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Writing the Washington University in St. Louis Essays (2020-2021): 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. The campus is over 160 acres large and is located in St. Louis, Missouri.

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

WashU accepts both the Common Application or Coalition Application, though it now requires a supplement, which is a deviation from previous years. Which supplement you write will depend upon whether or not you apply for their honors program, Beyond Boundaries. 

This guide will cover both essays, along with academic scholarships and fellowship programs unique to WashU.

What Sparks Your Curiosity?

If you decide not to apply to the Beyond Boundaries program at WashU, the application will ask you the following question:

In about 250 words, 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 another pursuit.

As with any essay, the first step is to come up with a killer idea. As the prompt indicates, the sky’s the limit. Nothing is too bizarre, so go wild. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • What is an activity you haven’t talked about yet? What got you interested in it? 
  • Is there something quirky that you like to do? Why do you like it?
  • What was the last time you spent hours researching something but didn’t notice the time flying by? What was it?

However, whatever you choose don’t forget that it needs to relate to your major. 

Now that you have an idea in mind, it’s time to start writing. This is only a 250-word essay, so there is no space to ramble. Focus on the one event and really explain how it inspired your curiosity in what you want to study. 

Once you get a draft written, this is a great time to break out a thesaurus. While it’s tempting to use the word “curiosity” non-stop, nothing makes a reader more interested than a rich vocabulary.  Good words to think about include:

  • Inquisitive
  • Inquiring
  • Eagar
  • Inspiring
  • Kindle
  • Exhilarating
  • Marvelling

Whatever words you choose, the tone of this essay needs to be full of energy. The goal is for the reader to feel your excitement and wonder. 

Essay Example

One of the reasons this essay is a great example is because it’s a personal story. Pay attention to the vocabulary as you read. The word curiosity is never mentioned, but it’s clear why the author is motivated to study both neuroscience and political science.

A year ago, my grandmother was a fiery, goal-oriented woman. Since then, she has deteriorated rapidly. Her time is now warped, rendering her surroundings incomprehensible. The decline in her health is attributable to Lewy body dementia (LBD), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects thinking, movement, and behavior. Due to medical complications and worsening of symptoms, she has been forced to transition in and out of residential, rehabilitative, and hospital facilities, resulting in a constant battle to adjust to new environments. 

This experience has been devastating for my family. Yet, watching her downward spiral has opened my eyes to the inadequacies of the healthcare system, fueling me to seek solutions. Will increased provider education lead to more accurate diagnosis? Will early detection of LBD result in more timely interventions, delaying the onset of symptoms? Will the symptoms improve if patients have increased access to facilities which can provide continuity of care? As I seek to answer these pressing questions, I look to explore LBD’s underlying causes, and the ways in which policies can transform the current healthcare system. 

I desire to study neuroscience to better understand the physiology of LBD, such as why alpha-synuclein proteins gather and how Lewy bodies trigger symptoms within the body. Supplementing neuroscience, political science will give me the legislative background needed to advocate for regulated care between facilities and for increased research funding. This combination will allow me to work towards evidence-based policies enhancing the quality of life for patients with dementia.

What Challenge Do You Want to Tackle?

The Beyond Boundaries Program is unique to WashU. It’s a multidisciplinary program designed for “students interested in tackling societal, intellectual, technological and scientific challenges across two or more disciplines who are hoping to become more creative problem-solvers and more insightful scholars.”

Throughout the four-year program, students are encouraged to take classes that revolve around a specific challenge. While this includes selecting a traditional major, there are also special activities available, including study abroad semesters

The essay for this application reads:

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 with a set of tools to critically understand and make a difference in a complicated world where challenges do not come pre-packaged as territory of a single discipline. 

In about 250 words, tell us what great challenge you might want to understand and tackle leveraging two or more of WashU’s schools and how you would pursue an interdisciplinary path of study that explores that challenge or an aspect of that challenge in a unique and innovative way.

To start off there are two aspects to get right:

  1. Finding a challenge you’re passionate about
  2. Researching how Beyond Boundaries would help you develop an inventive solution

To brainstorm the first element, the first thing you need to consider is the story of your application, because it needs to relate to other things you’ve demonstrated an interest in. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • What is the most important challenge facing your future industry? 
  • What is a challenge you’ve already been working towards solving, perhaps related to one of your activities?
  • What do you consider the biggest challenge facing society today?

Whatever challenge you decide to talk about, it needs to be personal. Why do you care about it over all others? Whether you’re interested in solving the global helium shortage or creating an energy-efficient battery, the reader needs to understand your concern.

The second half of the essay is going to rely on your ability to sift through online information about WashU. As you’re looking through their website and other forums, consider the following:

  • Are there particular classes that would be relevant? Why?
  • As part of the program, you’ll be assigned two faculty mentors. Are there professors at WashU who are already working on similar ideas?

You don’t have to solve the challenge in the essay, but you do need to have an idea of how you want to go about solving it. This seco:nd half of this essay is supposed to demonstrate that thought process. 

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Example Essay:

When reading this essay, pay attention to the structure. It sets up the problem the student is looking to solve, addresses why the solution would benefit from a multidisciplinary approach and explains how the Beyond Boundaries program could help. 

Healthcare is one of the cornerstones of modern society. It is responsible for improving our everyday lives, from eliminating tooth decay to reducing maternal and infant mortality. However, there is a storm cloud that looms overhead: the ever-increasing costs of care that is effectively resulting in a stratified system where the poorest people lack access to even the basics while the rich can afford specialized services like dialysis spas. 

Solving this challenge will require understanding the healthcare system, specifically how it came into being and what is driving the rising costs. However, this is only the first step, as change will likely need to be legislated at the state or federal level to actually enact a solution. Because crafting the solution requires a completely different set of skills from the ones needed to implement said solution, a multidisciplinary undergraduate education is a perfect match for my goals.

To this end, participating in Beyond Boundaries could be the ultimate program for me. Starting with The Art of Medicine in Spring 2021 and finishing with a capstone project my senior year, there are a number of exceptional opportunities in this program. Whether doing a semester abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science or the Copenhagen University hospitals, I can learn how to make the US healthcare system more equitable at WashU.

WashU Honor Essays 2021

As a prospective student, you will also probably be interested in offsetting the $55,292 yearly tuition, which is where the optional honor essays come in. Unfortunately, WashU has yet to release the essays for the 2020-2021 application cycle.  The remainder of this blog will be based on the content for last year, but check back in September for the rest of the new material!

WashU Honor Essays 2020

WashU has a number of first-year-student academic scholarship and fellowship programs, which 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.”

Since the university’s motto is “Strength through Truth,” the focus points for the scholarship and fellowship applications should be centered around these themes.

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 translate 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 have 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. Thus, if there is something you are passionate about, this is the opportunity to let the admissions committee know.

Regardless of how you choose to apply to WashU, remember to always back up your ideas with concrete examples. It’s one thing to believe in something, but a step better to implement 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!

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