Tackling the Dartmouth Essay Prompts


Tackling the Dartmouth Essay Prompts

So, you’re applying to Dartmouth...at least we know you have good taste. We also know that you’re up for a challenge, because as I’m sure you’ve realized, getting into the smallest of the Ivy League colleges is no easy feat. Strong responses to the Dartmouth essay prompts are essential!

In this article, we will break down the current Dartmouth essay prompts, and discuss a few strategies for addressing them. Before we do, there are a couple things you need to know about Dartmouth that may help you strategize:

The “Why School” essay is VERY important

In part due to its small size and tight-knit community, Dartmouth takes applicant “fit” very seriously. When thinking about what the Dartmouth essay prompts are looking for, the admissions officers want to know that you bleed Green, and if so, why. For a long time, it was rumored - potentially accurately - that Dartmouth was the only Ivy League school keeping track of which students actually visited the school, and accounting for that during their admissions process. Whether true or not, Dartmouth makes a point to pay particular attention to the justifications applicants give for wanting to attend. Thus, you need to do your research - I would recommend starting with their website.

Dartmouth likes more “well-rounded applicants”

Before you take this the wrong way, let’s throw a few caveats in here: first, Dartmouth likes well-rounded applicants when compared to other top schools, which tend to emphasize specialization. That doesn’t mean they dislike dilettantes. Nor does it mean they don’t like applicants who have achieved tremendous things in one or two specific areas. What it means is that the Dartmouth essay prompts like to know you are a person...a person with hobbies, or who plays sports, or who enjoys the outdoors. So, don’t be afraid to show a little color.

Dartmouth is a college

Not to belabor the obvious, but you need to take some time to consider what being “a college” versus “a university” actually means. The simplest explanation is that Dartmouth, unlike the other Ivy League schools, doesn’t have (many) graduate schools. For example, although I applied several times to Dartmouth Law School, I never heard back from them. Turns out, it doesn’t exist. Why is that? Because Dartmouth is a college.

The main reason this point is relevant is that it impacts the kinds of resources you have available to you on campus. One of the myriad benefits of attending a larger national university is that they have ample resources for specialized work and research. For example, the engineering labs at Dartmouth - while certainly nothing to scoff at - would be difficult to compare to those at UPenn or Harvard. On the other hand, being a college allows Dartmouth to focus its considerable resources on its undergraduate students. Hence, Dartmouth regularly ranks in the top three schools for quality of undergraduate education (you have to go deep into US News’ website for that statistic, but it’s there).

The reason I am telling you this is simple: make sure your responses to the Dartmouth essay prompts show that you know where Dartmouth is strong, and where it isn’t. Emphasizing the incredible engineering facilities or physics labs will not come off genuine, as there are numerous schools which will have superior resources in those areas.

Dartmouth is kind of experiencing a mini-identity crisis

Starting with a series of wonderful stories about Dartmouth’s fraternity scene and a variety of on-campus protests, the college has been undergoing a “revamping” of its image and internal politics over the past 5-10 years. This has, for example, included the recent installment of a new Dean of Admissions (Lee Coffin) - something which will surely alter the landscape of Dartmouth admissions in years to come. But more than that, there are elements of its history which Dartmouth has started to distance itself from.

Most notably, Dartmouth essay prompts help the school look for ways of diversifying its social scene beyond the fraternities and sororities. Thus, if you were thinking of writing about your desire to “frat hard” in your Dartmouth essays, you should probably think twice. Generally speaking, that should never make an entrance into your essays. Nor should Greek letters.

Here’s the takeaway: take some time to read about these recent controversies, because I assure you that the admissions staff will know about them, and will be careful about students that might replicate previous incidents on campus. Go Big Green!

The Dartmouth essay prompts:

Ok - now on to the actual Dartmouth essay prompts.

Let’s start with prompt #1:

Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, uttered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2022, what aspects of the College’s program, community, or campus environment attract your interest?

First, this memorable quote comes from the landmark case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, when the evil New Hampshire legislature attempted a coup d’état on our beloved college, and the Supreme Court beat them down like Yale’s football team. In case you are interested, Wikipedia has a fairly cogent summary of the case here.

This is a very standard “why school” essay. Why they limit you to 100 words or less, I do not know. 100 words is almost nothing! To put this into context, I spent 54 words insulting Yale’s football team in the paragraph above. Thus, my first piece of advice for you is this: use bullet points. Don’t wax about Dartmouth’s serene mountainous landscape. Get to your point.

For example:

  • Education - I am particularly interested in X professor’s course, and Dartmouth’s strong Y Department. I would like to participate in Z seminar.
  • D-plan - if you don’t know what the D-plan is, you need to read more about Dartmouth. Dartmouth people (myself included) literally cannot finish a single conversation without bringing it up. “Oh, you went to Dartmouth...you must have loved the D-plan.” Indeed, I did love it.
  • Community - Dartmouth is a very tight-knit community, and has very strong alumni relations. Etc. etc.

Last point about this Dartmouth essay: be super specific. If you can replace “Dartmouth” with “Cornell” or “Liberal Arts College”, then you need to start over. Reading those 100 words should leave absolutely no doubt that you not only love Dartmouth, but that you understand exactly what it is that makes it special.

Dartmouth essay prompt #2

This actually an option to choose from one of six different prompts in 250-300 words, which are copied and discussed below.

  • A. In Love Medicine, author Louise Erdrich ’76 writes, “Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were even born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can.” Describe your “hand” and reflect on how you have played it.

This prompt presents a great opportunity but several traps for unwary students. Essentially, this is an “adversity essay”, which asks students to reflect on the ways in which they have overcome adversity - or in some cases, played their “winning hand” as well as it could be played. Here are a couple pieces of advice to keep in mind:

First, remember that admissions is not a pity party. I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is that if you wish to discuss the adversity you’ve faced, you need to have a compelling argument as to how you’ve overcome it, that will actually make you more qualified for admission. If you are merely reflecting on the horrible hand that you were dealt, you might as well fold.

Second, if you have been dealt a generous hand in life, it might be best to steer clear of this prompt. Admissions officers will be minimally sympathetic to your complaints about how competitive your elite private school was, or how much pressure you felt in your two-parent household. If you think you might be stretching to find adversity, you probably are, and should avoid this essay.

Third, while this essay among the Dartmouth essay prompts does technically invite students to discuss how privileged they were and what they did with that privilege, you should be very careful with how you address that topic. Generally speaking, highlighting how many advantages you’ve had in life - regardless of what you’ve done with them - carries some risk in the admissions process.

  • B. From songs and film to formulae and computer code, human expression and discovery take many forms. How do you express your creativity? What ideas or values do you explore and celebrate when your imagination wanders?

This is a great all-around prompt which gives you an opportunity to show your personality to the admissions office. A couple of points to address here:

First, although STEM folks might be tempted to overlook this prompt due to its poetic nature, they should not. Dartmouth, despite not having the best facilities for STEM fields, nonetheless wants and needs STEM students. At the same time - and perhaps contradictorily - they want to make sure these STEM people “fit the Dartmouth mold”. They want a dedicated STEM person who nonetheless can talk about the value of Liberal Arts. So here is your chance - wax about the beauty of single-celled organisms or about the elegance of string theory.

Second, when addressing your ideals or values, make sure they are in line with Dartmouth’s. For example, explaining that your interest in neuroscience stems from a desire to make connections across disciplines (e.g., with anthropology or history) is a solid way to connect your interest to the underlying premise of a liberal arts education. Again, take time to read Dartmouth’s website - they tell you a lot of what you need to know about the school.

Lastly, when trying to reflect on this prompt, try writing down a step-by-step analysis of how you pursue your passion. For example, if you love astronomy, think about what causes you to sit outside on cold nights, staring at stars. What is going through your mind as you look through the telescope? These kinds of reflections will help you tease out the “ideals and values” that propel you to pursue your passions.

  • C. During the 2016 Olympic Games, American runner Abbey D’Agostino ’14 collided with another athlete in the first round of the 5,000-meter event. Both fell to the track. Although injured, Abbey’s first instinct was to help the other fallen athlete so they could continue the race together. Their selflessness was widely praised as the embodiment of the Olympic ideal of sportsmanship. Share a moment when kindness guided your actions.

This one among Dartmouth essay prompts offers as many traps as it does opportunities.

First, do not fall back on cliché accounts of foreign service trips or other brief interactions with developing countries. Unless that was the primary focus of your time in high school, it is not unique, and also rings hollow.

Second, this prompt says “kindness” but it also says “selflessness.” That’s the key to this prompt. If you choose this one, you need to have a great example of a time when you were truly selfless, not just kind.

Third, the best responses to this prompt will be capable of tying the answer back to a “core theme” of your application. For example, if the “theme” of your application is that you are interested in studying anthropology, it would be helpful to discuss an act of selflessness within the context of anthropological study. It should not be the focus of the essay, but in an ideal world, you could address how this central theme and your act of selflessness relate to one another. That being said, don't duplicate the content of your personal statement while trying to hit home your application theme!

Lastly, specificity is key. Try to find a specific moment or interaction, rather than a pattern of behavior. That is much more convincing.


  • D. Twenty years ago, the world met Harry Potter and his companions. One of the more memorable lines from the J.K. Rowling series was spoken by Albus Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” What ideas or experiences bring you joy?

This is one of the more open-ended prompts. The best piece of advice I have for you, as with the prompt above, is that you should try your best to connect these “ideas or experiences” to the central themes of your application. If you’ve spent the remainder of your application talking about your love of biochemistry and all of a sudden the only thing you mention as bringing you pleasure is “travel and time with friends”, it will look very disjointed.

Furthermore, make sure you aren’t just restating things on your activity list. The admissions officers want to hear about the personal motivations and emotions that drive you to do whatever it is you do.

Finally, it will help you narrow the topic and ground the essay if you focus on one particular event or experience, rather than a broader set or pattern of experiences.


  • E. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your intellectual curiosity.

This is a great essay prompt, but again, one that’s very open-ended. The risk with this prompt is seeming like a bit of a dilettante. However, for those of you with very focused, specialized experiences, this will give you an opportunity to explain how those interests relate to a broader, more interdisciplinary curiosity. For instance, how your passion for debate relates to a more general curiosity about how policies are made (political science), why people make them (psychology/neuroscience), and how that has influenced the past (history) and possibly the future (scientology).


  • F. “Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams,” television producer Shonda Rhimes ’91 told graduating seniors during her 2014 Commencement address. “It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.” What inspires your hard work? What matters to you and how do you “make things happen” to create change?

This is a difficult prompt for most applicants. The key phrase to think about here is “creates change.” This Dartmouth essay is asking for you to answer: “how will you make the world better and what motivates you to do so?”

This prompt is great for students interested in policy, governance, sociology, public health, medicine, environmental science, etc. Basically, it’s great for students whose interests or dreams actually relate to improving the world. Again, if you feel like you’re stretching, you probably are.

Moreover, make sure the change you intend to create is something specific. Saying that you want to “make the world a happier place” will not impress admissions officers. If you say: “I hope to combat [specific disease] in [specific area of the world]” and the rest of your application supports this statement, then you are in good shape.

Finally, make sure your application supports whatever statements you are making. If your stated dream comes totally out of left field, then either pick another dream or pick another prompt. Your answer to this question should make sense when read along with the rest of your application.


Admissions Officers will closely look at how you respond to the Dartmouth essay prompts for the ambiguous concept of fit, but to also get a sense of your personality and passions. Do your goals align with Dartmouth’s ideals? Are you going to make the tight-knit community a better place? Will you inspire your classmates? Please stay tuned for more advice on secondary essays, and go Big Green!


Joel Butterly

Joel Butterly, Co-founder and CEO of InGenius Prep, is an experienced admissions counselor and entrepreneur. Joel comes from a rich educational background—his immediate family alone has 14 Ivy League Degrees—from Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth.

Joel attended Dartmouth College, where he studied Government, Geography, and the Philosophy of Ethics. He was inducted early into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated Summa Cum Laude. He graduated with a double major in Government and International Studies, and a minor in Ethical Philosophy.

After Dartmouth, Joel attended Yale Law School, where he served on the executive board of the Journal on Regulation, as well as the Law School’s entrepreneurship society.

Joel currently resides at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. He lives with his fiance – Emily – who teaches and is receiving her PhD in Medieval History from Yale.

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