The College of William and Mary in Virginia is the second oldest university in the country, and it’s consistently ranked in the top colleges in the nation. Their acceptance rate reflects that: every year, only 36% of students who apply are admitted.
That means that if you’re interested in applying to William and Mary, you’ll want your application to shine. Simply having good grades and test scores isn’t enough on its own—in fact, 75% of accepted William and Mary students were in the top 10% of their high school class.
This is where the optional William and Mary essay comes in. This is your chance to make your application stand out! So what is this optional essay, and how optional is it? This article will tell you everything you need to know about the William and Mary supplement essay, including:
- Explaining the William and Mary supplemental essay prompt
- Walking you through how to answer the prompt
- Going over what admissions counselors are looking for in an excellent supplemental essay
We have a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
What Is the William and Mary Supplemental Essay?
The William and Mary supplemental essay is an optional essay that you can choose to submit as part of your overall admissions packet. The goal of the essay is to help admissions counselors get to know you a little better...and to showcase your writing skills one last time. Since this essay is optional, you don’t have to write it in order to submit your application. (We’ll talk about whether you should write it a little later, though!)
So where can you find the optional essay? Within the online application itself, there is a separate drop down box labelled “Optional W&M Essay.” If you expand this box, you’ll see the prompt. If you choose to submit the supplemental essay, you’ll have to turn it in as part of your overall application packet. In other words, you can’t go back later and submit the supplemental essay—once you turn in your application,
The text box itself allows for 650 characters, but you’ll notice the prompt states that they’re looking for 500 words or less. They’re allowing you a little leeway so you won’t get cut off in the middle of a sentence, but you should follow the instructions and try to limit yourself to under 500 words.
6 Steps to Writing the Perfect William and Mary Supplemental Essay
Now that you’ve been introduced to the William and Mary essay, it’s time to talk about how to write one that makes admissions counselors sit up and take notice.
Here are six simple steps that will help you develop your essay into the exact thing the admission committee might be looking for.
Step 1: Read the Prompt
To help you get a handle on what the prompt is asking for, let’s take a closer look at it:
“Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments, what else makes you unique and colorful? We know nobody fits neatly into 500 words or less, but you can provide us with some suggestion of the type of person you are. Anything goes! Inspire us, impress us, or just make us laugh. Think of this optional opportunity as show and tell by proxy and with an attitude.”
At its core, this prompt is all about you. Admissions counselors want to learn about what makes you unique and different from everyone else around you. In other words, admissions counselors are going to use this essay to get to know you better!
More importantly, this prompt specifically asks you to “show and tell,” which is a sneaky way of saying that admissions counselors want you to tell them a story. Instead of providing a laundry list of your best qualities, pick one thing that makes you unique and then write a story around it. We recommend that you choose a specific event from your life that showcases your unique personality, then use that as a springboard for the rest of your essay.
Keep in mind that you’re still writing an essay for a college application—just because the prompt asks you to inspire, impress, or amuse the admissions committee doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the assignment seriously. More importantly, your job is to show admissions counselors that you’re a great fit for William and Mary.
Step 2: Choose Your Unique Attribute
You’ve probably realized that 500 words is not a lot of room to write an essay. It turns out that 500 words is about one typed, single-spaced page of text. So even though there are hundreds of things about you that make you unique, if you tried to write about them all, you’d run out of room!
In order to write a great essay, you’ll have to choose one or two attributes that make you unique. That way, you’ll be able to tell a story that captures your readers’ attention while still showcasing the special person that you are!
But how do you pick the unique quality you want to write about? We recommend that you start your writing process by brainstorming about twenty or thirty things that make you unique. Once you have that list, choose the one that you feel is both A) individual enough that you wouldn’t expect someone else to choose it, and B) important enough to you that you could easily convey a lot of passion about it.
If you’re having trouble picking a quality to write about, try talking to your parents, teachers, and best friends. Show them your list and ask them which traits stand out. They may even suggest some attributes of their own! Sometimes an outside perspective can help you narrow down your choices.
Keeping your focus narrow helps you write a more compelling essay.
Step 3: Narrow Your Focus and Choose a Story
Once you’ve chosen your most unique qualities, you’ll need to figure out how to talk about them. Like we said earlier, we recommend that you use a story to help readers understand you better. A good story is specific and allows you to include unique and interesting details. If your story is too long or too broad, you’ll need to summarize the events or aspects, which will make them unexciting and bland.
Here’s what we mean: let’s say Bryan has decided that his most unique attribute is that he’s the first male soprano in his school’s history. He decides he wants to tell the story of how he tried out for choir and discovered he could sing high notes. If Bryan tried to tell the story from the first moment he learned he could sing soprano, then he’d need thousands of words to write his essay! By narrowing his focus down to the actual audition, he can share more details...which will help the admissions committee get to know him even better.
Once you’ve narrowed your focus to one specific moment, it’s time to craft your story. Good stories help readers feel like they’re watching a movie. As you write, include sensory details, including sounds, sights, smells, etc. so that your essay is as vivid to the reader as the memory is to you!
Step 4: Remember Your Audience
Even though the William and Mary supplement essay is an informal prompt meant mostly to help the admission committee determine what type of person you are, keep in mind that it is still a college application. That means there are certain values about yourself that you want to emphasize. You want the people reading this essay to think of you as an intellectually curious, genuine, and thoughtful potential student.
While you may have an entertaining story that involves illicit or illegal behavior, this isn’t the place to share it. Additionally, make sure you’re not using off-color, racially charged, or potentially offensive language. At the end of the day, you want to show admissions counselors that you’re a good fit for William and Mary’s values!
Also, remember that your audience is reading over 14,000 of these essays between January and March every year, and many of them have been doing it for several years. Don’t lie in your William and Mary application essay! We guarantee that admissions counselors will be able to tell. Trust us: with a little effort, you’ll be able to tell a story that is both truthful and compelling.
You're unique! Letting that shine through in your essay is a good way to catch the admission committee's attention.
Step 5: Explain Why You’re a Good Fit for William and Mary
While this definitely isn’t a “why this school” essay, you still want to tie your William and Mary application essay into the rest of your application.
To do this, use the last two sentences of your essay to explain how your unique qualities will help you fit into the William and Mary campus. Even better, you can tell admissions counselors how you plan to use your unique personality to help support William and Mary’s mission!
Take Bryan’s topic that we talked about before. He knows what it’s like to feel different, and he’s learned how to be comfortable in his own skin. That means he can’t wait to join William and Mary’s choir, where he hopes to both share his talent and support others as they share theirs, too. Ending the essay like this shows admissions counselors that Bryan is ready to become a central part of William and Mary’s vibrant campus community.
Step 6: Revise, Revise, and Revise
After you’ve chosen your topic and have written your essay, you need to reread it. If you have enough time, wait a few days before starting the revision process so that you can bring a fresh perspective to your essay. You’ll likely find that there are places where you can add more detail, clarity, or explanation
Once you’ve finished your revisions, choose one or two people whose opinions you trust to read the essay and offer their criticism. Don’t choose someone who loves everything you do and already thinks you’re brilliant—that’s not going to help you make your essay better. Choose someone who you think will offer you honest feedback on how you might improve your essay. If you have a good relationship with your English teacher or high school counselor, you should definitely ask them to read your essay and offer feedback!
If this sounds like a lot of work...well, it is. Creating a great essay takes time and effort. That means you’ll need to plan ahead. We recommend starting your essay more than a month in advance so you have plenty of time to write and revise.
What Are William and Mary Looking for When They Read These Essays?
What do William and Mary essays that worked include? Usually, you just have to guess at what the admissions committee wants. Not this time! Brad Harlan, the Assistant Dean of Admission at William and Mary, wrote a helpful blog post about what William and Mary’s admissions counselors look for in a good optional essay. Harlan explains:
“How does this individual articulate themselves? What is this individual genuinely passionate about? What motivates this individual. These, and countless other questions, can be answered by your essays. They provide us with meaningful insight into your personality, and give you a chance to “speak” directly to the admission committee. We see essays that cover a wide array of topics and which employ many different tones and styles. Some are funny, some are serious, some are quirky, and all of them provide for engaging and enjoyable reads as we review our many impressive applicants…
“No matter what approach you take, just be sure that your essay covers something that excites you, and that it adds a new dimension to your application. If you write genuinely, enthusiastically and carefully, no matter what the subject, then I can pretty much guarantee that we will very much enjoy reading your work.”
Note that the word “genuine” is used twice in two paragraphs. That tells you that admissions counselors are looking for you to express yourself honestly and sincerely. They’re not looking for a formal answer that you think they want to hear; instead, admissions counselors want to read an essay that lets them see why you would be a good choice to add to their student body.
Another William and Mary Admissions blog post gives more tips for tackling the optional essay. Wendy Livingston, the Senior Assistant Dean of Admission, writes:
There is something about you that isn’t commonplace. Find that thing and write about it. If it’s something big like growing up in a foreign country, write about it. If it’s something small like you always wear socks with stripes for a particular reason, write about it. If it’s something in between like your life-long hobby of collecting McDonalds Happy Meal toys, write about it. The key is to find a topic that few others can write about. There are most definitely fairly generic college essay topics: death of a relative, parents’ divorce, traveling abroad, a service/mission trip, a sports injury, your epic love of Harry Potter books (that one has come on strong in recent years). It’s not that these experiences/interests aren’t salient or important; they are. But they are also fairly commonplace for 17-year olds and the ways in which you write about them will be incredibly similar.
In other words, make sure you’re writing about something that is truly unique!
If you’re one of ten siblings, practice oil painting in your free time, or spend your weekends playing guitar in your family’s 90s cover band...write about it! While it’s certainly not bad to like popular things or share common experiences, those don’t always give readers true insight into your character.
Instead, choose a topic or quality that might take the admissions committee a bit by surprise (in a good way). That will help you show readers how your unique personality makes you a great addition to William and Mary’s student body.
Should You Submit the William and Mary Supplement Essay?
After reading through the steps you’ll need to take to create a killer supplement essay, you’re probably wondering whether you really need to write it. Couldn’t you skip it and save yourself a bunch of time and effort?
If you’re serious about getting into William and Mary, then you absolutely need to write the William and Mary supplement essay. Put yourself in the admission committee’s place. Imagine a scenario in which you have room for one more student and you’re choosing between two candidates. They each have similar GPAs and test scores. However, one of them has a remarkable optional essay and the other didn’t even fill in the box. Which student you choose to admit? Probably the one who went the extra mile!
Here’s a different scenario. Imagine a candidate who has a pretty average GPA and an unexciting SAT score, but that candidate has a breathtaking optional essay that allows the admissions committee to see that the mediocre grades and SAT scores aren’t a fair reflection of the candidate’s potential. If you were in the admissions committee’s place, wouldn’t you be tempted to give the candidate a chance to show what they can do as a student?
As you can see, the essay may be labeled “optional,” but it’s actually a key piece of your application packet if you really want to get in. The William and Mary application essay is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from thousands of other applicants and make yourself more attractive to the admissions committee.
Granted, if you wrote a very poor essay it may harm your chances a little, but have no fear—after reading this article, you will have the tools you need to write an excellent William and Mary essay!
Analyzing an essay that helped a real student get admitted to William and Mary can help you figure out how to make your supplemental essay even more compelling. (Ken Lund/Flickr)
Analysis of a Real William and Mary Supplement Essay Sample
Reading other people’s successful William and Mary essays can help you write your own. He’s an actual William and Mary supplement essay posted to an online forum:
“I've read this prompt seventy-six times. The number is actually much higher, but I only started counting recently. My backspace key is almost worn out from my attempts to conquer this essay. I've tried everything from Poe quotes to inspirational sport tales, but none of them seem to fit. Why is that? I think it's because for the first time, I am not writing to fit some sort of outline. From 7th grade through 9th grade I had the same English teacher. While comical, she did not teach me how to write very well. To her, good writing involved two things: MLA format and the hated five paragraph essay. As a middle schooler, the five paragraph essay seemed like God's gift to sub-par English students. Was I naive or what? Fast forward to 11th grade, and my AP History teacher is having a breakdown from reading so many of these manufactured abominations. She put me on the right track. Unfortunately, now instead of five paragraph papers, I write class response essays, that must contain three examples and a thesis statement. You see the pattern?
Paper after paper, and none of them written under the pretense that I can run wild with it. I no longer associate free expression with writing. They all fit some format and come with a set of rules that would make the creators of Monopoly jealous. Which is why, this essay means more than just acceptance to college. It took me enough attempts to realize it, but for the first time, the rule book has been thrown. I can write about whatever I want in whatever way I want. I don't have to turn this in for a grade. Long words no longer carry points or increased chances at success. I could talk about soccer, Stop Hunger Now or even my acting stint (in the role of Tupac). There are no longer cords that are holding me back from showing who I am. This must be what revolutionaries feel like. As I said before, I've tried quotes and anecdotes. However, all of them were intentionally generic. For once, I want to use one that is not restrained and, to be completely honest, really cool. It's from the book Fight Club:
“One minute was enough,” Tyler said. “A person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.”
After almost fourteen years of writing, I have yet to write one thing that I would consider close to perfect. This paper is different. Whether it’s perfect or not, this essay is my moment, and all I needed was for the rule book to be thrown out to reach it.”
Let’s break this down and see why this supplemental essay helped the writer get into William and Mary.
What Makes This a Strong Example Essay?
The student who wrote this was accepted into William and Mary, so we can consider this a successful essay. The choice of topic is a bit unusual: the student writes about their experience writing the William and Mary supplemental essay.
The topic is fairly narrow, but it doesn’t exactly recount an episode from the author’s life. Rather, the author places the audience in the experience of writing the essay in real time. They give vivid descriptions, like wearing out their backspace key, which makes readers feel like they’re writing the essay, too.
The strength of this essay is its voice, meaning the way the choice of words and the pace of the events helps to develop the character who is speaking. It helps readers experience the writer’s frustrations and triumphs, and it also tells readers a lot about the person writing the essay. We learn this writer is a creative person who wants to push boundaries. They’re also dedicated—it takes a lot of time to read the prompt over sixty times! Finally, it’s clear this person is persistent. Setbacks and frustrations aren’t enough to keep them from reaching their goals.
This essay uses a very unique approach to address the prompt, and it succeeds in helping the admissions committee get to know the writer better. Mission accomplished...and student admitted!
3 Key Tips for Writing the William and Mary Supplemental Essay
Now that you know what admissions committees expect from your William and Mary essay, here are our top tips to help you succeed.
Tip 1: Write Passionately
It’s easier to write passionately when you’re writing about a topic that you care about. Luckily, this William and Mary supplement essay prompt asks you to do just that! Find the topic that most excites you, and use language that conveys your passion to your audience. Allow your excitement about your topic to come out, and readers will be blown away!
Tip 2: Be Yourself
The point of the William and Mary essay is to show the admissions committee that you’re a strong, well-rounded candidate. That can be intimidating to lots of students. But don’t worry: you’re unique and special just because you’re you. Don’t try to exaggerate to make yourself seem like the type of person the admissions committee is looking for. Remember: the admissions committee is trained to sniff out falsified essay. Just be genuine and authentic, and you’ll set yourself up for success.
Tip 3: Have Fun!
The William and Mary essay is unique because it’s open ended. You have free reign to express yourself however you see fit! Take the opportunity to stretch yourself and to grow as a writer. (Just make sure you’re not being vulgar or offensive!)
Ultimately, the admissions committee wants to see your potential and your personality. If you use this prompt as a way of allowing your creativity to flow, the selection committee will see your willingness to challenge yourself. If you’re having fun, then there’s a good chance that will come across in your essay. And guess what? Fun essays stand out from the crowd, too!
Like we mentioned earlier, William and Mary is a selective college. Make sure you get all the details about the school, it’s admissions criteria, and application information before you start writing your supplemental essay.
Most students who are admitted into William and Mary graduate in the top 10% of their high school class. Make sure you understand the class ranking system so that you can set yourself up for success. Heck, you may even decide you want to be your class valedictorian or salutatorian!
Finally, you’ll need to knock your test scores out of the park if you want a shot at getting into William and Mary. Learn what it takes to get a 1600 on your SAT or a 36 on your ACT so you can study smarter and harder.
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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.