All applicants to Washington University in St. Louis have to submit a supplemental essay as part of their application packet. That means that in addition to the essays you write as part of your Common Application or the Coalition Application (WashU accepts either one), you'll have to submit a third essay that you write specifically for Washington University in St. Louis.
Because WashU's acceptance rate is highly competitive—only 13% of students are accepted every year!—you'll need to write a stellar WashU supplement to give yourself the best shot at getting in. But what does a good WashU supplemental essay look like?
This article is going to explain everything you need to know about the Washington University supplemental essay, including:
- Explaining what the WashU supplemental essay is and how to choose the correct essay prompt
- Separate walkthroughs of both the general supplemental essay prompt and the Beyond Boundaries supplemental essay prompt
- Tips and tricks for writing an excellent Washington University supplemental essay
So without further ado, let's dive in!
What Are the Washington University Supplemental Essays?
You only have to submit one 200-word essay as part of your WashU supplement. The exception is if you're applying to WashU's Beyond Boundaries program, which is a special two-year interdisciplinary program. Beyond Boundaries has an additional WashU supplemental essay prompt all program applicants must complete.
The WashU general supplemental essay is what most students will write and submit as part of their application packet.
Washington University General Supplemental Essay
Here's the general WashU supplemental essay prompt that every applicant must answer:
Undecided about your academic interest(s)? Don’t worry—tell us what excites you about the academic division you selected. Remember that all of our first-year students enter officially “undeclared” and work closely with their team of academic advisors to discover their academic passions. You can explore all of our majors and programs on our website.
You're limited to 200 words in your response, which isn't very long! That's why it's important for you to really understand the prompt before you start working on your essay.
What's This Prompt Asking, Exactly?
This is a classic "Why Us" essay prompt. Many schools ask some variation of it, and what they're all trying to learn is, why are you applying to this school specifically? What about it makes you think it'll be a good fit for you?
"Why Us?" essays may look as if they're asking a simple question—why do you want to attend this school—but there's more to it than that. These essays are also often asking one of two questions: "why us?" or "why you?"
In essence, these essays want you to describe why they're the right school for you. Paying attention to how the question is framed will give you a better sense of what kind of answer they're looking for, which will help you shape your essay.
How Should You Answer This Prompt?
To craft a good response to this essay, you need to understand the prompt. It's not about listing a school's qualifications or discussing how beautiful the campus is—a good essay will explain not just why the school is good, but why the school is good for you.
This essay is a common one at many schools. Colleges want to know what brings you to them specifically, including what interests you and how you'll contribute to the student body. Though the question of "why" may feel simple, it's a lot more complex than it appears at first glance.
First of all, the college admissions office wants to know what sets their school apart from others. In WashU's case, that could be their balance between research and teaching, a particular major they offer, a positive experience you had while touring the campus...
Use the question of "why" as a starting point. Don't stop at, "because I like that I can study engineering and English." Develop that idea further—What does that mean to you? Why does it matter?
The "Why This College?" essay also invites students to think about how they'll fit into the academic environment. Schools want to know that you're a good fit—it's to their benefit to recruit students who are passionate and committed to getting the most out of their college education.
But it's not just about whether you'll fit in—it's also important that WashU is a good fit for you. That doesn't mean having your major or whatever clubs you might want to join, but also that your goals align with theirs. Having a clear idea about your goals as well as theirs will help you excel, and WashU will appreciate the clarity.
As you're thinking about your WashU essay, you might learn things about the school that may not be a good fit, and it's better to learn that now than six months after you've moved onto campus. Though one or two missed checkboxes in your dream school criteria isn't necessarily a reason to pull your application, having realistic expectations for your college experience will set you up for a more positive time at the school of your choice.
What Topics Might Work Well for This Essay?
There are a lot of directions you can choose for this prompt. Here are some potential ideas you could write about:
- Majors, minors, certificates, and/or classes WashU offers that you're especially interested in.
- WashU professors whose work you admire and with whom you'd like to study or conduct research.
- Clubs or sports teams that you'd be interesting in joining.
- Research opportunities you'd like to have (the more specific you can be, the better).
- Internship opportunities WashU offers.
- WashU students or alumni you've met who you admire.
- Financial aid opportunities WashU offers that make it possible for you to attend.
In your response, you should choose about one or two reasons why you think WashU is the best school for you. For each reason, you should describe what WashU offers and connect it back to your interest and skills to show how you're a good match for the school.
What Should You Avoid Talking About?
We've talked about how to write a killer Washington University supplemental essay, but there are some things you should definitely avoid doing.
First, avoid anything superficial, like how pretty WashU's campus is, or that you really like their sports teams. These aren't particularly meaningful reasons to attend a school, and since they don't relate to academics, it may cause Washington University admissions counselors to wonder how committed to your classes you'll be.
Additionally, avoid very general topics that could apply to any school. For example, saying you like WashU's majors, research programs, or internship opportunities isn't enough. All schools have those. What is it specifically about WashU's that make them stand out and make you feel confident they're the right school for you.
If you're applying to the Beyond Boundaries program, you'll write and submit a different supplemental essay. But don't worry: we have your "passport" to essay success! (We love a dad joke.)
Washington University Beyond Boundaries Supplemental Essay
The Beyond Boundaries essay prompt is only for students who are applying to the two-year Beyond Boundaries program.
Here's the Beyond Boundaries prompt:
Tell us what great challenge you might want to understand and tackle leveraging two or more of WashU's schools and how you would pursue an interdisciplinary path of study that explores that challenge or an aspect of that challenge in a unique and innovative way.
Just like the general Washington University supplemental essay, the Beyond Boundaries essay is limited to 200 words. Let's take a look at how you can go about answering this prompt.
What's This Prompt Asking, Exactly?
This one is definitely a different prompt from the general supplemental essay. Unlike the general essay, which is asking you to talk about your own passions, in this essay WashU admissions wants you to discuss a big, real-world challenge that you want to solve as part of your academic study at WashU.
More importantly, you'll need to explain how to combine two approaches from two different schools in order to solve that challenge. Put another way, this prompt is asking you to demonstrate your ability to come up with innovative solutions for tough problems.
Once you do that, you'll have to explain how "you would pursue a path of study in an interdisciplinary way." In other words, you'll need to explain what classes you would take (and why!) in order to gain the knowledge and skills you'd need to tackle the problem you've chosen.
Because Beyond Boundaries is an interdisciplinary program, admissions counselors want to make sure that students admitted to this program are prepared to embrace different perspectives. Interdisciplinary programs like Beyond Boundaries one value innovative approaches to problem-solving, and admissions counselors want to see that you're outside-the-box thinker that can draw from multiple disciplines in order to come up with new solutions.
How Should You Answer This Prompt?
Writing a good answer to this prompt, one that will impress Washington University admissions, is going to take some research. First, you need to figure out a big problem that a diverse team of thinkers can solve. Then you need to learn more about Washington University's five undergraduate divisions so that you can talk about them specifically in your essay.
This might seem like a daunting task, and it kind of is: Beyond Boundaries is very selective, so admissions counselors want to make sure that admitted students are a good fit for the interdisciplinary nature of the program. But the good news is that the admissions committee isn't expecting you to come up with the perfect solution to a gnarly problem. Instead, they want to see that you're capable of bringing together people from different fields to tackle problems that are facing both your community and the world.
There are three things a great Beyond Boundaries supplemental essay will have to address. First, you'll have to pick a problem that you're passionate about solving as part of your academic studies or future career. Next, you'll need to talk about which schools/disciplines you think can work together to solve this problem. Finally, you'll need to talk about what classes you would take in order to prepare yourself to solve this problem in the future.
What Topics Might Work Well for This Essay?
The trickiest part of this essay will be choosing a topic that lets you create a compelling course of study.
First, think about your future career goals. What do you want to do when you get out of college? That provides a good jumping off point for picking a problem to discuss in your essay. Then you'll have to make sure that you can bring together at least two of Washington University's four academic divisions in your response.
Let's take a look at how an applicant might go about choosing a topic for the Beyond Boundaries supplemental essay. For instance, Lola wants to go to medical school in order to become an orthopedic surgeon. She's applying to the Beyond Boundaries program, so she starts researching some of the challenges current orthopedic surgeons are facing. She learns that one of the issues facing her field is that they are seeing more and more catastrophic sports-related injuries in kids and young adults, and she decides to write about that in her WashU supplemental essay.
This is a great challenge to focus on in a Beyond Boundaries essay because it a) is impacting Lola's future field, and b) will allow her to talk about specific schools and classes in her response. For example, Lola can write about how her interdisciplinary course of study will include plenty of biology classes from the College of Arts & Sciences to teach her about medicine.
But to really solve this problem, she'll need to learn about the business side of sports to understand the economic system that's pushing people to enroll their children in pro-style training academies at younger and younger ages. That means taking classes in the Business of Sports program in the Olin School of Business, too!
Remember: the goal here is to demonstrate your creative, interdisciplinary problem-solving abilities by suggesting a course of study that can help you solve a big problem. Spending some time picking a topic and brainstorming your response will be an important factor in writing a great Beyond Boundaries supplemental essay.
What Should You Avoid Talking About?
So what are the pitfalls with the Beyond Boundaries essay?
The biggest issue to avoid is not fully answering the prompt. Like we mentioned earlier, this essay prompt is complex: you need to identify a problem, figure out how to bring different WashU academic areas together to solve it, then propose a course of study that can prepare you to solve the problem in the future. It's easy to miss one of these response areas, so you'll need to spend lots of time researching and planning your response before you actually begin writing it.
Additionally, you want to make sure you're being both thoughtful and specific as you put together your course of study. Take a look at Lola's example again. Not only does she come up with an innovative way to figure out how to address a pretty big problem in her field, she has enough information that she can call out specific schools and programs by name in her response.
Remember: WashU admissions counselors want to see that you've done your research into the university and its offerings!
Expert Analysis of a Real-Life WashU Supplemental Essay
Now, let's look at a real-life example WashU supplemental essay and break down how it works. This essay was written in response to an older prompt ("Tell us about something that really sparks your intellectual interest and curiosity and compels you to explore more in the program/area of study that you indicated"), but the lessons apply equally to the current prompts.
Here's the sample essay:
I unlock the door and turn the knob. The fifty-year-old door opens with a groan. A narrow, dark hallway leads me to a stairway, and after climbing the stairs to a small landing above the hayloft, I find myself in a shaft of sunlight where dust motes dance in the darkness. I feel the sun on my face and feel that I have entered a space that is sacred.
This is my earliest memory of feeling connected to architecture. From that one in the loft of my grandfather's barn when I was six years old until the present day, I've tried to find an explanation for how my interaction with a physical space was able to create such a feeling of transcendence.
In his essay, "Building Dwelling Being," Martin Heidegger discusses the idea of dwelling, of "staying in a place." In English we use the word dwelling not only to signify a building or a structure in which one lives, but also to "dwell upon," meaning to pay close attention to. In this moment I was both dwelling upon and dwelling in my grandfather's hayloft. Although perhaps I couldn't express it so eloquently at the time, the notion came to me then that a space can be both physical and philosophical. I believe that Sam Fox School's College of Architecture will give me the training to achieve my greatest goal: to someday create physical spaces that allow the same potential for reverie.
We think this is a pretty good example of an essay response to the WashU general supplemental essay prompt. But it's not perfect!
Let's talk a little more about what this essay does well, and where it can improve.
What This Essay Does Well
This essay really embraces the idea that the best way to showcase your personality is with a story. The writer helps bring the reader into her essay by painting a picture in her first paragraph. The description of walking through a staircase and seeing dust in the air hooks the audience—you want to keep reading to see where the author goes next!
Additionally, this writer shows that she's been passionate about her field of study (architecture) from a young age. The things she notices in her memory have to do with the building and its space...which are definitely things architects have to pay attention to!
Finally, the student's reference to "Building, Dwelling, Being" shows that she's so enthusiastic about studying architecture that she's already begun digging into the field on her own. More importantly, she has connected the lessons she's learned with her own experience. The writer's knowledge and passion will help her essay stand out to Washington University in St. Louis admissions counselors!
Where There's Room for Improvement
While this essay is extremely well-written, it takes a while for the author to get to her point, which is that she's inspired to study architecture at WashU. In fact, she doesn't mention the Sam Fox School's College of Architecture until the last line! To make this essay better, the author should start referencing the school and program of study in the second paragraph. That way, the writer focuses her essay specifically on WashU's architecture program rather than architecture in general.
Additionally, the writer forgets to discuss specific professors, classes, and programs that she's interested in taking advantage of as a WashU student. Admissions counselors want to see that you've done your homework into what their university has to offer. This essay could be even better if the writer mentioned specific electives like Architectural History & Theory or Environmental Studies that would allow her to explore her fascination with how architecture brings together philosophy and physical space. The goal is to be as specific as possible to show that you've thought a lot about how Washington University can help you pursue your passions, interests, and career goals.
3 Tips for Writing Great WashU Essays
Now that we've looked at an example essay and have examined how the author approached writing it, let's apply these lessons in three tips that will make your Washington University supplemental essay shine!
Tip 1: Set the Scene
Good writing is about bringing moments to life for your reader. Instead of being vague and abstract, use your five senses to place your reader within a scene. Pay attention to how authors of prose fiction create a sense of placing the reader inside someone else's perspective. This will make your essay vivid and memorable, and that the very best supplemental essays will give their readers a sense of a narrative moment. This is also your chance to show that you are willing and able to foster the discipline to put in the hard work of creating a well-written supplement.
Tip 2: Look at the Bigger Picture
Next, show your readers why this beautiful piece of prose you've created matters. Try to connect your own experiences to larger concerns and contemporary issues. Show that you aren't just interested in your own benefit, but also how your dedication can benefit society. Keep in mind that there are two parties involved in any application or admissions process, and show that your admission to WashU could as much benefit WashU as it could benefit you!
Tip 3: Make Them Feel Wanted
One of the worst things you could do would be to write an essay so vague that you could use it for almost any school's admissions essay. You want your essay to speak to how WashU is specifically the best fit for you. Reference specific classes, professors, and experiences that only WashU can provide. You want admissions counselors to realize that WashU is the only school for you!
If you're worried about how to write a great application essay, that's okay. It can be pretty intimidating! We have tons of expert writing sources that can help you out. First, check out this step-by-step guide to writing college admissions essays. Once you're done there, you can read through more real-world examples of college essays and get expert analysis on what they do well and how they can improve. Finally, let us help you overcome your fear of the dreaded first sentence!
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.