Maya St. Clair 8 min read 12th Grade, College Application Tips

How I Got Into WashU

…What a funny title, considering I thought I never would. When I first visited WashU and competed for my scholarship, I had to “excuse myself” from a conversation with a professor, head to the bathroom, and cry because I felt so utterly inadequate. 

 

I figured I’d start with that story, if only to encourage you: after all, if I can recover from those depths, there’s truly hope for everyone who feels daunted by WashU. I hope this article will help assuage your fears, bestow some information, and encourage you to apply to my alma mater. (If you’re looking for a broader perspective of WashU, you can consult what CollegeVine has compiled about admissions rates, diversity stats, etc.)

 

Application Context

 

You’re probably inundated with pressure to apply as early as possible, but my case is actually good proof that success is also possible if you apply Regular Decision. It’s embarrassing, but I applied to WashU in late December, cutting it pretty close to the Jan. 2 deadline. Applying during Winter Break was actually a great boon to my essays and materials; I was able to devote a few days straight to my application, which wouldn’t have been possible during school terms. 

 

Ergo, I’d highly recommend working on your application – if not that late – when you at least have a few days away from school with which to concentrate. This allowed me to revise and compare my essays so that they covered all my bases, weren’t redundant, and played off each other interestingly. 

 

When I applied, WashU still asked for a separate application to my scholarship program, the Arts & Sciences Honorary Scholarship. So I had to submit several long essays. However, this is no longer the case: candidates for this merit scholarship are now selected (instead of self-selected) out of the general pool of applicants. I.e., you’re automatically considered. As per WashU’s site: “No separate application is required. Faculty members will screen your admission application and select a group of semi-finalists.” That said, I’ll still be covering, later on, how you can increase your chances of qualifying for a merit scholarship with your regular applications essays.

 

My demographics 

 

For your reference, I’m from the Chicago suburbs (which, if you’re familiar with WashU, describes an infamously large section of the student body. They like Chicagoland). I’m white, which (as you can see) makes me like the majority 56% of students. WashU has been making an effort, especially under its current Chancellor, to diversify this picture both racially and geographically, but it’s still pretty white and Midwestern.

 

I should also let you know that WashU, notoriously, is one of the only schools of its caliber that is not need-blind. While I applied for financial aid and got along fine, as did many of my friends, it still feels like WashU has a weird love-hate relationship with helping out its students with financial difficulties. Like other top universities, WashU offers significant resources for the less-advantaged, but leadership still maintains the policy of considering applicants’ finances during selection. 

 

Recently, WashU has tried to increase their numbers of Pell Grant students, but as you can see, they still tend to favor rich, donor-friendly families in admissions. This selection policy often results in an alienating environment for lower- or middle-class students who attend there, and anyone considering WashU should be aware of this. It should offer you a bit of reassurance as well: if you are not selected, it may not even have anything to do with your merits. As cringe as that is. 

 

My academic and testing profile

 

Primarily, I want to use this section to offer some reassurance to students who are currently feeling the vise of competitiveness. As my anecdote about crying in the bathroom indicates, it’s so frequent and so (sadly) normal to feel inadequate when comparing yourself to your peers. 

 

While I took a pretty ample course load during high school, I constantly felt guilty and inadequate for not pushing myself even further. (“Why didn’t I take 5 APs this semester like my friend? That weightlifting class I loved did harm to my GPA”, etc. etc.) I only had one leadership position in a club my senior year, while it felt like my peers had been presidents and VPs since forever ago. 

 

What the applications process revealed, however, was that credentials and numbers mattered a lot less than 1) my ability to show my intelligence in-person, and 2) the uniqueness that came through in my writing supplements. These qualities are much more compelling than any quantitative data.

 

So while I’m obligated to share my data here, I want to give the huge caveat that MOST OF THIS IS ARBITRARY. These numbers, scores, and classes have not surfaced in my brain for years, though (I know!) at the time they seem to bind the universe itself. Life does progress beyond this fanatical period of tests and rankings.

 

  • GPA: My high school was on a weighted scale, so I was at about 4.2. While many of my peers had more impressive scores, at around 4.5, I think many of my lower-credit electives (art, film, my beloved weightlifting) showed admissions that I was a genuine person. I knew who I was, and pursued what I wanted instead of fastidiously crafting myself to be the perfect alpha student. 

 

  • Class Rank: top 10%. I think I hovered around 25-30th or so, out of a few hundred. I felt self-conscious about not being higher for a long, long time (which was crazy, since my rank was pretty solid). It played much less of a role than people told me it would.

 

  • AP Classes: my high school let us take AP World freshman year, so I did that. Sophomore year: APUSH. Junior year: Calc AB & BC (only one test! Yay!), Government, and Language. Senior year: Stats (didn’t take that test), Literature, Environmental Science, and European History. So I ended up having 2 or so AP classes per semester. Which, again, is sane. 

 

  • ACT: This is the only category that I actually think made a difference, because my score ended up being pretty striking. I took the ACT twice, and got a 35 both times. My math score went up on the second attempt, so when it came to writing down my Superscore for WashU, I could write down 36. So that helped me stand out.

 

As I’ve been in your shoes before, I understand those numbers might cause trepidation and comparison. So I also want to explain how I got the brace of 35s. (Especially since I know for a fact that I could never pull off a 35 today. Not without studying again, at least.) 

 

I was able to thrift and borrow a few practice tests, and acquire some from my school. I practiced these at home, usually one section at a time. I also had the good fortune of taking Calc and AP Language at the time, which really helped for the Math and Reading Comprehension sections. 

 

  • ACT Writing: I didn’t score well here at all – I got a 9. Which is funny enough, since I got scholarships for my essays, and now make a living as a writer. So try your best, as always, but rest easy that this number matters a lot less than the actual writing supplements your applications readers get to see. 

 

  • SAT: didn’t take it. 

 

  • SAT Subject Tests: None. Do I look like a masochist? 

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Extracurriculars

 

CollegeVine is telling me to “list my top 6 extracurriculars.” Which – oh lord, you poor kids; I forgot how little sleep I got in high school. Please know it gets better. For reference, I only cared about, like, two of these activities. 

 

  • Theatre – 4 years. I didn’t win any awards or anything, but it showed a longstanding commitment. (Not featured on my application: total burnout and self-esteem issues!)
  • Lit mag – 3 years. I ended up being editor my senior year. 
  • Academic Team/Quiz Bowl – 4 years, off-and-on.
  • NHS – junior and senior year. (Not pictured: sleeping through all our 6 AM meetings, because I was a normal human being)
  • Writing: this is the important one, because it proves that you don’t have to have a certified job, internship, or club for your interests to count. I wrote novels in my spare time, and won several national awards, like the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Furthermore, this probably helped offset my mediocre ACT writing score. I also applied for, and participated in, the Cindy Bandle Young Critics program in Chicago. 

 

My Application

 

As previously stated, I applied Regular Decision, down to the wire, in a flickering haze of caffeine and holiday leftovers. 

 

I used the Common App, and responded to the prompt “What’s a place where you feel perfectly content?” I wrote about the Renaissance Faire, because 1) I wanted to study the Renaissance in college, and 2) I’m a weeb. I would find out, years later, that the literature prof who reviewed my application actually has a longstanding hatred of Renaissance Faires. Which proves that what matters most about your essay is that it provokes emotion – even if said emotion is blind rage. 

 

I also completed several essay supplements for the scholarship, which no longer exist. However, here’s some strategies I used. You can deploy these to increase your chances for scholarship consideration: 

 

  • Cite academic books, not just textbooks or popular science books. For example, I wrote about David P. Jordan’s The Revolutionary Career of Maximilian Robespierre, from UChicago Press. That demonstrated my interest in serious academic inquiry and research, and proved that I was already a scholarly busybody.
  • Go HAM on your research. For one of my essays, I put together a whole bibliography. Again, showcasing my capabilities as an academic writer.
  • Show intellectual flexibility with a variety of tones and registers. So I wrote my Common App about the Renaissance Faire, right? Bright, merry, quaint, etc. Afterwards, I wrote my first supplemental essay about Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” Which, if you know anything about “Nebraska,” is a bit like showing up to a job interview in a ski mask. Honestly, they could have given me the scholarship or had me committed. As it happens, they gave me the scholarship. The riskiness of my topic might have attracted them. 
  • Address large topics and show complex thinking. For example, my essay about Robespierre centered around the question of “What do you do as a historian if your ‘evil’ subject is actually quite sane and principled?” And the essay about “Nebraska” was about “Where is the line between explaining the psychology of mass killers and romanticizing them as Byronic?” So I didn’t really beat around the bush with commonplace themes like “how family is important” or “research can challenge you sometimes.” Instead, I took hyper-specific lines of inquiry with some built-in controversy. 

 

For more tips on the essays, see CollegeVine’s WashU Essay Breakdown.

 

Interviews

 

WashU rolls out the welcome wagon for prospective students and visiting interviewees. I had a great time over the weekend I was there. “Scholarship Weekend” is when they bring in all the candidates for scholarships and introduce them to the programs, as well as putting them through the final, determinant interviews. You can also visit on similar welcoming weekends, such as the weekend for cultural groups and for art applicants. 

 

If you’re visiting a college, it can be easy to get intimidated by the other prospective students; the worst “conversations” can easily devolve into proxy wars for bragging. There’s always going to be That Person who talks nonstop about their achievements – shut that person out and focus on the positives. (In my case, I actually found out that many of That Person’s claims – including speaking six languages – were calculated bluffs made to intimidate the rest of us as soon as possible.) 

 

I think my admissions chances, and sanity, were saved by the close bonds I made with my fellow contestants. Showing you can cleave to, and share information with, your peers instead of being on a constant guard will demonstrate that you belong in WashU’s collaborative and non-competitive setting.

Conclusion

 

What should you take from this? Mainly, that your personality matters a lot with WashU, as with any college. If I’d only had my ACT score, but no standout essays or unique perspectives, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into WashU, or would not have gotten the scholarship offer I did. 

 

I also want you to leave this article feeling less powerless. I don’t use the word trauma lightly, but I think that college applications season can be a highly traumatic time for students, full of comparison and guilt. Your brain will almost always find some shortcoming with which to torment you and plague you with doubt. That was where I was, when I was crying in the bathroom at my interview. 

 

Please know that you have so much on your application that is under your control. You have reason to feel powerful, even if your path is unconventional and everyone seems to have better cards than you. And in admissions, unlike poker, you don’t lose anything when you bet on yourself. I did – and got to cry in that bathroom for four more years.

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Maya St. Clair
Writer at CollegeVine
Short bio
Maya St. Clair is a freelance writer and Renaissance historian from Illinois. She loves "writing about writing" and helping others achieve the best results with their own prose. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis.