WashU Essay Guide

In this Washington University essay guide, I will discuss how to approach the supplemental essay prompt for Washington University. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) is a private, medium-sized research university located in St. Louis, Missouri. It has one supplemental essay that will be paired with your main college essay for the Common App or Coalition App to help admissions officers learn more about you, your academic interests, and how you developed your passions.

If you are applying to any of the four undergraduate schools within Washington University in St. Louis – the College of Arts & Sciences, Olin Business School, McKelvey School of Engineering, or Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts – you will answer Prompt 1. If you are NOT applying to any of the four undergraduate colleges and opt to apply to the Beyond Boundaries program, you will instead answer Prompt 2.

Note that although Washington University has 4 undergraduate schools, these schools cover 5 undergraduate divisions, since the divisions of Architecture and Art both fall within the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

Prompt 1: 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 other pursuit. (Maximum 300 words)

There are a few things to decide on before you answer this question: 1) your spark, 2) your program/area of study, and 3) how they connect. With a maximum of 300 words, the majority of your short answer will be focused on your spark, followed by reflection.

Brainstorming and choosing a “spark”

Start with what you know. Do you have something in mind for your spark, something in mind for your program/area of study, or both?

If you aren’t exactly sure how to choose a spark or which program/area of study to pursue, don’t worry. In this case, I recommend first choosing a spark, then matching a program/area of study to your spark. Don’t stress about choosing a undergraduate school or major within Washington University – your major upon application won’t be binding, and it’s incredibly easy to change majors, change schools, and add new majors/minors at Washington University once you start school!

To determine which spark to highlight, think about what interests you most – this could be an extracurricular, personal project, or even a question that keeps you up at night. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend setting some time aside to brainstorm. Set a timer for 10 minutes, then try listing every idea, book, project, cultural activity, work of art, start-up, music, movie, research, innovation, question, etc. that you can think of. When the timer goes off, pick out 2-4 topics that interest you most, and set a new timer for 10 minutes. For each topic you choose, spend 10 minutes writing as much as you can about that topic. Was there any topic where the 10 minutes wasn’t enough? That topic can possibly be your spark.

I knew that I wanted to study Biomedical Engineering (BME) and apply to McKelvey. The part that excited me most about BME was the idea of learning how to design biological models for cellular functions – how to simulate the conditions for a neuron to fire an action potential or how to model metabolic processes. Thinking back to what inspired me most to pursue BME, I could easily talk about my experiences preparing for the Protein Modeling event in Science Olympiad, doing summer research on cellular degradation, or taking AP Biology, but these were all covered elsewhere elsewhere in my Washington University application. Instead, the spark that stood out to me most was watching a TED talk about DNA origami. I remember watching the video and going down an Internet rabbit hole of experimental assays and key discoveries in biotechnology. The video made me curious, led me to new topics like biological modeling, which led me to BME.


Once you’ve determined what you want to write about, ask yourself a quick question before you start drafting: Is this something I have already discussed in my Common App or Coalition App essay? If so, you may want to brainstorm some new topics that will show the admissions officers another side of you. If your absolute passion is Creative Writing, but this is already the topic of your Common App essay, is there another activity you can discuss that shows where you get your creative inspiration? If your passion is Finance, but you’ve already discussed your involvement in your school’s Investment Club, is there another activity you enjoy that helped you develop the key skills you plan to apply to Finance?

The more you can diversify the topics in your essays, the more about yourself you can show admissions officers. Don’t be afraid to talk about something drastically different from your main essay – it’s actually better to highlight your unique passions!

Before pairing your spark with a program/area of study, check: Is this something that sparks your intellectual interest and curiosity? While many topics can be inspirational, Washington University’s supplement is specifically looking for something that sparks an intellectual interest and curiosity – however, there are many ways to define this. If your spark is going birdwatching on nature hikes, does this inspire you to study ecology or animal behavior within the biological sciences? Or if your spark is developing conspiracy theories from Marvel movies, does this inspire you to analyze texts to synthesize literary criticisms?

Relating your interest to a field of study

Once you’ve settled on a spark, it’s time to match your background with a program/area of study – whatever you hope to pursue in the future. For this, I recommend starting with one of Washington University’s undergraduate colleges and browsing through the available majors. For general topics, the College of Arts & Sciences will have a variety of majors to choose from. Whichever program you choose, be able to explain in 1-2 sentences why this area connects back to the spark you’ve introduced.

Finally, once you’ve decided what you’re going to discuss, write a draft, and check that you’ve fully answered the prompt. Is the spark you chose something that you can justify as intellectual? Does it show the depth of your interest and curiosity? Is the program/area of study something that is offered at Washington University? Did you explain how your spark and intended major are connected? If you can answer yes to each of these questions, then well done!

Alternate Prompt 1: 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. (Maximum 300 words)

When applying to the Beyond Boundaries program, you can use the same advice as seen above, focusing on 1) your spark, 2) your program/area of study, and 3) how they connect. However, to fully answer the Beyond Boundaries prompt, you will also need to add 4) how your interdisciplinary interests can be fulfilled at Washington University. Unlike with the previous prompt, you may also draw upon the three graduate schools – the School of Medicine, School of Law, and the Brown School (Social Work and Public Health) – in your answer.

To best approach the additional layer to this prompt, specifically consider what you want to accomplish by combining multiple sparks to explore various disciplines. If you’re passionate about astronomy, sustainability, and origami, maybe you can design folded solar panels to be launched into space by leveraging an education from the Physics department in ArtSci, Mechanical Engineering from McKelvey, and Architecture from Sam Fox.

If your sparks are directly connected to a great challenge you want to tackle, consider what interdisciplinary departments would be ideal collaborations. If curing Alzheimer’s is a challenge you want to tackle, maybe you can pursue Biology: Neuroscience or Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology (PNP) through ArtSci, do research with the School of Medicine, investigate social impacts of the disease through Social Work with the Brown School, or even introduce a technological solution through the Computer Science department in McKelvey.

Overall, the Washington University supplemental essay is a short prompt for you to express your passions and connect them to your future at Washington University. If you’re applying to any of the four undergraduate colleges, this prompt is an opportunity for you to explain how your past experiences have inspired you explore the future. If you’re applying to the Beyond Boundaries program, the prompt also calls on you to creatively utilize resources from various departments and schools at Washington University in St. Louis.

This Washington University essay guide was written by Lily Xu, Washington University in St. Louis 20. If you want to get help writing your WashU application essays from Lily or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.