Carleton Application 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.


    Carlton College Application Essay Prompts


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


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


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


    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?


    The first prompt asks when you first learned about Carleton. While this may on the surface seem only to require a brief, factual response, the word limit (150 words) tells us that the school is actually seeking a more developed response to this question.


    In responding to this prompt, it’s important that the response you give is differentiated from that of the second prompt. While the first prompt deals with your initial exposure to Carleton College, the second specifically asks about why you are applying. Thus, while you should discuss your interest in Carleton in some capacity in your first response, you want to avoid too much overlap with your essay for prompt 2.


    A good way to start this essay might be with an anecdote about the exact moment you learned about Carleton. Note that the phrase “learn of” can be interpreted with some flexibility; while you can obviously speak about the first time you ever heard of the school, you can also discuss the moment you realized it was the perfect place for you after months of your parents pushing you to apply.


    However, note that this prompt also serves to inform admissions committees which of their outreach methods are most effective. You should make at least some mention of the method through which you initially heard of the school, be it through an email, college fair, word of mouth, etc.


    You should also notice that this question asks when you first learned about Carleton.


    If your discovery of Carleton was spurred on by a newfound interest in liberal arts colleges your junior year, or your conviction since your sophomore year that you wanted to leave your home on the west coast and explore new parts of the country, you can tie in your developing interests at that period in your life with your discovery of Carleton. This offers admissions committees insight into the process by which you decided to apply, and for how long you’ve been interested in a Carleton education.


    For example, a student with two older siblings in college might have gained an understanding of the cons of the quarter and semester systems from an early age. Knowing from the beginning of their college search that they wanted an alternative to these two options, they could have discovered Carleton with its trimester system early in their junior year and had their heart set on attending ever since.


    Their essay could provide both a factual account of when and how the student first learned of Carleton College, while also communicating the student’s lasting interest in the school and desire for a unique educational experience.


    While describing your lifelong desire to attend Carleton could make for a great essay, you shouldn’t write about that if that hasn’t been your experience. Even a story of discovering the college a week before the application deadline can make for a compelling essay, so long as you communicate what exactly about it stood out to you.



    The second question is fairly straightforward: Essentially, explain why you want to be a student at Carleton College. Although the prompt is clearly understood, the challenge here is fitting a compelling narrative in a mere 250 words.


    A key to answering these “Why us?” questions is to focus on specifics of the school. If you are really interested in studying the Classics, do some research on the the college’s website on their Classics department and mention specific professors and courses that appeal to you.


    Given the short nature of the prompt, we at CV would suggest focusing more on your interest in Carleton and the opportunities it offers than your personal experiences in your response. How you came to be interested in a certain subject can be a good place to start off this prompt, but it is important to show a demonstrated interest in the school and persuasively show why you are a good fit.


    An example of a bad way to approach this prompt would be to provide too much autobiographical information in your response and fail to make your response tailored to Carleton. For instance, if you want to talk about your interest in biology, don’t spend the majority of the prompt telling the story of that one time you went on a camping trip and became fascinated with other organisms and only mention the school in the last two sentences.


    A key challenge in this prompt is incorporating just enough autobiographical details to give the adcom context for your interest, while still conveying a focus on the school.


    Think strategically about how this prompt  fits in a broader narrative about yourself that you have set up in other parts of your application. If your Common Application essay was all about your interest and fascination with biology, this could present a good opportunity to contextualize those interests to this specific school.


    The second question — “Carleton is powered by wind turbines. What empowers you?” — is essentially an inquiry into your personality and the forces that drive you to seek out a quality education.


    The preface to this question invites the possibility of creative responses. If you’re someone whose personality would best match with a creative response, then go for it! The key to a creative response to this is that no matter what you say “empowers you,” you write a thoughtful meditation on why that is the case. In choosing the creative route, it’s okay to have a topic that’s cheeky or witty so long as the explanation reflects thoughtfulness, personality, and authenticity.


    This prompt is also an opportunity to share a powerful story or experience that drives you. If you are especially  passionate about a particular profession or interest, this can be a chance to delve further into why you are driven by that. If you have an inspiring story about a time where you faced a strong adversity, you can choose to share that here.


    The key to this prompt is to tell give a response — creative, inspiring, or otherwise — that ultimately highlights an attractive quality about yourself. If you give a creative response, your goal can be to demonstrate that you are capable of the kind of critical thinking that a liberal arts college will require. If you give a more personal, emotional response, you can aim to demonstrate qualities such as determination, compassion, or strong ethics that will resonate well with a reader.


    The next series of questions ask you for a word or two in reaction to a series of words they present to you. These questions are just for fun and are intended to provide a glimpse of your personality and what you’re like as a person.


    There’s no one way to answer these questions, and the best way to approach them is to answer them honestly. If you’re the kind of student that Carleton wants — intellectually curious, fun, personable — that should come across fairly easily in your responses. Again, you don’t have a lot of words to answer these questions, so the focus on brevity and concise statements is once against important. These are fun questions, so try to have fun responses!


    Students at Carlton College have an exciting opportunity to enjoy all the benefits that a small liberal arts college has to offer. These prompts actually require you to share quite a bit about yourself in a short amount of space — they want to know why you want to go there, more about your life, and a bit about what you’re like. These are key challenges that they expect future liberal arts students to be able to tackle well.


    Here at CollegeVine, we are well equipped and experienced to help you craft quality essays that will help you secure the liberal arts education of your dreams.


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