written by
Nadiya Atkinson

Williams College Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 9 min read
Image courtesy of Williams College

In this Williams College essay guide, we’ll focus on how to tackle all of the Williams College supplemental essays. 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.

Williams College is a small liberal arts college in the western Massachusetts mountains with a purple cow mascot named Ephelia. The Williams writing supplement is optional, but if you have your heart set on the Purple Valley, take some time to infuse your application with further personality.

General Advice on Writing Supplements

Be specific!

I always tell my students that if you can replace the university name in your supplement with any other and it reads just as well, you haven’t done enough research into the specifics of the school. Which courses are you invested in? Who are the professors that you’d want to work with? What are the programs that the university offers that you can’t find anywhere else?

Take this as an opportunity to truly figure out if you’d like to attend the school - speak to some alums or current students, take an in-person or virtual tour of campus, or even reach out to the faculty. The admissions office can generally tell if your essay is a copy-pasted supplement for every other college. Avoid vague statements and ideas. Bottomline: do your research!

Treat it as an opportunity rather than a task.

The supplement is not typically an essay where you need to prove your academic credentials or worth to the college: instead, admissions officers are giving you another opportunity to share a few more of your values, personality traits, and interests. Have fun with it! What are some of of your core qualities or activities that you simply could not fit into the Common Application? What is something that your friends love about you that a resume cannot communicate?

And write it in your own voice: don’t try to be hilarious and quirky if you do not feel those are fundamental parts of your personality. Be honest with yourself and try not to perform a version of you that you think might be more appealing to the school. You are more than enough.

Write More, then Edit.

Typically, when beginning to tackle the supplements, students find that the word limit constraints of the essay restrict their writing abilities. Often capped at 150 to 300 words, supplements feel too short for any major ideas or revelations, yet too vital for generic thoughts.

My advice? Read the prompt, then set a timer for yourself (5 - 10 minute intervals) and simply free-write whatever comes to mind. Eventually, you will have enough material to begin cutting down, selecting content based on what feels fundamental to your answer. The essay you end up with will be short and concise, with each sentence communicating the details most significant to you.

Show, Don’t Tell.

You may have heard this statement before — the rule that all college advisors swear by, and one piece of advice you will certainly continue to receive throughout the application process. Basically, impactful essays will show the reader the storya bead of sweat rolled down my cheek rather than tell the reader the storyI was anxious. The first is a narrative, the second is an analysis. Show us the story in anecdotes and specifics as much as possible so that the reader can do the analysis. This concept is a bit difficult to grasp at first, but is by far the most vital in college applications (and in all applications as a whole).

Prompt 1

The first-year Entry–a thoughtfully constructed residential microcosm of the student community that’s a defining part of the Williams experience–brings together students from around the world with different perspectives, interests and backgrounds. Imagine having a late-night conversation with your Entrymates about a community that you value. Describe that community and why it’s important to you. (300 words)

Williams College deeply values community: after all, there are approximately 2000 students on campus, surrounded by a town that contains a single main street. In particular, this question focuses on the experience and background that you will bring as a community member and a student.

The admissions team crafts the campus community as a whole and puts care in each entry. An entry is a group of thirty to fifty first-year students living together with three or more “JAs” — Junior Advisors — that are there to guide their entry through potential questions about navigating Williams College and facilitating community-building among the group.

When considering which community to discuss, remember that it doesn’t always need to be something large or what is typically considered “community.” It can be quite specific to you and insular as well. For instance, a community could be your third period pottery class, your extended family, your origami-making lunch group, your ice-skating team, or your co-workers. It truly doesn’t need to be something impressive or something that sets you apart — the most vital part of the question is how you speak about the community and why it’s vital to shaping your identity. Remember, details and specificity is key here: illustrate anecdotes that have created this microcosm in your life. The more specific you are in describing your community and its importance, the more information the reader can learn about you.

Prompt 2

All-Campus Entertainment (ACE), a student organization, hosts events called “Stressbusters”–an opportunity for students to focus on self-care by stepping away from their typical routine and enjoying some unscheduled time (and snacks!) with friends. Weekly Stressbuster activities might include a concert, playing with a therapy dog, painting pumpkins, building with Legos, etc. What’s your version of a “stressbuster,” and how does it help you rejuvenate in the midst of a hectic week? (300 words)

Williams College is a rather intense school, both in education and extracurricular life. Stressbusters are a chance for students to avoid burnout by hanging out with friends and doing an assortment of oddly satisfying activities. Let yourself be creative with this one: Williams appreciates divergent thinking, so a touch of quirk never hurts an application. What kind of activities do you already do to allow yourself to de-stress, and what are the small pleasures you want to have more time for? What are the ones you’d like to share with a larger community? An Avatar: The Last Airbender night? Finger-puppet making? Poetry and hot chocolate campfire? One of my personal favorite Stressbusters was succulent planting.

As to the second part of the question, how does this particular activity allow you to leave a constant work-study mindset to carve out time for personal fun and exercise for the brain? The Admissions Office is asking not only how you take care of yourself and avoid burn-out, but also, what are your interests and passions that don’t fit into what is seen as “valuable” in school or workplace? What do you value when you step outside of resume activities?

Remember to always orient your essay back towards the school in the end! Why are you thrilled about creating a grilled-cheese festival at Williams College? Be sure to explain how you’d like to share your experiences and ideas with the Williams campus community.

Prompt 3

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 pre-determined tutorials are offered across the curriculum each year. Imagine yourself in a tutorial at Williams. What topic would you be most excited to study in that setting and why? (300 words)

For this prompt, reference our previous advice — research, research, research. Look through the Williams College course catalog and find a specific professor and tutorial they teach that you’d be thrilled to take. It is always impressive to an Admissions Office for a student to spend the extra hours investigating Williams and what it has to offer. This is also an opportunity to peruse Williams’ academic offerings and figure out exactly what appeals to you in the departments you look forward to working with.

In supplemental essays, especially the ones that feel most “objective,” it is necessary to continue to make it personal. Why do you want to take this tutorial? What in your life connects you to this topic? Show us. The reader is not interested in being convinced why a particular area of study is fascinating — they are invested in the reasons that you feel the subject shapes your perception of the world. They do not need a dissertation on why neuroscience is vital to understanding the human existence, but rather how and why you are drawn to neuroscience and how it shapes the way you operate in the world.

And of course, don’t forget to answer the second part of the question: why are you seeking an intimate experience with this area of study? In a tutorial, you have a partner to bounce ideas off of, disagree with, and learn alongside. Why would delving intensely into this topic with a professor help you open up your understanding?

On that note, why not reach out to that professor to have a conversation about their specialty if you’re feeling adventurous? The best-case scenario is that you learn more about the faculty at Williams and their particular interests. Worst-case scenario, the email simply is lost in their inbox. Go out on a limb! More likely than not, you’ll come away with even more insight to the Williams College experience.

Prompt 4

As part of your application, you’ll have the option of uploading an essay from a humanities or social science course.

This question in particular is rather straightforward: if you have a paper you are particularly proud of from your last year of high school, the admissions committee would like to investigate your academic writing. This can be a piece of writing from any humanities or social studies course that you feel accurately represents your best writing.

Try not to submit essays that you are not confident about or essays that you and your teacher disagreed upon — even if you believe you wrote an incredible essay on Moby Dick, but your English teacher did not appreciate your analysis of Ahab’s anti-religious fervor, you might want to try submitting a differing piece of writing.

Make sure that the essay is an appropriate length — two pages is likely too short and ten likely too long. Attempt to give the admissions team a thorough, but not indulgent, look into your work as an academic writer.

Final Thoughts

- Be specific.

- Always relate the question back to you.

- Take a risk and let your personality and voice take center in these essays.

- Do your research into the school: know why you want to go.

- Let yourself free-write and then cut to word count.

- Show, don’t tell.

The college applications process is certainly one that invokes quite a bit of stress for any high school senior. Just remember that Williams College is grateful that you are applying, and your readers are simply looking for your story. Write with honesty, confidence, and invention: you don’t have to be a world-class champion or even know exactly what you want to major in.

Finally, remember to take care of your mental health, and see you on Spring Street next year!


This Williams College essay guide was written by Nadiya Atkinson, Williams College ‘21. If you want to get help writing your Williams application essays from Nadiya or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, register with Bullseye today.

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