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Carleton College Essay

Carleton College is a great liberal arts school of 1,995 undergraduates in Northfield, Minnesota. It’s been steadily climbing in the rankings over the last few years and a lot of people are starting to take notice. Fortunate for them, unfortunate for us. It used to be one of our favorite hidden gems to suggest to students. We’re happy for them though. Really.

Their supplement has a common “Why X School” component, but it’s formatted peculiarly. The second half of the supplement is a bit difficult to decipher in terms of what to include, where. Don’t worry—we break it all down for you. Read on to understand what you need to complete a truly great Carleton College supplement.

  • When did you first learn of Carleton? (no more than 150 words)

    Because you only have 150 words to tackle this, you can think of questions 1 and 2 as a combined “Why Carleton?” and this is your “culture” section. This is your opportunity to talk about why you are interested in Carleton, which is different than why you are applying.

    Our main suggestion to our students that we’ve advised on this supplement has been to make this a gradual learning story about Carleton. That is, if you don’t have a notable or distinct memory of when you first learned about the school, it can be a sequential discovery that tracks your learning about the school’s existence, how your research evolved, what aspects of the school intrigued and excited you. You can discuss its location, the size, some unique tidbits about the campus and Carleton’s community. You can even discuss how you’re particularly fascinated by the medieval period so the fact that the Carleton mascot is a knight stood out for you. Get creative.

    Because you have so little room to talk about your research, keep it focused. Choose 1-2 things that stood out for you and tell the story of why those aspects are important. Keep all academic interests as they pertain to Carleton on the backburner until question 2.

  • Why are you applying to Carleton? (no more than 150 words)

    Here is the other half of your “Why Carleton?” answer. This is the part where you discuss your academic interests and why Carleton is the place for you. This requires more intensive research than question 1, because here you’re pulling out the big guns. And by that we mean, professors, specific courses, majors/minors/concentrations, and electives.

    We suggest that students keep a list of a number of courses and professors that excite them, as well as majors that make them uniquely interested in a particular school. Then, you draw from that larger list to create an answer that makes you stand out. Wow them with your in-depth knowledge of the Political Economy concentration and mention your interest in them offering their “Political Economy of Happiness” class once again.  

    When choosing a major or minor to discuss, while it can certainly be something that you haven’t tackled in high school, it shouldn’t be totally out of the blue. If you mention that you want to major in Classics, but all you took were AP sciences and your crowning accomplishment of high school was winning the Intel Science Fair, they might raise their eyebrows. Keep your story consistent, informed, and excited.

  • Carleton is powered by wind turbines. What empowers you? (no more than 150 words)

    In all honestly, we laughed when we first read this question. It’s one of the quirkier questions, which makes it a fun one to answer. Let’s talk Do’s and Don’ts here

    3 Dos:

    Highlight a unique part of your personality with a story about an event. Identify one of your more prominently identifying traits (ask your friends if you don’t know) that makes you feel good about yourself and tell a story that exemplifies that quality.

    Have fun with this. Write a nuanced list of things that make you feel good or happy, write a poem, speak exclusively in metaphors because metaphors make you feel empowered to play with language and emotion.

    Think outside the box. We had one student who wrote an entire response casually in rhyme to this question. It was a subtle rhyme, and when you read it you felt like you were listening to a song in your head. Be creative.

    3 Don’ts:

    Get on a soapbox. This isn’t Empowerment with a capital E that you should discuss here, so it’s not the time to talk about how you empower yourself by helping spread awareness about violence against women.

    Let your eyes be too big for your stomach. In the same vein as above, keep your empowerment source small. Even if you feel deeply about your work to prevent violence against women (it’s an issue that’s very important to us, too), you can’t adequately contextualize or explore your commitment to an issue in 150 words. It’s not enough space to send a meaningful message.

    Get too deep. Now is not the time to explore a sensitive topic or an event that is deeply meaningful to you. We’re talking what makes you feel great and able to tackle the world. Again, all you have is 15i 0 words. This subsection is exactly that length.

  • Now, for a bit of fun…

    What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word (word association - just a few words):

    Knowledge? Play? Future?

    Our first instinct here is that you can’t go wrong, except that you can. But it’s easily avoidable if you stick to the rule of sharing your unique personality. Don’t speak in cliches. Surprise your admissions reader. Make them smile or laugh with recognition. These words are open to interpretation—even the oddest interpretation that you can think of. Go with that, always. Some guidelines:

    Knowledge: Don’t take this too seriously or use it as an opportunity to brag about your academic accomplishments. Instead, maybe mention the last book or documentary that you saw that truly blew your mind. You don’t need to expand on it (hence ‘just a few words’) but name it. Add a reaction word if you’d like.

    Play: List something that brings you genuine joy. Think pizza picnics in the park or a dance party to your favorite band in the kitchen with your best friend. What about the most recent concert you went to? Or an exhibit that made you feel capable of creating art? What YouTube video had you truly laughing your head off? Keep it light and fun.

    Future: Don’t write ‘is female,’ for starters. Again, not the time to mention your goal to be president. Choose a few words that you think about when you envision your life or the world in 5-10 years. Be creative. Some words that come to mind for us: hiking Machu Picchu; both memorizing Pi and perfecting my pie crust recipe; finishing Infinite Jest.

  • This last question, though arguably one of the more “fun” questions on a college supplement, is by no means easy. We’d be happy to help you brainstorm and come up with some compelling answers. Give us a call or send us an email.

    Ultimately, it's about you

    We’ve already seen some winning college application essays, but why exactly did they work?

    What did they do to snag the attention of the admissions readers?

    Well, I’ve taken one of them — from Evan Summers, who applied successfully to Carleton College — and asked Carleton’s dean of admissions, Paul Thiboutot, to run through why it was a winner.

    In a nutshell: Summers reveals an important side of himself — vividly, succinctly and with a bit of humor.

    But there’s more.

    First read the essay here.

    Then read the remarks by Carleton’s Thiboutot, who spoke with me last week. (They’re edited notes. They’re not verbatim.)


    He is clearly a baseball fan, and he uses it to explain why he sticks with a group and a cause. He can deal with disappointment. A lot of essays we read talk about the golden moment when the writers won – and this is just the opposite. How do you deal with failure and still remain optimistic? That’s what he’s conveying. It’s a show of passion and a show of his approach to living. If you talk about life and how you learn, this is a good attitude to have.

    Remember: The essay can be universal, but is also personal. It can be self-reflective. This one has some humor in it. And you gain a sense of what he’s like personally. He can control the topic pretty well and can do it with a little drama.

    True, you’re learning only one thing about him. But he’s showing us he can write. He’s engaging one aspect of life, and chances are he can apply that writing skill to other parts of life. This kid could be a sports writer, a historian, or any number of things.

    Once you finish the essay, you have this image of you yourself at a sporting event — and the emotion of being there. It conjures up to the reader those kinds of moments, but it’s just the opposite (the feeling of defeat instead of victory). And he has captured it in one page. When you have a writer who can do it in one page, that’s pretty good.

    When I read the last line, I had to go back and read the first line. They’re both about the broadcast. They tie in well. This kid put some thought into this.

    I wondered whether the broadcast he described was real. But it doesn’t matter. There’s a command of the language he has. And the final two lines are just a wonderful little clincher.

    That last line — what a wonderful way of looking at life.

    Thiboutot was kind enough to pass on a few tips, starting with this:

    The Main Thing: No matter what the topic is, the college essay is ultimately a story about yourself — nothing more.

    And it needn’t be complicated.

    What you choose to say in that story, how you choose to say it, what you convey need be no more complex than the quick statements you tell Mom and Dad: “Hey, guess what happened today?” (Or it could be much more involved.)

    It’s not an academic exercise, nor is it a third-person explanation of something, like, “Let me tell you about the construction of a table.” It’s about you.

    The challenge for someone at age 17 or 18 is, “Uh oh, what will I talk about?” Students think, “My life isn’t interesting enough.” But no, there probably is something to say. There probably may be too many things to choose from.

    If the application tells you: Describe an experience or event in life that happened to you, do not:

    • Equate this essay to a travelogue
    • Equate it to a pathetic story
    • Make it an advertisement for your great achievement
    • Assume a voice or vocabulary that is not natural to you
    • Use two-bit words (as if you were using a thesaurus — see the point above)
    • Assume that this needs to win the Pulitzer Prize
    • Assume that some topic won’t be appropriate

    Let’s look at that last one:

    I don’t think it’s right to avoid topics, but I want to give caution: Any topic can be a topic. It’s all a matter of how you handle it. That particularly becomes central. If you have got something sad in your life – the loss of parent, a trauma, divorce – then how you control the topic and whether you show mature reflection on the topic will be critical. But don’t write something just to stand out.

    For more help, check out Carleton’s tips for writing essays.

    About the blogger
    Alex Friedrich

    Alex Friedrich reports on higher education issues for MPR News. Among the stories he has covered: the fall of the Berlin Wall, aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, 2003 Moscow suicide bombing and 2004 presidential elections in the Republic of Georgia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s in European political economy from the London School of Economics.

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