As of Fall 2019, all applicants to Washington University in St. Louis will 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 16% 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 300-word essay as part of your WashU supplement. However, you’ll notice that there are two WashU supplement essays to choose from! So which one should you use?
The essay prompt you answer depends on whether you’re applying to WashU’s Beyond Boundaries program, which is a special two-year interdisciplinary program. Beyond Boundaries is considered a “special program,” so it requires you to answer a different WashU supplemental essay prompt.
We know this can be a little confusing, but you don’t need to worry about answering the wrong prompt. Both the Common App and the Coalition App ask you to select whether you’re applying to the Beyond Boundaries program. If you select “yes,” the program will automatically swap out your supplemental prompt for the correct one.
To help you keep things straight, we’re providing two separate breakdowns of each prompt below.
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:
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. It could be an idea, book, project, cultural activity, work of art, start-up, music, movie, research, innovation, question, or other pursuit.
You’re limited to 300 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?
Let’s break this prompt down so you can really understand what it’s asking...and then write a killer essay that covers the topic!
Notice that the word “you” or “your” is used three times in the first sentence. This means that WashU admissions counselors are looking for a response specifically addresses why you have a special connection to your field of study.
The prompt isn’t asking you why your field is important, nor is it asking what's wrong with the world that your field could solve. It’s asking why you feel drawn to choose the field you are choosing in applying to this university. This prompt is designed to help admissions counselors understand whether you, your personality, and your interests are a good fit for what Washington University has to offer.
How Should You Answer This Prompt?
Since this prompt is asking about you, that means every applicant’s response should be different. After all, you’re unique! Having said that, there are a few things you can do to make sure you’re crafting an excellent answer to this essay question.
First, take a minute and brainstorm what sparks your curiosity. Luckily, the prompt gives you some suggestions, like books, movies, or big questions. But the open-endedness of this prompt means that you can probably talk about any concept that inspires you!
The trick is to make sure you’re linking inspiration to both your future studies and your time at Washington University. Here’s what we mean: maybe you’re the biggest Game of Thrones fan ever, and that show inspired you to write music. But if you’re not going to study music or a related subject, this may not be a good topic for you. The prompt specifically asks about what inspires you about your major or field of study, so you’ll need to pick an inspiration that ties into your future goals.
The second thing you should do in answering this prompt is tie your inspiration back to specific classes, professors, programs, extracurriculars, or experiences that are unique to Washington University. WashU admissions counselors want to see that you’ve really done your homework about the school and what it has to offer...so you definitely want to showcase this in your essay to help stand out from the crowd!
What Topics Might Work Well for This Essay?
The types of ideas or topics that would best work for this would be ones that allow you the opportunity to convey how passionate and dedicated you are to your field. This is your chance to show commitment and discipline. You want Washington University admissions counselors to think that if you are admitted you will be the type of student who is willing to work hard and to excel in the field, both during and after your time in the university.
Here’s an example of how you can tie your interests and your studies at WashU together. Sharifa’s favorite painting is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, which originally had one of the woman’s dress straps slipping off her shoulder. When Sharifa learned that the painting was considered so scandalous that Sargent had to repaint the dress strap, she began researching how women have been judged based on their appearance throughout history. This has inspired her to major in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at WashU, so she can eventually serve as the Executive Director of a nonprofit focused on promoting gender equality.
This is a great example of an inspirational moment that allows Sharifa to specifically talk about her coursework at Washington University and how it will help her achieve her future goals. Here, the portrait sparks Sharifa’s intellectual interest in a way that ties into her major and/or course of study...which makes it a great topic for a WashU supplement.
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.
One of the dangers in a topic that asks you to talk about yourself is that you might come across as conceited, pretentious, or a know-it-all. It can be tempting to brag about what you already know to try and impress the admissions counselors. Keep in mind that you’re not an expert in your field yet—if you were you wouldn’t be applying as an incoming freshman!
Washington University admissions counselors don’t expect you to already have a huge knowledge base in your area of study, so this isn’t the place to exaggerate what you know. Instead, showcase your curiosity and willingness to learn. To this end, make sure you have a few of your teachers, advisors, or mentors read your essay before you submit it. They can offer helpful insights into your tone and give you great advice for making your essay even better.
Additionally, make sure that you’re telling a true story. We promise: if you think hard enough, you’ll find an authentic moment of inspiration to write about. Admissions counselors read thousands of application essays every year...which means they’re really good at spotting lies and exaggerations. You’re an interesting person who has a lot to contribute! You don’t need to fib in your essay to let that shine through.
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. You won’t have to answer the general essay prompt as well—this is the only WashU supplemental essay you have to submit!
Here’s the Beyond Boundaries prompt:
Many of our students broadly explore the connections across WashU’s five undergraduate divisions and three graduate schools and engage with the community before declaring a major. The Beyond Boundaries Program equips students to make a difference in a complicated world where challenges do not come pre-packaged as the territory of a single discipline. Tell us what great challenge you might want to tackle leveraging two or more of WashU’s schools and how you would pursue a path of study in an interdisciplinary way.
Just like the general Washington University supplemental essay, the Beyond Boundaries essay is limited to 300 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 is specifically for the standard prompt, but the lessons apply equally to the Beyond Boundaries prompt.
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 revery.
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 Systems 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!
If you’ve done your research into Washington University in St. Louis, then you’ve probably realized that tuition isn’t cheap. Don’t worry: we have a guide that can help you figure out how to afford to go to WashU.
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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.