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How to Write the George Washington University Application Essays 2017-2018

Founded nearly two centuries ago in 1821, George Washington University (GWU or GW) is a private research institution located in urban downtown Washington, D.C. Its establishment was initially advocated for in President George Washington’s first State of the Union address, and through its success it has since expanded to offer three different campuses — Foggy Bottom, Mount Vernon, and the GW Virginia Science and Technology Campus.


The university is well known for preparing students to become leaders with careers in government, international affairs, and journalism, boasting many famous alumni such as Jackie Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. Because of this emphasis, about half of all undergraduate students choose to study abroad through the university’s renowned international program, and they are consistently ranked as one of the most politically active groups in the U.S.


However, GW’s political emphasis is not its only strength as it currently provides 71 different major options, and has a total enrollment of 11,157 undergraduates and 15,500 post-graduate students from more than 130 countries. It utilizes a semester-based academic calendar with tuition and fees costing $70,793 (2017-18). GWU also ranked number #56 in the 2017 edition of the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings.


GWU’s freshman application allows for students to select one of three different prompts to write about as part of their admissions process. CollegeVine is here to provide helpful tips as you approach the essays for the 2017 application.


George Washington University Application Essay Prompts

Please respond to one of the following essay questions in 250 words or fewer.

Essay Option #1

Research shows that an ability to learn from experiences outside the classroom correlates with success in college. What was your greatest learning experience over the past 4 years that took place outside of the traditional classroom?

Before we dive into the specifics of how to answer this prompt, it’s worth noting that the benefit of this first GWU prompt is that it offers students a second opportunity, besides the Common Application essay itself, to deepen their application beyond GPA and scores (although since 2015, GWU has created “scores optional” policy). For this reason, try to create an overarching theme that is distinct from what you have already written.


If, in your Common App essay, you wrote about what you learned from winning a national sports competition with your team, try to reinforce a different, disparate aspect of your resume or personality to avoid sounding redundant or short on material. Writing about participating on a superintendent advisory board and learning how to weigh contrasting administration and student perspectives, or attending a well-known research summer program and learning the benefits of less-structured education are examples of ways you could compliment a sports-themed Common App essay.


Since this prompt asks explicitly about experiences outside of the classroom, and because the Common Application also only offers an extremely limited character count to express your involvement in up to ten activities, it may be a good idea to use this essay as an opportunity to expand if you have been involved in any extracurricular activities or community service groups that would be particularly hard to summarize in less than 25 words. An example of such an activity might be something you founded yourself or something that only your school offers. 

Here are some tips if you decide to go this route while writing about your the greatest learning experience outside of the traditional classroom:


  • While writing about your most laudatory accomplishment in high school may still be the right choice for you, writing with passion about a less traditionally-impressive club or group could feel just as impactful. For example, you could write about learning to be more genuine and intentional with people after becoming involved in a new, small club at your school that focused on anti-bullying and suicide prevention and increasing awareness with underclassman.


  • Other examples could include writing about participating in a religious youth group, taking lessons from a local piano studio, or playing for the same rec soccer team since you were five. Long-standing commitments that have been important enough for you to stick with them will most likely contain good lessons for you to tie in as “learning experiences.” Don’t forget to also address what you gleaned from the activity you choose that will facilitate your smooth transition into GWU.


  • Explaining more about exactly how it will help you in college towards the end of the essay could be a nice touch. Showing initiative and intent about getting involved in the university could help admissions officers picture you there, thereby helping your overall application.


  • Do not use this as a space to list out everything you’ve done outside of school for the last few years. Trying to write about multiple topics will be difficult with only 250 words and will result in simply reiterating what will already be on your activities list.


  • Since this prompt uses the phrase “outside the classroom,” you may immediately think “outside the country” or jump to writing about lessons that you learned through travel. See last year’s CollegeVine guide to writing the 2016-2017 GWU essays for additional tips on addressing this prompt with an experience from abroad.

As with all college essays, do not forget that the emphasis is on teaching them about yourself and what you learned rather than spending too much time explaining the logistics of the experience or trying to use excessively flowery language. Also, remember that if you pick an experience that is somewhat negative, it may be harder to explain the full progression to learning a constructive lesson with only 250 words. Because of this, try to go for writing about a meaningful, positive learning experience if possible.

Essay Option #2

Historians write that Martha Washington was George Washington’s sounding board and closest confidant. Reflect on a significant challenge you have encountered during your high school career. Tell us about the person (mentor, family member, friend, coach, teacher, etc.) who provides support, advice, and wisdom to you in times of difficulty.

This prompt can be misleading in the sense that it may cause you to write an essay that doesn’t focus on showing the admissions office more of who you are. Avoid spending too much of your essay word count writing solely about the other person. One strategy could be to write your essay first without mentioning them, then write a couple of sentences on them and find where would be best to incorporate them afterwards (without sounding choppy). Be careful to find a balance between addressing the prompt and not letting your comments on your mentor take over.


Another point to consider is whether this mentor is already writing you a letter of recommendation. If so, it’s highly possible that they will already write about this challenge in their letter for you and end up making this essay somewhat repetitive. In that case, you may want to consider other people who played supporting roles for you.


Ironically, the most significant challenge involved with addressing this prompt, besides writing about your mentor, is coming up with an appropriate and significant challenge to center the essay around. If you have gone through personal issues that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, you are by no means obligated to write about them or to even choose this prompt.


On the other hand, if you need to spend more than a minute after reading the prompt questioning whether you have had a challenge worth writing about, we urge you to avoid arbitrarily choosing something and over emphasizing its significance to you.


For example, if you were involved in competitive groups such as Debate, DECA, FBLA, SkillsUSA, MUN etc., you could write generally about feeling grateful for the time and effort your advisors or mentors put into getting you through losses and failures inevitable to these types of clubs.


However, picking a more specific challenge that you have experienced instead will typically engage the readers more since you won’t need to write in abstract or vague terms. For example, you could write about how your mentor was able to calm you down right before an important competition as you were experiencing extreme anxiety or dealing with an intense family/personal issue. This could be a moment that really fits the theme of writing about someone providing support and wisdom through difficulty while still highlighting your participation in that activity.


Getting creative with the syntax of this essay could also greatly increase the originality. For example, you could write the essay in the form of a thank you letter addressing your person of importance, or you could write about them more abstractly before revealing who they are at the end of the essay. Think about how authors write forwards in their books as short inspirations for how to credit others for the help they received from them.


Also, if you happen to have had a struggle during high school that at any point impacted your ability to perform academically, this is a good space to provide a clarifying narrative (while avoiding making excuses).

Essay Option #3

We imagine you have spent a great deal of time researching different colleges and universities. Describe how GW offers a strong fit with your interest, talents, and goals.

This essay option falls under the category of “Why Our School?” that appears throughout more than half of all school supplemental essay prompts. It varies slightly in that it references your time spent on applying to other schools which leads to the first caution — do not waste word count writing about any schools other than GWU. Listing all the other schools you applied to or even referencing the work involved in the apps process shifts the focus away from revolving around GW and yourself.


The common challenge for these “Why Us?” essays lies in finding a balance between writing about the school and writing about why you’d fit well. Try using details that are as specific as possible in referencing programs or opportunities that you’d like to take advantage of so that they can picture you there. Make sure there are no inaccuracies and that you somehow tie in what you have done so far in high school as an indicator of an interest that could be continued at the university.


Specific examples could include writing about your own interest in medicine based on past experiences, then writing about how inspired you are by the fact that GWU’s medical center is credited with saving the life of President Ronald Reagan after his attempted assassination at the Washington Hilton Hotel in 1981.

If you were interested in media or communications, you could write about how the School of Media and Public Affairs’ Jack Morton Auditorium is regularly used as a broadcast media venue (even hosting CNN’s “Crossfire” for several years), which attracts you to GW’s opportunities to continue the broadcasting experience you had in high school/during a summer internship/through a family business, etc.

If you happen to know any alumni or students who are currently attending, you could also consider asking them about their experiences at GWU thus far for interesting material. For example, a new student who tells you that they got to attend a lecture conducted by Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Middle Eastern Studies, discussing Iran’s political situation while they were concurrently studying Iran’s recent political upheaval could provide you with relevant and specific material that other students probably won’t have access to, even with creative research.


Do not write about being located just blocks away from the White House. This will almost immediately cause your reader to check out on your essay since it has become so overused and cliché at this point. If you decide to write about politics, just know that it comes with its own unique set of challenges. See last year’s guide again for more tips on making your essay stand out should you choose that route.

Final Tips

If you create incentives for yourself to work on your essay early, and choose a topic that you genuinely care about, then you will end up devoting much more time to it, resulting in a more polished essay. When you start out, taking notes on your phone throughout the day to jot down a few solid ideas for each of the three prompts will make it easier to sit down and start writing drafts rather than trying to come up with ideas while staring at a blank computer screen. Since this essay is singular and so limited in word count, it places a good deal of pressure on both the content and execution.


Remember that it is the admissions office’s job to read through over 25,000 of these essays each year and discern whether you would be a good fit, so avoid topics that are even vaguely cliché and be brutally honest with yourself about whether you would enjoy the essay you’ve written from an outsider’s perspective. Overall, do your best to put in the effort on an idea you feel is unique and still personal/meaningful.


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