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How to Write the Washington University in St. Louis Essays: An Honors Guide

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Washington University in St. Louis, commonly referred to as WashU, is a private research institution with an undergraduate population of about 7,500 students and is located on over 160 acres in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ranked as a top-20 university, WashU is fairly competitive, with an acceptance rate of 16.7%.

Prospective students will be relieved to know that WashU only requires the obligatory Common Application or Coalition Application. There is no secondary supplementary application at all.

What are the WashU Essay Requirements?

Prospective students will also probably be interested in offsetting the $53,399 yearly tuition, which is where the optional additional essays come in.

WashU has a number of first-year-student academic scholarship and fellowship programs. The scholarships and fellowships which will be discussed in detail are another opportunity to demonstrate your interest and match with the school.

First, before we discuss how best to approach these scholarship and fellowship applications, we need to keep in mind the mission statement of WashU:

“To discover and disseminate knowledge, and protect the freedom of inquiry through research, teaching, and learning.”

If we keep this mission statement and the university motto “Strength through Truth” in mind, the focus points for the scholarship and fellowship applications will be easier to discern.

The Honorary Scholars Program in Arts and Sciences are divided into four specific scholarships:

  1. Arthur Holly Compton Fellowships for the physical sciences and mathematics.
  2. George E. Mylonas Scholarships for the humanities
  3. Florence Moog Fellowships are for the biological sciences and chemistry
  4. Arnold J. Lien scholarships are for social sciences

Each fellowship program offers $1,000 stipends for up to four recipients each year.

Out of these four specific scholarships, students may only apply for one of them. Despite some different requirements, you are required to answer the following prompts in 150 words or less.

Wash U Prompt 1: Accomplishment

In which of your accomplishments during high school do you take the greatest pride? Choose no more than three and be specific.

This short essay is not asking you to rehash your resume in 150 words. In fact, it is actually a very hard question if you attempt to do anything other than focus on one or max two accomplishments.

150 words roughly translates to a paragraph, so the best course of action would be to focus on an accomplishment that required a significant amount of effort and allowed you to grow the most as a person.

Most students will default to a state or national level accomplishment, such as winning a music competition, but the most important part of answering this question is showing the importance of how you got to that result and what you learned from it.

  • Continuing on the hypothetical music competition, you could describe how you first got involved in music and then how your interest grew with your skills.
  • For example, most people start off on an instrument due to a parent’s suggestion, but musically inclined students soon continue pursuing music because it brings them some genuine sense of fulfillment.

Regardless of the activity, if you expand on the importance of why and how you devoted your time and energy to achieve your accomplishment, the admissions committee will be able to sense the level of investment and commitment you would show as a student of WashU.

Also, remember to always support your personal statements with evidence of action. It is not enough to merely say what you believe, but you must also show that you have conviction in your beliefs.

For example, saying that you believe music makes a difference in people’s lives is unremarkable. Demonstrating that belief by relating your school and extracurricular music activities adds credibility to your statement of belief.

Be sure to include a first-hand account of what created this belief for you.

Wash U Prompt 2: A Book

Name one book that you read during the past year that you recommend. Why?

There are two avenues you can take regarding this question. You have probably realized that you can choose a book that was mandatory reading from literature class or a leisure book you read in your spare time.

If you are not a big fan of reading outside of class, your choice is simple: Write about a book that you read in class.

  • Go with the one that you enjoyed the most and can remember the various intricacies that were discussed in class.
  • In order to answer the “why” portion of the question, it would be a good idea to get a copy of the book or at least a synopsis to speak to the theme, which was really memorable to you. You can go back through any assignments you have related to the book.
  • Reflect on what you took away from the book. What would make you read it again? Maybe you’ve already read it multiple times. What about the book makes you keep picking it up to read over other books you haven’t read?
  • Do not feel any pressure to write about a classic work of literature; the works of Shakespeare or Homer will not on their own merit write you a meaningful essay. You might feel this is what the admissions committee wants or expects to read about, but if it’s not authentic to you, it’s not what they want to read.

If you are an avid reader and have a non-assigned book that you would like to write about, quickly discern whether or not the book is appropriate. This is your opportunity to show the admissions committee what you value outside of assigned reading and what really interests you.

  • If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, you may have read The Click Moment by Frans Johansson. How did that book further shape your idea of entrepreneurship or goals you have for your future? What was your biggest take away that you’ve implemented?
  • Perhaps you are interested in engineering and read a biography about a famous inventor, such as Benjamin Franklin or Howard Hughes. You could discuss what you agree with and how the lessons of those giants in engineering have influenced your outlook.
  • Don’t feel like you’re restricted to certain genres. If you love romance, sci-fi, or comedies, those are all fair game. You can discuss what you expected the book to be when you first started and how those expectations were exceeded, especially if you weren’t convinced to begin reading the book at first.
  • You’ve probably watched a movie adaptation of a book. Did reading the book enhance your love of the movie or provide more backstory that explains character development more than the on-screen version?

There are many possibilities, but, at the end of the day, make sure the book you recommend is something that is important to you. You might even think of this question as “If you could read one book for the rest of your life from the last year, what would it be?”

What would you like the admissions committee to understand about you? This is your opportunity to demonstrate why your interests are important to you and convince the reader that your interests should also be of interest to them as well.

Approaching this as a persuasive essay will help you structure your essay in a concise manner.

Before we go further, there are two ways this prompt may not be for you. If you haven’t read a book in the last year or you haven’t read a book that you’d recommend, don’t select this prompt.

No matter how much you try to convince the admissions committee that you recommend a book that you don’t really like, they will see right through the disguise.

Wash U Prompt 3: A Conversation

If you had the opportunity to have a conversation with an important figure, either contemporary or historical, whom would you choose? Why?

You might have heard of the common interview question of “Which person, alive or dead, would you like to have dinner with?” This is a variation of the same question.

Before you answer this question, make a list of the people you believe have influenced your beliefs or outlook on life. As you do this, keep in mind that the importance of a figure is personal. This figure does not need to be someone famous and well-known. They don’t even have to be a real person. The prompt does not address that the important figure must be a real person, only whether they are historical or contemporary.

  • Most people tend to answer this question with obviously famous people and a bias toward political figures, such as George Washington or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If you’re genuinely interested in having a conversation with a figure like this, add them to your list.
  • If you’re a sports nut, choose a sports figure, even if they aren’t a professional. You might choose Usain Bolt to discuss how he trained to become the fastest many in the world, or Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, about why he invested in a sports franchise.
  • This can be a person you admire, or one, through strongly opposing, has better defined your sense of self.
  • If family history is important to you, you might want to have a conversation with whoever first immigrated to the US in your bloodline. What questions would you ask them?
  • You can pick a fictional character. If you’re emotionally invested in a series or a character made a decision you didn’t expect, you can choose to sit down with them. Do you believe that Romeo should done something other than kill himself? Why ask Shakespeare if you have an opportunity to ask Romeo?

I would challenge you to be different, or at least more interesting. In fact, you could approach this from the point of view of an informational interview.

  • If there was one person you could have an informational interview with, who would it be?
  • What would you like to ask them?
  • What would you like to learn from them?
  • What is it that you would like insight on by talking with them directly one on one?
  • What would they do differently in their life?
  • What would you hope to get out of the conversation?

This is, again, an opportunity to demonstrate to the admissions committee your values and emphasize what you believe to be important.

For example, if I were interested in becoming not only an engineer but an inventor who crossed disciplines, I could have a one-on-one with Leonardo Da Vinci. Can you imagine what inventions you could come up with together combining his approach toward problem-solving and your current access to technology?

WashU Prompt 4: Academic Discipline

Why have you chosen to study the academic discipline associated with the scholarship program you are seeking? You may include comments about both your academic interests and your professional/career goals.

You have heard this question in many variations since career day in elementary school. Essentially this question is asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You, no doubt, have a default answer that you fall back on, but, for the purposes of this essay, you should reevaluate that answer and make sure it is up-to-date.

  • As a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old student, you do not need to talk about how your first Lego set at the age of five is the reason you want to become an engineer. You probably have more relevant experiences from the past four years in high school that have solidified why you want to pursue a particular field.
  • Perhaps you had a great experience through FIRST robotics or a policy debate competition during which you were able to discuss important controversial topics with your peers.
  • Maybe you’ve already dabbled in a certain industry. Describe how your job as a waiter has influenced your desire to get a degree in business so you can own a restaurant one day.
  • If you have wanted to be a doctor for a long time, tell a story about what made you choose a particular discipline. You or someone you know may have had a life-changing surgery or diagnosis that led you to that area of medicine.

The second part of the prompt about professional/career goals is an invitation to share with the admissions committee what your plans are for the future.

  • Did your FIRST robotics experience get you interested in pursuing robotics and programming?
  • Perhaps you saw a surgical robot and are now interested in becoming a physician?
  • Maybe the teamwork involved got you interested in learning more about the engineering and the business aspect of running a team?
  • What are skills you’ve already learned or developed that you want to further enhance to meet your ultimate career goal?

More than the specifics of your path, the committee is looking for students who will be highly contributing members to the WashU community before and after graduation, and it is up to you to convince them that by pursuing your academic ambitions at WashU, you have the potential to be successful in your endeavors.

Conclusion: Writing the WashU Essays

The purpose of these essays is to provide another dimension to you as an applicant than the obligatory application essay and resume. If there is something you are passionate about, this is the opportunity to let the admissions committee know.

If there is something that you believe in, or an event in your life which has defined who you are or what you wish to become, this is the perfect opportunity to get that across.

Regardless of which scholarship or fellowship you choose to apply to, remember to always backup your belief statements with examples of action.

It’s one thing to believe in something, and it’s another to show your implementation of that belief.

If you approach these essays as an opportunity to demonstrate another part of yourself and why you would be an asset to the WashU community, you will understand how to answer them concisely and effectively. Best of luck and happy writing!

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