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The Box and Writing the Supplemental Essays for Rice: A Superb Guide

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Rice University, located in Houston, Texas has an acceptance rate of 14% and is a private research university that regularly contributes to advancements in technology and science.

These contributions include work with artificial hearts and nanotechnology.

Rice faculty and alumni have been awarded Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, Academy Awards, National Medals of Science, and more.

The university’s website describes itself as “a community of curious thinkers, passionate dreamers and energetic doers who believe that improving the world demands more than bold thought and brave action. It takes unconventional wisdom.” Oh, and it’s also ranked number one for the happiest students!

It might sound like the odds aren’t in your favor, but there’s plenty you can do to increase your chances of acceptance, including writing some standout essays.

Not sure how to write essays that can set you apart from the crowd?

We’re here to help! In this article, we’ll provide information and tips to help you write your way to an acceptance letter from Rice University.

What Are the Rice University Essays?

Rice accepts both the Common Application and the Coalition Application, with no preference between the two. No matter which application you choose, you’ll also need to complete the Rice Writing Supplement.

The supplement consists of three short responses and one longer essay (or two shorter essays for applicants to the School of Architecture).

The short response questions are:

  • Please elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)
  • There is a breadth of intellectual opportunities here at Rice. Further explain your intended major and other areas of academic focus you may explore. (150 word limit)
  • What aspects of the Rice undergraduate experience excite you and led you to apply? (150 word limit)

The longer essay question asks:

Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What personal perspectives would you contribute to life at Rice? (500 word limit)

If you’re applying to the School of Architecture, you won’t answer the question above. Instead, you’ll answer the following two short answer questions:

  • What aspirations, experiences, or relationships have motivated you to pursue the study of architecture? (250 word limit)
  • Outside of academics, what do you enjoy most or find especially challenging? (250 word limit)

Rice also asks you to “submit an image of something that appeals to you,” a long-standing tradition known as “the Box.”

General Tips for the Rice Supplemental  Essays

Rice University website explains, “We want a diverse, exciting student body, consisting of the best and brightest from across the country and around the globe. If you are excited by the opportunities and experiences we offer, we encourage you to apply to Rice.”

In reviewing applications, the university considers “the entirety of an applicant’s academic prowess, creativity, motivation, artistic talent, leadership potential and life experiences.”

Your GPA, SAT scores, and extracurricular experiences won’t necessarily convey the qualities mentioned here.

Your essays are your opportunity to demonstrate that you’re the type of student Rice is looking for: someone bright, curious, eager, creative, and motivated. Someone who has leadership qualities and wants to take advantage of the many opportunities available at Rice.

In order to effectively captivate your audience (Rice admissions officers), we recommend that each essay is:

  • Specific – One way to set yourself apart from other students is to avoid generic, clichéd responses. Give specific details and examples to illustrate your points. This approach will bring your personality and views to life.
  • Enthusiastic – Use an enthusiastic tone to show that you’re excited about the possibility of becoming a Rice student. Whether you’re discussing your choice of major or your interest in Rice, admissions officers should almost “hear” your enthusiasm.
  • Polished – Although this isn’t exactly a writing test, your essays should still be polished. Essays that are free of grammar and spelling errors will make a better impression and indicate that you’re serious about the admission process. Have trusted friends, family members, or teachers review your essays, and spend time revising and editing.
  • You” – Perhaps most importantly, your essays should be “you.” The point of the essays is to help admissions officers get to know who you are. Write in your own unique voice, and reveal information and experiences that you find meaningful and important.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of the questions in the Rice Writing Supplement.

Extracurricular Activity Short Essay

All applicants to Rice University must respond to three short answer questions, two with a limit of 150 words and a third allowing up to 250 words.

Short Answer Question #1: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)

To write a strong response to this fairly standard question, it’s key to focus on the extracurricular activity or work experience that you find most significant and meaningful.

Don’t select an experience solely because you think it’ll sound most impressive to admissions officers.

You only have 150 words, so try to come up with one particular anecdote that explains how and why this activity or experience has impacted your life or personal growth. Use specific details to engage admissions officers in your experience, and reflect on how the experience changed you or influenced your life.

  • Perhaps you were a volunteer for a local campaign and now want to volunteer for similar campaigns at Rice.
  • Did you raise money for students in need overseas? If you learned something about their experiences and struggles, how has that influenced you?
  • When you took on a leadership position for an activity or club, how did your personality change thereafter? How has this personality change manifested itself in your interactions with the outside world?

If possible, include a sentence about how you’ll continue exploring this interest at Rice University, or how you’ll implement the lessons learned through this experience as a student at Rice.

When writing this response, always focus on action. What did you do during this activity?

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“Why This Major” at Rice

Short Answer Question #2: There is a breadth of intellectual opportunities here at Rice. Further explain your intended major and other areas of academic focus you may explore. (150 word limit)

In your application to Rice, you’re required to indicate an interest in one of the university’s six academic schools: architecture, engineering, humanities, music, natural sciences, or social sciences.

Although this decision isn’t binding—you can change schools after being accepted to Rice—the university does specify that they’re expecting a thoughtful answer to this question.

Each academic school is looking for different “strengths and qualities” in applicants, so Rice recommends choosing the school “in which you feel the most confident of your abilities and interests.”

  • Keeping this in mind, focus on how your abilities and interests make you a good fit for the school you’ve selected.
  • You may wish to describe a brief anecdote that illustrates your passion or talent for the area of study you’ve chosen.
  • The anecdote should comprise action items that address how you took the initiative to explore this intended major.

You should also do some research on your school of choice.

  • Find classes, research opportunities, or even professors that spark your interest.
  • How will an education from this particular school help you reach your future goals?
  • Mention these details in your application, being as specific as possible.

For example:

  • If you’ve visited the campus before, did you sit in on a lecture that excited you?
  • Did you hear intriguing information from students enrolled in your school of interest?

Including details like these in your essay can show that you’re genuinely interested in Rice and would be a good fit for the school.

Just remember, you don’t have much room to work with, so if you’re going to discuss another interest alongside your intended major, keep it short and related to the rest of the essay.

Don’t swerve into something random because you think it’ll catch the attention of the admissions officer – not only will it fail to do that, but you’ll ruin the narrative of this essay.

  • Last, if you don’t know what you want to do after college, pick a major that relates closely to your passions and initiatives.

Pick something that can be buttressed with supporting details from your life – projects, volunteer opportunities, research assignments.

“Why Rice University” Essay

Short Answer Question #3: What aspects of the Rice undergraduate experience excite you and led you to apply? (150 word limit)

This is the classic “Why This College” essay, only much shorter. This college application essay question aims to determine whether you truly have a profound interest in attending Rice University.

Again, research is key.

  • Try to strike a balance between discussing academic opportunities and more “sociocultural” elements of the university.
  • Mention clubs or student organizations that you’d like to participate in, or something that captivated you on a campus visit.

Additional helpful tips for this essay include:

  • If you can, reach out to current Rice students and ask them about the atmosphere and culture of the university.
  • Avoid generic answers about the “student-faculty ratio,” the “renowned faculty,” or the school’s “prestige,” along with information you’ve clearly lifted from the front page of the university’s website. Dig deeper.
  • Never mention: Campus location, sports, and social life

You’ll also want to avoid repeating the information mentioned in your response to Short Answer Question #2.

Finally, don’t forget that this question has two parts: You also need to talk about how you first learned about Rice University.

Since you only have 150 words, it’s best if you can tie this piece of information to the rest of your essay.

  • How did your first impression of Rice motivate you to apply?
  • And after this initial motivation, what more did you learn about Rice that helped your interest grow?
  • Convey enthusiasm and a deeper knowledge of Rice than the average applicant might possess.

All in all, your essay should be structured something like this:

  1. Quickly mention or explain what you love about the Rice undergraduate experience.
  2. Demonstrate your connection to it.

Contributing to Rice Essay

Unless you’re applying to the School of Architecture, you’ll have 500 words to answer the following question:

Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What personal perspectives would you contribute to life at Rice? (500 word limit)

You may want to start by brainstorming a list of life experiences and/or cultural traditions that have shaped your personality and identity.

  • This can be challenging, so feel free to ask friends and family members for their strongest memory of you.
  • You can also ask how they would describe you, then try to come up with experiences you’ve had that demonstrate these key qualities.

Whatever experience you choose to discuss, follow two major guidelines:

  1. Don’t talk about something you’ve already described in your Common App essay. These essays should complement one another, each revealing a different piece of the puzzle that makes you “you.”
  2. Show, don’t tell. As we’ve recommended for other essay questions, choose an anecdote that “shows” your answer to the question instead of simply “telling” it. Use vivid details to make your experience memorable and engaging for the admissions team.

Overall, this is a broad question that can inspire many different approaches. Don’t panic because you think you aren’t “unique” enough.

No other student can offer the same combination of qualities that you have.

Here are some great questions you can ask yourself to find a powerful topic:

  • What is the most significant contribution I’ve made to my high school community, extracurricular activity group, or community outside of school?
  • Name an important lesson or two I’ve learned through my struggles both in and outside of school. How can I teach those lessons to others?
  • What is my greatest talent, and how has it manifested in the real world?
  • Have I collaborated to create something meaningful? What was it, and what can I do to further improve my efforts?

Here’s an example outline of this essay:

  1. I worked as a STEM tutor for underclassmen at my high school at ethnic community center.
  2. During my tenure as a tutor, I relived how challenging it is for younger students to ask the older ones for assistance. It can be intimidating and downright scary.
  3. I learned the values of mentorship and asking vulnerable people if they need help. On Rice’s campus, I’ll volunteer with underclassmen (and even upperclassmen) who are falling behind their class curriculum.
  4. After tutoring, I utilized my coding skills and developed my collaboration skills by creating an Andriod app that connects students to on-campus tutors.
  5. On Rice campus, I want to fully implement this app. I also want to take busines classes and learn how to transform this app into a commercial venture.

Try to come up with a meaningful experience that’s central to who you are as an individual, and you’ll write a powerful essay that stands out!

School of Architecture Essays

Instead of writing the longer essay mentioned above, School of Architecture students must respond to two 250-word essay questions.

Architecture Question #1: What aspirations, experiences, or relationships have motivated you to pursue the study of architecture? (250 word limit)

This question is similar to Short Answer Question #2, so be careful not to repeat information you’ve already shared.

Note that while the short answer question asked why you chose architecture over the other schools, this essay is more about your direct relationship with the field of architecture.

  • Do you have specific goals related to your pursuit of architecture?
  • Is someone in your family an architect who has inspired you?
  • Can you think of a building or landmark, other than extremely famous ones, that ignited your passion for architecture?

Another idea is to think of qualities that are important for architects, such as creativity or attention to detail, and writing about experiences that have helped you develop these characteristics.

  • Did you build a treehouse for your younger siblings?
  • Were you a baseball umpire who used right angles and tools to create foul lines and meticulously enforce the strike zone?
  • Perhaps you built a collection of birdhouses for seasonal birds that frequented your backyard.

Whatever your choice, connect it directly to architecture.

Architecture Question #2: Outside of academics, what do you enjoy most or find especially challenging? (250 word limit)

As always, don’t strive simply to impress here. Be honest. This is a chance to reveal something unexpected and interesting about yourself.

  • One rule of thumb, however, is to try to choose a topic about you actively doing something, instead of simply discussing your favorite TV show.
  • If, however, you can take a unique approach, like relating a character’s journey to your own, then you may be able to write a great essay.

Brainstorm a list of activities and interests that challenge you or ignite your passion. It’s okay to choose an unconventional topic, but explain why you enjoy it so much and how it has shaped or influenced you.

Remember, for most students, what you enjoy or find challenging should be action-related. You should be perorming the action to practice this activity or pursue this interest. Examples include:

  • Building lego spaceships
  • Cleaning the litter at a local river every Sunday
  • Teaching your little sister geograpy, which she seems to hate
  • Taking apart and re-assembling computers

Don’t forget to explain why you love the activity or interest. Does it…

  • …free your mind from daily stresses?
  • …give you a sense of safety?
  • …remind you of your parents?

Since this essay is all about what you enjoy in your free time, make sure your tone conveys real enthusiasm. Talk about something that genuinely excites you.

“The Box”

“The Box” is a photo response with the following instructions:

In keeping with Rice’s long-standing tradition (known as “The Box”), please share an image of something that appeals to you.

You aren’t allowed to write an accompanying explanation, so try to choose an image that can speak for itself or in some way relates to the information in your application or essays.

Due to its unique nature, this prompt often baffles applicants.

  • Keep in mind that there’s no “right” answer to this question, and the image you select is extremely unlikely to make or break your application.

Options include:

  • Places that have been important to you (even something as simple as a favorite park bench)
  • A favored keepsake or meaningful object
  • One of your role models in action
  • Artistic portrayals of your values or important qualities
  • Uncommon or hidden locations
  • Portraits of a family member
  • Old pictures you own
  • Memories that inspire growth

The key to answering “The Box” is to steer clear of overused responses like a sunset or the Eiffel Tower.

Because there are so many options to choose from (after all, there are millions of interesting images out there), you want to choose something specifically appealing to you. To emphasize, don’t pick a cliche.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Once you choose your image, ask yourself how “unique” the image is. You don’t need something from a deep corner of the Internet, but is it a cliché?
  • Can the image be easily explained and, thus, forgotten? You don’t want an image that a large plurality of students will use.
  • What is the essence of the image? Don’t make it too complex or simple – you should be able to explain why you chose it.
  • Use the Google test: If the image, or a similar one, can be found on the first page of Google Images, it might be a cliché.

Don’t overthink it—just be honest! Rice knows that this is an unconventional and challenging prompt.

Conclusion: How to Write the Rice University Essays

In order to apply to Rice, you’ll need to complete three short answer questions, a photo response, and either a 500-word essay or, if you’re applying to the School of Architecture, two 250-word essays.

As you answer these questions, remember to be authentic, enthusiastic, and specific. Do your research when needed, and connect your answers back to your identity, values, and/or interest in Rice.

Following these tips just might help you join the Rice Owls in the fall. Good luck!