. Still not sure? Ask a trusted friend/mentor whether they’re picking up on the values you identified. 

  5. Bonus points: Consider taking the essay a bit farther than the prompt asks by considering how you’d use your understanding of this history to help others. Don’t repeat something you’ve already shared on your application, but if you’re on a mission to help others, and if that mission is rooted in some historical context, here’s a chance to share another dimension of who you are and what you value. 

  6. Finally, if your response incorporates a quote (as the prompt did), be sure you triple check the authenticity and give credit where credit is due.

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