On January 25, 2012, someone on the College Confidential discussion group posted this thread:
Did you ever dump a college from your list because of the type (or number) of essays?
Responses flooded in, mostly from parents of students who had indeed given up on an application because they were intimidated by the essay questions, and many from the students themselves. One woman’s daughter dropped three applications and added one that had easier essay requirements. One aunt reported that her nephews applied to one school only – Iowa State – because the school did not require essays. And another self-proclaimed lazy procrastinator chose her colleges based on the ease of their essay requirements.
Colleges dropped by students ran the gamut and were headed up by Wake Forest and U Chicago: Barnard, Brown (2x), BU, Bryn Mawr, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago (8x), Claremont McKenna (3x), Columbia University (3x), CMC (2x), Cornell, University of Delaware, Duke, Elon, Georgetown, Grinnell (2x), Marquette Honors Program, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, MIT (2x), UNC (3x), Northwestern, Notre Dame (2x), NYU (2x), U Penn (3x), Princeton, Puget Sound, Rice (3x), Rutgers, Tufts (2x), Stanford (2x), Syracuse, UVA, Wake Forest (8x), and Yale (2x).
Why the aversion to unique essay topics?
I could rant about how students are lazy or haven’t received sufficient training in thinking for themselves or thinking creatively. I could suggest that if our educational system did a better job on these fronts, and with teaching writing in general, students would not avoid writing essays that challenged them to invest time and thought. I could also suggest that students don’t start their application process far enough ahead of time to ensure they have the time and attention for some uncommon essay questions.
All of those things might be true, but I am more interested in the schools’ logic behind asking unusual question such as “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” (U Chicago), “What is your favorite ride at the amusement park? How does this reflect your approach to life?” (Emory University), “Imagine you have to wear a costume for a year of your life. What would you pick and why?” (Brandeis University), and “What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?” (Yale).
Why the inclination toward unique essay topics?
Colleges may be showing themselves to be current with the times, as suggested in The new college-admission essay: Short and tweet(ish). Some applications ask for short essay answers of 25 words, such as “My favorite thing about last Tuesday” (University of Maryland), perhaps catering to the Twitter generation. Tufts, George Mason and the University of Dayton allow prospective students to submit a video essay instead of a written one. Students might jump at the chance to communicate in ways that are spreading like wildfire in the world of social media.
The right fit
In the College Confidential discussion, most students reported that they dropped schools not simply because of the essay requirements but because there was an additional reason the school was not a good fit. Some were not excited about their on-campus visit. Some realized when they were asked why they wanted to attend a particular school that they had no good reason. Conversely, some students reported taking on writing difficult essays because a school was their clear first choice. Some loved writing the very same essays that sent other students away (Wake Forest and Chicago essays included). And one student actually rejected a school (Wash U in St. Louis) because they did not ask a supplemental essay question! He thought the school was trying to increase its U.S. News rankings by encouraging applications. Not surprisingly, two other students applied to Wash U (as well as to many other schools – Dartmouth, Harvard, and William & Mary to name a few) because of the simplicity of their essay requirements.
Perhaps colleges like Wake Forest and U Chicago are shooting themselves in the foot. Several anecdotes appeared in the College Confidential discussion about students who got accepted into one school with a simple application (Harvard, for instance) while they were still working on essays for another school. Schools with longer or more complex essay requirements might be losing some qualified and motivated students in addition to the ones who just don’t care enough to jump through the hoops.
Yet for most schools, it appears that they are doing a good job of weeding out applicants. If an Honors application intimidates you, that’s a very good sign that you are not meant to be in that program. If an essay challenge makes you realize that you’re not up for that challenge, regardless of the reason, then that school has done you and itself a favor. What a great strategy for winnowing down the number of applications to a pool of students who will face an extra challenge or two because they want so much to go to a particular school.
As one member of College Confidential, stated, “Frankly, there are too many well-rounded, excellent students applying to the best universities to distinguish a select few without asking stranger, creative questions. It’s there that you begin to see a student’s personality and that’s what gets you in.”
Are essay questions scaring you away from a school? Maybe it’s time to get some help. If you want to brainstorm with a professional about what you could write in response to some of these wacky questions, contact The Essay Expert. We’ll be happy to help.
Established in 1793, Williams College is located in rural Williamstown, Massachusetts. Williams is well-known as a top-tier liberal arts college, currently ranked first among liberal arts colleges in US News & World Report.
Williams has 24 departments and 33 majors across three academic curricular divisions, including humanities, sciences, and social sciences, as well as two small master’s degree programs in art history and development economics. In lieu of minors, students may pursue concentrations, which are groupings of courses focused on topics drawn from multiple disciplines. Current concentrations include Africana Studies, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and Justice and Law, among nine other topics. Popular majors include Economics, History, Psychology, English, and Political Science.
A unique aspect of the Williams curriculum is the tutorial, modeled after the Oxford University style of education. Two students are paired under the guidance of a professor, and take turns developing an independent work, such as an essay or project, and critiquing it. Williams offers 60 to 70 tutorials each year across the curriculum, and more than half of the study body takes advantage of the opportunity to participate and develop critical thinking, writing, and other important skills.
Statistics, Deadlines, and Financial Aid
Williams is a highly selective school, with an admissions rate of 16.8% for the class of 2020. For this class, 1,603 candidates were offered a position on the waitlist, from which 53 applicants were admitted.
Students may apply Early Decision, which is binding, meaning you are expected to matriculate at Williams if accepted, or Regular Decision. Early Decision candidates must submit their applications by November 15th and will be notified of their decisions by December 15th. Admitted students must reply by January 2nd. Regular Decision applications are due January 1st, and candidates will receive their admission decisions by April 1st. Admitted students must reply by May 1st.
Williams has a need-blind admission policy, meaning the admissions committee makes its decisions without regard for students’ ability to pay. Tuition costs $51,490 per year, and total costs amount to about $65,480 per year including room, board, and other fees. For Early Decision applicants, CSS Profile and prior year tax returns are due November 20th, and final aid application requirements are due April 15th. For Regular Decision Applicants, CSS Profile and FAFSA are due February 1st, and tax documents are due to IDOC April 15th. A Net Price Calculator is available to estimate your cost of attending Williams.
Applying to Williams
Williams accepts the Common Application, Coalition Application, or QuestBridge Application, along with the William supplement.
The supplement has four question sections and an optional writing supplement.
In this section, you will enter your start term of Fall 2017, the only available option. You will also indicate whether you are applying Early Decision or Regular Decision, if you are plan on applying for financial aid, and if you intend to use a fee waiver. You may list all gender identities that apply to you, but are not required to do so. Please note that Williams does not discriminate in any way, and your gender identity will not influence your admission decision. You will also state if you are planning to submitting a visual or performing arts portfolio via SlideRoom.
Here, you will list up to three areas of study at Williams (majors or concentrations) that interest you. You don’t need to list all three, but you should list at least one. Keep in mind that you are not declaring a major here, but simply giving the admissions committee an idea of what your current interests are.
This section asks if you have previously applied to Williams. You will also list up to ten ways you learned about Williams. You do not need to provide all ten ways, but should list at least one or two. If you list more than one, add them in order of influence. You will also have the opportunity to add a cell phone number to receive automated calls or texts from Williams.
Here, you will indicate if you have any siblings applying for undergraduate admissions to Williams this year, or if you have had any relatives who attended in the past. If you answer yes, you will be prompted for names, relationship to you, and degrees received. This form specifies parents, stepparents, guardians, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins, but you may add other relatives if you wish. You may also indicate if you have and relatives who ever worked for Williams, and their relationship to you, names, and titles.
Although the Williams writing supplement is optional, when you are one applicant among a standout group of candidates at a highly selective school, it is always a good idea to give yourself an extra edge. Unless there is a reason why the supplemental essay might be detrimental to your application, you should complete the essay—and make it outstanding.
The writing supplement asks the following question:
At Williams we believe that bringing together students and professors in small groups produces extraordinary academic outcomes. Our distinctive Oxford-style tutorial classes—in which two students are guided by a professor in deep exploration of a single topic—are a prime example. Each week the students take turns developing independent work—an essay, a problem set, a piece of art—and critiquing their partner’s work. Focused on close reading, writing, and oral defense of ideas, more than 60 tutorials a year are offered across the curriculum, with titles like “Aesthetic Outrage, “Financial Crises: Causes and Cures, and “Genome Sciences: At the Cutting Edge.”
Imagine yourself in a tutorial at Williams. Of anyone in the world, whom would you choose to be the other student in the class, and why? (Please limit your response to 300 words.)
This essay will take a bit of planning. To begin, you should thoroughly research the Williams tutorials, so you understand exactly what the question is asking. Look into what kinds of tutorials Williams has held in the past. You should also think about what intellectual pursuits or skills you would like to hone. Consider making a list and narrowing it down to the topics that peek your curiosity the most. Next, think about people who might help you grow in the areas you have chosen. It could be a friend, family member, or even a famous person. If it is someone the members of the admissions committee might not know, be sure to describe him or her in detail. Choose someone who could give you good advice and help you intellectually. For more tips on writing the Williams supplemental essay, check out our “How to Write the Williams College 2016-2017 Essays” post.
Additional Application Materials
Along with the application, Williams requires SAT or ACT scores, a secondary school report (sent by your guidance counselor), two teacher recommendations, a $65 application fee, and a mid-year report.
Williams does not offer interviews. Rising high school seniors may speak with admissions offers during the summer, but the conversations do not factor into your admissions decision.
If you have a special talent in visual or performing arts, you may submit a portfolio showcasing your work through SlideRoom.
You may also submit scientific research abstracts if you have conducted scientific or mathematical research and are planning on pursuing research in college. You may submit these with your application or email email@example.com.
The Williams application has fewer requirements than some of the other top-tier schools, but given its low acceptance rate and high prestige, you should still work hard to create a stellar application. Good luck!
Looking for guidance on applying to Williams and other colleges? Sign up for our College Application Guidance Program today. You’ll have the opportunity to meet with a Personal Admissions Specialist to give you one-on-one advice and support.
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.