How to Write the Williams College Supplemental Essays 2019-2020
Williams College is found tucked away in the idyllic college town of Williamstown, a liberal arts college renowned for its undergraduate education. Only 2,000 students attend Williams, allowing for a stellar focus on its undergraduates and a 7:1 student-faculty ratio. Williams was founded in 1793, and through its 226 years of existence, has accrued a deep history and a wealth of tightly held traditions.
Williams College has consistently been ranked the nation’s top liberal arts college by the US News College Ranking. Williams is also highly selective: for their class of 2023, the college only admitted 12.4% of its applicants. Notable alumni include former president James A. Garfield, composer Stephen Sondheim, and photographer Walker Evans.
The early decision deadline for Williams is on November 15th, and the regular decision deadline is on January 1st.
Williams College Supplemental Essay Questions:
Choose one of the following: (300 words)
Option 1: 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 your partner in the class, and why?
Option 2: Each Sunday night, in a tradition called Storytime, students, faculty, and staff gather to hear a fellow community member relate a brief story from their life (and to munch on the storyteller’s favorite homemade cookies). What story would you share? What lessons have you drawn from that story, and how would those lessons inform your time at Williams?
Option 3: Every first-year student at Williams lives in an Entry—a thoughtfully constructed microcosm of the student community that’s a defining part of the Williams experience. From the moment they arrive, students find themselves in what’s likely the most diverse collection of backgrounds, perspectives, and interests they’ve ever encountered. What might differentiate you from the 19 other first-year students in an entry? What perspective(s) would you add to the conversation with your peers?
Choosing a single essay may seem daunting at first, as you may wonder if you are choosing the perfect essay prompt that will convey yourself to the reader in the best way possible. However, just like in the Common App personal statement, you may not necessarily have to “choose” your essay. After looking through the prompts and brainstorming parts of your identity and passions that you want to show to the admissions team, you will easily be able to answer any one of the questions, as all three prompts revolve around your personal story, interests, and ambitions, albeit in slightly different fashions. As a result, the prompt choice becomes much less important than distilling your nuances and complexities onto the page.
If you choose this first prompt, there are a couple of points you should make in the essay. First, your possibility of options are infinite in this prompt—as a result, make sure the person and class you settle on reveal important parts of your own background and interests. You definitely want to describe why you chose the person and class you did, but make sure to return the focus back to you, and how you could grow through interacting with this person. The goal of this essay is to allow you to highlight one of your academic interests, so don’t stray too far by fawning over your chosen partner.
Here are some brainstorm questions you should think about before writing:
- Why would you excel in an academic setting with this person?
- What does this person have to teach you, and why you specifically?
- What experiences do you bring to the table to foster a great discussion?
- More broadly, how does the tutorial environment fit your ideal college education?
You should look up the list of tutorials offered for the 2019-2020 school year as a source of valuable information, which is also a good starting place for sparking ideas. If there is a course pertinent to your own interests as well as the person you choose, feel free to mention the course. However, don’t feel limited to these classes, and make up a class topic of your own which you feel like your partner would be an excellent collaborator in (in this case, it could be good to mention a professor whose research deals with the topic you want to focus on).
One note of caution: be wary of choosing incredibly common historical figures: Julius Caesar, Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, Oprah, etc. If you do so, make sure to have a fresh, unique, and persuasive set of reasons as to why you would pick this person. You should also be careful if you decide to talk about very controversial leaders and politicians, past or present. Anything that could evoke strong emotional responses in an outside reader could be risky. On the other hand, if the person you choose is not well known, give a sentence or two introducing to the reader the person’s significance.
Here are some examples:
Example 1: Say you were particularly drawn to the course “Leaving the World Behind: The Literature of Reclusion” because you were always interested in both the relationship between technology and society and literature, your stated major. As a result, you would love to engage in a semester-long course with someone who grew up in an era without constant global communication. To do this, you bring out Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), someone whose texts you poured over while trying to find peace in your own solitude (to no avail). You and Saint Francis, who spent much of his life in solitude and solo travel, could spend each class discussing the relationship between the individual and society, and how this relationship has been negotiated throughout time and space.
Example 2: You could also put a personal twist on the prompt. Say your parents immigrated from Korea, and your Korean identity makes a large portion of who you are. As a result, you choose your grandmother, an incredibly bright woman who fled from North Korea to South Korea as a teenager during the Korean War. As someone planning to study history in college, you want to make sure you learn about your family’s own history and how that fits into a larger framework of foreign policy and global politics. As a result, you would love to take “The Two Koreas” as a tutorial with your grandmother. You would study perceptions of both Koreas from different generations, as well as Koreans in Korea and Koreans living abroad. You also want to know yourself on a deeper level, especially through tracing a legacy of generational war trauma in your family.
Example 3: Say after reading this prompt, instead of focusing on a class topic, you instead immediately think of a person to work with, this person being the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You have read every single one of his novels, interviews, and essays, and yearn to pick the mind of someone you see as the world’s greatest storyteller. However, you wouldn’t want a tutorial class that focuses on his novels, or even the magical realist genre he worked in. Instead, you imagine studying Russian 19th century realist fiction with him, a genre of literature very different in style, but very similar in emotional insight, doing a comparative analysis of sorts. You would also get to hear the plethora of personal stories he could share.
Example 4: Maybe in high school, you fell in love with Richard Feynman’s famous “Feynman Lectures on Physics,” which led you to eventually put your intended major as physics on the Common Application. You would love to take the “Applications of Quantum Mechanics” tutorial with Feynman, who you know to be not just a physicist, but someone with wide-ranging interests in things like Brazilian Samba music and the relationship between science and the government, specifically in his assistance in creating the atomic bomb. As someone who eventually wants to work in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, you want not just to grow deeper in your understanding of physics, but more broadly understand the different ways people configure meaning in the world, whether in physics or music or ethics. You find that Richard Feynman, who struggled with these questions his entire life, could help you get closer to these goals of yours.
The second prompt is also incredibly open: talk about something that happened in your life. Of course, you want the story that you pick to have a greater significance beyond the simple narrative, whether this is a coming of age moment, a moment of realization and clarity, or a moment that has indubitably formed the person you are today. As for what constitutes a “brief story,” think about a singular episode that you could tell someone in person in around ten minutes.
As to the last part of the prompt, “how would these lessons inform your time at Williams,” this could take various shapes and forms. Maybe this is simply being a more community-focused human being on campus, or maybe this could mean creating a campus organization that reflects what you learned, or maybe this means coming into Williams a more open-minded person.
If your Common App essay delves into more serious themes involving your identities and your passions, you could possibly use this essay to reveal more lighthearted, fun elements of your personality. Whether or not you do this, the key here is to show, not tell, as you want your essay to read like a gripping campfire story. You could immerse the admissions reader with the present tense, “in the moment” narrative of your story, or you could use the past tense to evoke a more reflective mood.
As a side note, don’t forget the word “brief” here—you probably don’t want an incredibly long-winded story detailing all your major trials and tribulations. Stick to one event that is illustrative of greater themes in your life.
Dig into your past. Here are a few examples:
Example 1: Say you had a poignant breakthrough moment with your father, with whom you never really had a strong relationship before. Your father, an ex-military, stoic man, never really shared his past with you, but one night you asked him about his days in the military, and he told you a hodgepodge of stories both thrilling and depressing. You learned so much about him that night, allowing you to piece together more of your own identity and where you came from. The lessons you learned that night, that vulnerability bridges relationships, would undoubtedly carry over to Williams, where you have the ability to form once-in-a-lifetime friendships.
Example 2: This could also be a “summer shenanigan” type story if it was a particularly formative experience. Say you and your friends, on one particularly boring summer night, decided to buy goldfishes for many of your other friends. After showing up at your friends’ doors, you were met with equal amounts of shock and laughter, but each friend promised to take care of their fish. What started as a prank turned into a bonding moment where a group of friends collectively took charge of the lives of their goldfishes. You could then transition to talking about how this experience, in a weird way, mirrors the tight undergraduate experience provided at Williams, in regards to how everyone is together pursuing a common goal of learning about the world through a liberal arts curriculum. You also believe these ideas would transition well to a tight-knit cultural group on campus, which for you is Williams South Asian Student Association.
Example 3: Maybe you are still learning the lessons of the story you choose, as the story itself has some unfilled pages. Say you came out to your parents, who immediately rejected you as their child. Talk about how, at the time of writing, you are still trying to negotiate your identity with your status in your family, even though your parents find your situation non-negotiable. You could talk about how, if you were afforded the opportunity to attend Williams and escape from your current surroundings, you could have clearer mental headspace, as well as be able to take part in a welcoming and inclusive environment.
In this “what unique things do you contribute to our school?” prompt, you have a few paragraphs to advocate for and brag about yourself. By no means, however, does this essay have to be a glorified achievements list. If you feel uncomfortable bragging about yourself, reframe the prompt as ultimately being candid about your background. You could also frame it as bragging about your family, or a community you were a part of, and using these groups as a way to illustrate your own identity formation.
We can break down this prompt into the three mentioned facets of diversity: backgrounds, perspectives, and interests. These three obviously overlap with each other, as perspectives and interests often come out of background, but think about each of these three aspects and unearth the most compelling parts of yourself that you think makes you unique.
However, don’t be dissuaded if you aren’t the best in the world at a certain activity, or come from a faraway country most people have not heard of. If you speak with candor and love for your roots and passions, a uniqueness in how you frame yourself will cut through to the readers. Even if you feel like your passion/story is common, with 300 words, you can more than adequately illustrate the complexity and uniqueness of your situation.
Here are a few routes you can take with this prompt:
Example 1: Say your primary interest is in math. Even though this interest is common to many, the reasons why math is so fascinating to you is more unique than just liking problem-solving. Instead, you are passionate about math pedagogy, specifically, how current primary and secondary school math education has been twisted and standardized to a point where you believe it is almost a completely different subject from the one you grew up loving. As a result, you started a math circle with middle school students, allowing them to explore the open-ended and creative side of math so different from algebra and geometry, and in the essay, you can use specific anecdotes with students who disliked school math but loved the math they did in their math circle. In regards to bringing diversity, you could talk about how you treat math as simultaneously a STEM and humanities field, and how this seamless fluidity between the two informs much of your personhood.
Example 2: Say music and the performing arts are your primary interests, another set of common interests. Talk about your rocky experience with the indie band you started in high school, and how all of your preconceived notions of glory and greatness were crushed. You could transition into talking about how you learned from this failure, and how you feel ready to even possibly grab some Entry mates and start a band once more.
Example 3: Say you’re a first generation immigrant who lives in New Mexico. You could talk about how you want to retain your cultural heritage although desiring at the same time to live in a completely foreign environment like New England. Coming from Latin America to New England by way of the American Southwest, your fashion and culture would immediately make you stand out from the other, largely coastal students.
Example 4: Maybe you grew up as a racial, sexual, or economic minority in a community, in which you felt a constant brush of hostility. Although this may also not be entirely unique, maybe the community you grew up in was actually known to the country as an inclusive and progressive community, but your personal experience was anything but that.
Example 5: If you do have a niche interest, such as lepidopterology (the study of moths and butterflies), and are an avid butterfly watcher, talk about why this activity is so important to you. Talk about the joy you feel after spotting a certain butterfly you’d been searching for hours for after traveling to a new environment, or the amazement you feel when looking at butterflies in a natural history museum. You could distill the core parts of this activity into a more generalized set of things you have learned—in the case of lepidopterology, it could be dogged persistence, or the pleasure of immersing yourself into nature without technology, or how you found a community with other lepidopterologist who share your passion.
Overall, after talking about your passion or background, make sure to explain why it is so significant to you, and how that would allow the students in your Entry to grow in their own worldviews. You could also talk with excitement about how you too would love to hear the different perspectives of all those in your Entry, and how the Entry system, in general, would allow you to experience the polar opposite of the cloistered, homogenous environment you grew up in.
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