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How to Write the Washington and Lee Essays: The Total Guide

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Washington and Lee University is a highly competitive liberal arts college with a rich history located in Lexington, VA. The namesakes of the university are none other than President George Washington and General Robert E. Lee, who served as the college’s president in 1865.

Its acceptance rate is currently around 24%.

W&L accepts the Common App, so you’ll most likely apply after writing one of its seven essays. Once you’re done with your personal statement, you’ll move on to the supplement.

We have a lot to cover, so let’s get right on with the Washington and Lee supplement.

What are the Washington and Lee Essay Requirements?

While completing the application for Washington and Lee, you’ll notice that an essay is not required.

All the essay portions of Washington and Lee’s application are optional. Before you choose to opt-out of writing an essay (or two) simply because you can, remember that the essay might be the only opportunity you have to set yourself apart from all the other candidates.

It’s an opportunity to tell the college a little more about yourself in a way that your SAT/ACT scores and high school transcripts cannot.

We recommend that you write all optional essays to better show the admissions team why you’re a candidate worthy of Washington and Lee.

Review the mission statements of the university and program you are applying to, if they have one. This will help you align your personal values with those of the university to express your desire to attend.

If you don’t tell them, who will?

Writing the First W&L Essay

The first essay prompt is similar to other college essay prompts you might have seen before. As a result, the prompt, at first glance, might seem simple:

Please elaborate on how you have familiarized yourself with Washington and Lee University and what led to your decision to apply.

This is the quintessential “Why This College” essay. You will need to answer the prompt concisely because you will be limited to only 250 words.

It might not seem super apparent, but this prompt does contain two questions. This is what makes the prompt challenging: You must answer two questions with a limited number of words.

  1. The first part of the prompt is asking you to describe how you became familiar with Washington and Lee University.
  2. The second part of the prompt is asking you to describe what led to your decision to apply to Washington and Lee University.

One strategy should be to use less than 125 words to answer the first part of the prompt and less than 125 words to answer the second part of the prompt. This will ensure that you do not go over the 250-word count maximum.

From there, you can give or take words from each portion. For example, if you’re able to more succinctly express how you familiarized yourself with the university, then you can allocate the extra words toward why you decided to apply.

If one question in the prompt seems easier for you, start with that part, and then move on to the next. We’ll address strategies for both moving forward.

Let’s look at the first part of the prompt again.

Here is when you mention the ways in which you’ve learned about the university.

  • The most common ways would be campus tours, informational interviews with alumni, word-of-mouth from relatives or friends that have attended, or any prizes/awards the university might have won that made it stand out in the news.

You can also draw on the strong reasons as to why you want to attend Washington and Lee University. This will help you complete the second part of the prompt and have a full answer that flows together.

Now, let’s start by organizing our thoughts around the second part of the question. In addition to any brainstorming you’ve already done to explain what attracted you to Washington and Lee, continue digging inside your thoughts to brainstorm a few more.

Here are some questions to guide you to discover what it is about Washington and Lee that really speaks to you as a prospective student.

  • Was it the reputation of Washington and Lee University? How does it align with your morals and values?
  • Has Washington and Lee been your dream school since you were little? What’s your first memory of the school?
  • Did a family friend recommend it? What made the recommendation from this family friend so meaningful to you?
  • The university is considered small, yet has so much to offer all its students. Do you feel you’ll be more successful in a smaller environment?
  • What student life offerings will you take advantage of if you’re admitted and why?

In short, write down your top reasons for wanting to attend Washington and Lee. Sort your reasons from strongest to weakest and then write your essay based on the two strongest.

Picking two to start with will help keep you inside the word limit. Remember that these reasons should help you stand out from other applicants, so don’t write what you think the admissions team wants to read if it’s not authentic to you.

  • You want to make sure the reason you’re applying is compelling and personal. This is your opportunity to tell a story about your first visit to campus, an alumnus that you look up to, and specific reasons why Washington and Lee will help you achieve your dream.
  • Don’t just write, “A family member recommended the school.” Lots of things are recommended to us, and some hold more value than others. Explain this person’s role in your life that led you to follow through on their recommendation.
  • Mention why you’re excited about the program you’re applying for. There’s a good chance you can study the same thing at several other universities across the country, but there’s a reason you want to study at Washington and Lee over those other institutions.
  • Detail your connection to Washington and Lee. Perhaps you’re a legacy for the university and you want to carry on the family name as a graduate. If you attended campus events that were open to the community, tell the story of how that strengthened your love for the university. Maybe you met an alumna at a college fair or they visited your class one day, so describe what they said that stuck with you.

Overall, this prompt wants to know specifically why you’re choosing Washington and Lee among all the other higher education institutions.

Tips for mastering this prompt:

  • Keep your response succinct. Begin writing without elaborating much. Once you have the basic ideas down, then add other details that are appropriate and enhance your essay.
  • Answer the prompt directly. If you stray from what is being asked, you’ll be wasting the few words you already have.
  • Stories are good, but you shouldn’t be writing a short story full of detail. If the story is meaningful, find a way to keep it to two sentences maximum. Focus on the basic who, what, where, when, and why.

This prompt is not a trick question, so don’t overthink it. It’s just a basic prompt that will tell Washington and Lee University what it has to offer that excites you as a candidate.

Again, you’re restricted to 250 words, so the school is not expecting flowery prose or an ode to Washington and Lee. This is not the time to write a five-paragraph essay. Keep your response succinct and answer the question directly without a long introduction or lengthy conclusion.

Tackling the Johnson Scholarship Essay Prompts

In addition to the admissions application, you will also see the opportunity to apply for the Johnson Scholarship, which pays for college-related expenses, such as room and board and tuition.

As part of the Johnson Scholarship application process, you can choose to answer one of six prompts with a maximum 800-word count.

By applying for the Johnson Scholarship, you can also be considered for other scholarships at Washington and Lee.

Six different prompt choices can be intimidating. It’s imperative that you choose the right one that will allow you to showcase all the ways you’re a deserving, amazing student.

So, how do you choose the prompt that’s best for you?

  • Choose the prompt that excites you. If you’re not excited about your response, you won’t write the best essay you can. If you’re passionate about a topic, that passion will show in your essay. Passion will stand out for all the right reasons.
  • Choose the prompt that directly correlates with your life experiences. You know your life best, so expressing an experience that aligns with a prompt naturally will provide a better result than struggling to find one to write about.
  • Choose the prompt that will let you show the committee who you are. Admissions committees want to really get to know an applicant. Show off your personality through your essay rather than writing a cliché response that doesn’t tell them much about you.

And how should you NOT choose a prompt?

  • Don’t choose a prompt just because you think it’s the hardest one or the easiest one. This can set you up for failure in terms of not writing the best essay possible. You want to be confident about your ability to answer a prompt, not looking for the easy way out or most difficult way to get in. You’re not doing yourself a favor by choosing a topic that will be challenging for you to answer; instead, you’re throwing away your chance to truly write about something you’re passionate about.
  • Don’t choose a prompt that doesn’t resonate with you at all. How can you properly express why you belong at Washington and Lee if you can’t identify with what you’re writing about? The short answer is that you can’t. You will not win any extra points from the review committee by choosing a topic just because you think no one else will choose it.

Now that you’ve read about why you should and shouldn’t pick a particular prompt for your application, let’s discuss the best way to tackle each prompt. Below are the prompts that you will choose from.

W&L Essay 1

The Honor System has been a hallmark of the Washington and Lee experience for well over a century. Exclusively governed by the W&L student body, the system exemplifies the trust and integrity that distinguish the campus at large. Reflect on a time when you have been entrusted with a significant responsibility. How did you earn it? More important, how did you respond?

Let’s consider how to respond to this prompt. This prompt is about moral character and responsibility. Part of the Johnson Scholarship application evaluates your leadership capabilities. Use this prompt to bring your leadership abilities to the forefront of the reader’s mind.

  • Considering the prompt mentions the Honor System at Washington and Lee is governed by the student body, you can write about your experience in student government. Discuss any roles you held, projects you led, or how you went about performing your responsibilities. Ultimately, what legacy can you say you left by serving your student body?
  • You can write about any volunteering you have done where you have taken the lead. This can be with a club at your school, youth group, or any volunteer organization. Did you organize a team of volunteers to help Hurricane Harvey victims? Did you lead a youth group for children with autism? These are the type of leadership activities that the review committee will want to read about, but, most importantly, they’re activities that will help you stand out.
  • If you were a team captain, whether it was the football team or debate team, how were you selected? What were your captain duties and how did you carry them out? How was it challenging and how did you grow from the experience?
  • Leadership skills aren’t solely built in a structured environment. Perhaps you don’t have any experience in student government or volunteering, but maybe you were trusted to took care of a sick relative or took over for a parent after their death, this is the time to share those types of experiences with the committee through your essay. Personal stories can be a very powerful way to show not just your leadership skills, but also your resiliency in tough situations.

Keep in mind the three parts of this prompt:

  1. By clear of what the entrusted responsibility is. Describe why the responsibility is significant and what might happen if you aren’t able to live up to the expectations being asked of you. For example, what would happen if you didn’t coordinate volunteers to assist Hurricane Harvey victims?
  2. Explain how you earned the responsibility. Did you apply and were chosen? Was there an election that took place and you won? Were you selected for certain qualities and characteristics you possess? Perhaps you were chosen to take care of your sick aunt because she lives closest to you, you visit her frequently, and are the only person who can persuade her to take medicine she doesn’t like.
  3. Your reaction to obtaining this responsibility is key. You’ll want to pick a scenario where you were successful with the responsibility you were given. Did you pep talks and personal chats with teammates lead you to a state or national victory? Did you plan the prom that now holds the record for most tickets sold?

In addition including these points, be sure to include how this made you grow as a person. Did you exceed your own expectations? Write about that!

W&L Essay 2

Washington and Lee University’s “standards include civility. When free and equal people with different backgrounds and perspectives come together, disagreement is inevitable. In that contentious swirl of competing views, assertiveness is called for, but so, too, is reticence. You have to develop the courage of your convictions while entertaining the possibility you could be wrong. And you have to resist the temptation to demonize those who disagree with you as morally deficient just because they may not share your views.” (Kenneth Ruscio ’76, former President of Washington and Lee University). Reflect on a time when your stance on an issue changed as a result of civil discourse.

Normally, it’s suggested that any mention of controversial subjects be omitted from a college essay. However, you can toss that rule aside for this prompt.

Feel free to discuss any of the topics below, especially given that the current political climate has pushed these topics to the media forefront:

  • Civil liberties – Have your civil liberties been challenged? When did you first notice that your life had changed or feel they were threatened in some way?
  • Women’s rights – You don’t have to be a woman to choose this issue to discuss if it is meaningful to you. This can be something that happened directly to you (as a woman) or you saw deeply affect someone close to you (if you’re not a woman).
  • Reproductive rights – Again, this isn’t only for women to choose from. Perhaps your girlfriend got pregnant and made a decision about the pregnancy without you. Maybe your sister made a decision you don’t agree with, but shed light on another perspective of these issues you hadn’t considered before.
  • Race relations – If you’ve ever been discriminated against, or felt you were, write about that. How did that experience change your perspective on an issue?
  • Environmental issues – Do you suffer from asthma and the air quality in your hometown has made your health something you must think about each day? Have you gone on an ocean clean up trip and seen first-hand the toll plastic waste has taken on wildlife?
  • Food manufacturing – In the age of genetically modified foods, this means some individuals have allergies that prevent them from eating certain foods since they aren’t sold in their natural state. Have you had to allocate more funds to food to make sure you’re getting natural and organic food only? Are you affected by how food is processed in this country?

You may be passionate about a particular issue, but for this prompt, you’ll want to make sure you can identify the turning point for your stance on the topic and any changes you’ve personally made. Also consider including your original position on the issue and what it evolved into.

  • Discuss your thoughts when you saw the devastation from doing plastic clean up on your trip. What changes did you make in your personal life to help combat the problem.
  • Even a documentary on Netflix can shift your perspective on. There are several food documentaries to view on that platform. Did you notice there were conflicting pieces of “evidence” that made you do more research?
  • Describe a speech or lecture you witnessed that altered your mindset on an issue. Maybe it wasn’t a speech, but a protest you witnessed. Did some of the signs you saw or police action pull at your heartstrings?

You may feel that a story you want to tell is so deeply personal that you don’t feel comfortable writing about it. That’s ok! If you’re not comfortable writing the words, don’t feel pressured to.

The only caveat for this prompt is that you should make sure that your essay does not include offensive terms. Also, be sure that it does not vilify a group of people based on their beliefs, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, race, or ethnicity.

W&L Essay 3

Consider the meaning of “fair,” especially how the term can be misused. What impact does fairness—perceived or actual—have in society and your life? Has fairness ever helped or hurt you personally? At what cost or benefit to you or others?

This topic is broader than the other prompts. If you choose this prompt, you will be required to

  • Define fairness. You can define fairness as the dictionary defines it, as well as how you define fairness related to your beliefs. You might not 100% agree with how fairness is officially defined, so your personal definition will set the foundation of this essay.
  • Discuss the impact of society’s definition of fairness. This impact is going to be personal. How you witnessed “fairness” in society has likely shaped your personal definition of it.
  • Discuss how the concept of fairness has impacted your life or the life of others. You might find it easier to discuss a story that is your own, or you may have strong feelings about a situation a friend went through. Make sure whatever story you tell includes an impact on your life. You might have lost a student government election because your opponent spread rumors about you, or maybe your friend didn’t make the soccer team because they didn’t play on a certain club team, so now you don’t get to play together.

Similar to the previous prompt, you may feel a story that is relevant makes you uncomfortable to write about it for an admissions essay.

If you’re struggling, reconsider the topic you’re engaging with and what else may have the same effect on the admission committee.

You shouldn’t fear that your personal story will become known around campus. You are the only person who has the power to tell people what you choose to write about for these essays.

W&L Essay 4

“To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart.” (George Washington, 1798, first president of the United States and first major benefactor of Washington and Lee University) Describe a work of art that has influenced you and discuss the impact it has had on you.

After reading this essay prompt, you might be tempted to write about something you saw at MOMA or that time you visited the Sistine Chapel.

There is nothing wrong with these experiences, but if you’re writing about them to seem worldly or to impress the reader then reconsider your approach. This prompt is looking for authenticity. It is not asking you to have the knowledge of an art history major.

The work of art could be something as simple as a finger painting you saw in a children’s hospital made by the patients there. And then again, it doesn’t have to be a fine art piece at all.

Art can fall under the category of music, dance, theatre, cinematography, and so many more. It is up to you to define what the work of art is and then relate it to how it has impacted your life.

  • Did the quidditch scenes of the Harry Potter saga influence you to start learning about CGI animation? These movies didn’t win an Academy Awards, but they are considered art.
  • Maybe your young sibling drew a family portrait that included members of your family they never met and this prompted you to learn more about your family history.
  • If your running path includes going past the same building every time just so you can look at its beauty, that’s worth writing about. Describe the thoughts and feelings you have when you see this building. What draws you to it?

W&L Essay 5

“What I want to hear after a Spring Term course is that ‘This class changed my life.’ ” (Marc Conner, Ballengee Professor of English and Interim Provost). W&L’s Spring Term is a four-week, intensive experience during which students take only one course, allowing for undivided attention to the subject matter. Spring Term courses are known for innovative pedagogy, interdisciplinary scholarship, travel, and field work in diverse settings. If you could design a Spring Term course, what would you propose, and why would you choose to pursue that topic?

This is another two-part prompt. Break the prompt into two separate parts.

  • What [kind of course] would you propose?
  • Why would you choose to pursue that topic?

This question is ideal for the student with imagination and creativity. It’s also the perfect opportunity to give the reader some insight into who you are, how your thought process works, what type of learning you enjoy, and what topics you wish to pursue.

It’s okay to propose something completely “off the wall” based on your own interests as long as you can show how this course can be life-changing. Think about your hobbies that make you stand out.

  • Do you enjoy making YouTube videos? Then maybe suggest a course on Adobe Creative Cloud or cinematography to learn how to amp up your YouTube channel to get more viewers, or at least make more aesthetically interesting videos.
  • Are you into worm composting? Maybe a course on vermiculture could be your suggestion. The project you propose might be to make a portion of the campus garden available for other students to contribute compost for worms.
  • Are you religious and volunteered with various religious sects? Then consider proposing a course that allows students to work with an interfaith organization in the local community.
  • If you’re a fan of a particular cuisine, propose a course that dives into the culture of that food as well as preparing it. You’ll be able to learn what makes these dishes so special and create the delicious dishes on your own if they aren’t available nearby. This could be a cultural cuisine or focus on a diet like Keto or Vegan.

Among the essay prompts, this one is a great choice if you want to write something that will help you stand out from the crowd. Don’t let your imagination hold you back.

You can assume that there are no holdbacks you’ll need to deal with when proposing this course. Also, you do want to include why you’re passionate about the topic and why it would change your life if you had a chance to take a course about it.

However, do some research first to make sure a class isn’t already offered. You’ll want to make your proposition something that isn’t already available. If a similar course is offered, make sure your idea is different it practically could be a different class or has an entirely different focus for the topic.

W&L Essay 6

Non incautus futuri (not unmindful of the future) is a telling motto for the country’s ninth oldest higher education institution. In your opinion, what should W&L be most mindful about in preparing you for the future?

Think outside the box for this question. This is your opportunity to tell Washington and Lee how you’ll best be prepared for the future you want. To answer this prompt, you might want to consider discussing one of the following topics:

  • If you’re going into a technical field, how can Washington and Lee best help you be prepared to apply for a job that doesn’t exist today?
  • Can the university assist you as a business student with an opportunity to make their business idea a reality on campus, so you can learn how it may work in the “real world?”
  • If you’re a student-athlete, maybe you believe you should be required to take anatomy and physiology so you can learn more about your body even if it’s not part of your degree program?
  • As a pre-vet student, you want to view and assist in a surgery at least once before you graduate.
  • For those who are undecided, you might want access to alumni from various career paths so you can talk with actual people about the path they took to their careers.

Again, you don’t need to hold your imagination back when you’re writing about what will best prepare you for your future. You might inspire the university to make a change they feel will benefit all students.

You’ll want to stay away from outlandish requests like every graduating student is guaranteed a job in their field, or that certain classes don’t need to be part of a curriculum plan.

Key Strategies for the Honors Essays

Since you have more room than normal to write your scholarship essay, it’s important to apply after you’ve fully developed your thought process.

As long as you meet the deadline, you shouldn’t feel rushed to complete your application the first time that you open it. Take time to plan out and practice writing some essays before you decide which you’ll complete.

  • One of the great parts of this selection of essay prompts is that the premise of each essay is something broad – issues, leadership and responsibility, art, designing a course, and your future.
  • This means you can choose from a number of your experiences, and the chance they’ll fit into one of the prompts is very high. You may even find one experience can fit into a few prompts, so you’ll need to decide which prompt will best suit your intention when telling it.

All this is to say that you want to be an active character in your story. Remember that the focus of the essay should be you. If you have a hard time writing about a conflict (for example, essay 5 doesn’t feature a conflict-driven topic), then you want to explain why the topic is significant to you.

Washington and Lee knows why political issues, student council positions, and pressing issues of the future are critical. What they want to know is why you find them to be important.

Conclusion: Writing the Washington and Lee Essays

Remember, for the scholarship program, the essay is meant to supplement your application. The committee will already have your academic record, SAT/ACT scores, and recommendations on file.

The purpose of the essay is to give the committee a view of who you are as a person that they won’t already know from other parts of your application.

In the essay, you shouldn’t write about your stellar grades or excellent college entrance test scores.

Much like a resume, the essay is a great chance to show off your soft skills, emotional intelligence, and intellect that will allow the reader to connect with you on a personal level to see how you will one day be a positive addition to Washington and Lee’s student body.

Ultimately, by choosing a prompt that allows you to bring the reader into your world, you will stand out. This will give the reader a better understanding of what makes you a stellar applicant.

Don’t be intimidated by the essays. Use them instead to showcase what an awesome candidate you are.

If you’re interested in gaining an edge in college admissions, enroll in our college essay boot camp.