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How to Write the Washington and Lee Essays 2020-2021: 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 21%.

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 the personal essay through the Common App is required. Check out the specific guide to the seven Common App essay prompts here.

In addition, there are two optional writing supplements.

We suggest writing these optional questions because it’s your chance to tell the college more about who you are.

Writing an essay is one of the only opportunities you have to set yourself apart from all the other candidates. It’s a chance to tell the college a little more about yourself in a way that your SAT/ACT scores and high school transcripts cannot.

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.

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 1

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 describe how you have familiarized yourself with Washington and Lee University and what aspects of W&L’s community are most exciting to you.

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 part of the Washington and Lee University community excites you.

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 who have attended, or any prizes/awards the university might have won that made it stand out in the news.

You also can draw on 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. Do some brainstorming to explain what attracted you to Washington and Lee.

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 reasons 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 to which you’re applying. 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 student 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.

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Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2

The second essay prompt asks for more information about your life outside of school. 

Please describe an aspect of your life outside of school that is important to you, such as an extracurricular activity, a job or family responsibility. How does your involvement impact you and those around you?

This essay is prompting you to share personal information about you outside of academics. Again, this question is twofold and is capped at a maximum of 250 words:

  1. Describe an activity, job, or family responsibility that is significant to you.
  2. In what way does that activity impact those around you?

Although any involvement in a club or job shows responsibility and motivation, remember that this question is asking specifically how this activity is significant to you. 

Waiting tables to earn money for college is not particularly unusual or special. Many high school students do it. If, though, there is a more personal aspect to that job and how it impacts others around you, it could be the focus of your essay. Maybe you’re working at the family business? Think about what makes the activity unique.

For the first part of this question, think about an activity, job, or responsibility for which you are passionate. For example:

  • You built on a lifelong hobby by joining and becoming a leader of your school’s art club.
  • Your summer job is to direct a library program for children so that you can share and inspire a love of reading with them.
  • You are passionate about cooking and your family responsibility is to share in meal preparation to bring your family together each night.

Once you have determined what activity or job you want to highlight, jot down the reasons it is important to you. As with the previous essay, choose your two strongest reasons and explain them as succinctly as possible to stay within your word limit.

The second part of this essay asks how your involvement in this activity or job impacts the people around you. This could be very apparent, or it could be less clear. Does your involvement:

  • Share or teach a new skill with others?
  • Bring people from your community together?
  • Provide a unique service or resource to others?
  • Improve someone’s situation?
  • Better your neighborhood or community?
  • Share your talents with others in a special way?
  • Take a burden off of someone else?

Take this opportunity to show how you work to make an impact on your family, neighborhood or community. This is a perfect chance to explain how you use your time and talents for others. 

This still needs to be a short answer, but use your words wisely. Find ways to express your passion for this activity and what it means for you to know its effect on others. Be sure that you answer both parts of the essay in your response.

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.

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2.1

“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?

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2.2

In mathematics, the shortest distance between two points on a flat surface is a straight line. While geometry is predictable, sometimes day-to-day life is not. Reflect on a time when your path was not as simple or direct as anticipated. How did you manage, and what did you learn?

Let’s consider how to respond to this prompt. This prompt could relay an unexpected challenge you overcame or an opportunity you were able to pursue as a result of things not going as planned. Showcase your problem-solving skills and creativity in your answer. 

This question is about how you manage the unexpected. Show the reader that you can think on your feet and be adaptable. Consider moments that might be perceived as negative that you were able to turn into a positive. Focus on the path that got you to that result.

  • Consider a time that you worked hard for something, but the end result did not work out as planned. Maybe you tried to earn an award or ace a competition, but you did not achieve the win. What happened? What did you do because of this? What did you learn?
  • Perhaps you dedicated a lot of time to planning an event or activity, but unpredictable weather caused you to cancel or change course. You did not get to see or do what you had planned, but you were able to pivot and adapt to the situation. What did you do instead? What did you learn from this experience?
  • Probably the most obvious direction to go with this answer is the impact of a worldwide pandemic on your life. The pandemic changed our plans drastically in an instance, and we could not control it. Did you miss a sports season or anticipated school event because of it? Did it impact your travel plans? Did it affect your ability to gather with friends or family for a highly anticipated celebration? Think about how the pandemic impacted you, how this is different than the way it affected others, and what you did as a result.

Keep in mind that this prompt wants you to explain two big things:

  1. How well you managed this unexpected change of plans.
  2. The lessons you learned as a result.

Be sure to include how this made you grow as a person. Did you exceed your own expectations? Write about that!

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2.3

We live in a world in which much of our self-representation is curated online via short-lived social media ‘stories’ and disappearing photos. What photo or other representation of yourself is authentically you? What does it say about your growth into the person you are today, and the person you want to become? Please use only the words in your essay to address this question. Do not include photographs or other materials in your answer.

This is a great opportunity to share more about what makes you, you. Through social media, we share our perceived best version of ourselves with family, friends, and strangers. W&L wants to know the true you, not how others want to see you. 

The neat part about this prompt is that it allows you to describe a photo “or other representation” of yourself. First, think of a moment when you were able to shine—when you felt most comfortable, maybe even vulnerable—because you were open and authentic. 

  • Is there a photo that captures that moment? Or is it something else? 
  • Is this represented in something like a pair of shoes or an instrument?
  • Is it a self-portrait or another piece of artwork?
  • Do you have an item passed down from a family member that you’ve embraced as your own? 
  • Is it something old or broken that you’ve held onto because it’s become a part of who you are?

Next, you are tasked with describing that photo or object without being able to show it to the reader. What characteristics does this image or thing portray that makes it authentic to you? Be creative in both your description of the object and how that shows your true colors. 

There are then two more questions to answer as part of this prompt. How does this image or object show your growth as a person? Make sure you can identify the turning point or any changes you’ve personally made. Consider how you would describe your evolution as a person.

Finally, discuss how this image or object illustrates who you want to become. Continue that personal evolution. How does it represent what you want to achieve? This does not need to be complicated but should describe how you see your true self in the future. 

  • For example, your photo or item could be from a moment you spent outdoors or with nature. Perhaps that shows you feel most authentic and open in the great outdoors. This could even be a love rooted in your family that you have come to embrace as your own. You might hope to continue learning and growing into an environmentally conscious adult who advocates for clean and green standards.
  • Maybe your item is a pair of worn-in sneakers that represent all the places you’ve traveled. Talk about how your travels have shaped you as a person and helped you to grow. What it might mean for you to continue seeking new places to visit? What can you learn from new experiences and people in these travels? 

Think outside the box!

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2.4

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.

Washington & Lee Supplemental Essay 2.5

In his October, 1963, A Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin said “…the whole process of education occurs within a social framework and is designed to perpetuate the aims of society.” Yet, as he aptly notes, “the paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” Baldwin suggests that the purpose of education is to teach us to think for ourselves, to question—and change—the “framework” that we have come to understand and accept. What norms of your home or community have you become conscious of during your time in high school, and how would you like to use that knowledge to make it a better place?

This essay is about challenging norms for the betterment of the community. Consider the Amendments to the Constitution. The US Constitution was created as a foundation for the country, but with room to change and adapt as the country evolved. Rules are created for a reason, but sometimes need to change and adapt with time.

Think about existing rules or the framework at home and in your community. Jot down any rules that you have questioned or that you feel are no longer relevant. Think about rules that might not exist, but should be in place. Create your list, rank your items, then choose the strongest one to write about.

This essay has two parts:

  1. First, discuss what norm you have become conscious of from home or in your community. 
  2. Then, write about how you will use what you have discovered or come to better understand to improve your home or community.

Is there something that is unfair or unjust to some of the people in this community? How do you raise awareness of this and change it for the better? Maybe there is a personal story you can share or an event that you witnessed that helps to illustrate your point.

Are norms, rules, or expectations applied unequally at home or in your community? Do certain people receive better treatment than others? Why is that, and how can you change it?

Be sure that you have clear explanations, examples, and steps to show the problem and solution. 

Key Strategies for the Washington & Lee 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.

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