Questbridge Essay Questions 2011


What are best proofreading practices?

What grammar essentials should I keep in mind?

What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

Which cliches should I avoid?


What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

How many paragraphs should I use?

How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

How can I identify and avoid tangents?


How can I make a good first impression?

What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?


What are best proofreading practices?

There are three essential elements to proofreading:

  1. Revise, revise, revise. You should plan on going through many drafts. You shouldn't be afraid to completely start from scratch, or change the primary point of your essay. Avoid refusing to change your primary content/topic as you edit; you might find later on that you have a more compelling story to tell than what you began with.
  2. Read your essay out loud. Slowly, backward, sentence by sentence, in as many ways as possible. This will help you catch errors that your eyes gloss over when reading. 
  3. Ask as many people for help as you can. Remember to ask them in person if they are able to help you before sending your essay along and give them several weeks to review your essay. The more tips you can get, the better. You don't have to take all the advice they give you — go with what you think will be most helpful. 

For more proofreading advice, we suggest the How to Proofread guide and the Editing Checklist of twelve common errors from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.


What grammar essentials should I keep in mind

Correct grammar and writing mechanics, including spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, allow readers to easily navigate your essay and clearly understand the message that you want to convey. An essay with major errors or even consistent minor mistakes will make it difficult for readers to focus on the story you are trying to tell them about yourself. Instead, they may become distracted by these mistakes and struggle to process the meaning of individual sentences.

Consider the difference correct grammar can make between these two sentences.

  1. Incorrect grammar: This is the first time, I had ben told I was special; I wasnt about to let this opportunity slip away as i watched.
  2. Correct grammar: This was the first time I had been told I was special and I wasn’t about to let this opportunity slip away as I watched.

Carefully proofreading your essay for errors is a critical step in polishing your essay. 

Below are three areas students consistently struggle with:

Spelling: The spell check feature in your word processing program (e.g., Microsoft Word) is your first defense. Keep in mind that a misspelled word may itself be the correct spelling of a completely different word — your spell check may not catch these types of errors. A good resource is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Than/then, we're/were, there/their and effect/affect are all examples of common misspellings. 

Punctuation: The Grammarly Handbook includes separate tutorials on individual punctuation marks. Be particularly mindful of how you use commas, semicolons, and dashes, and be careful not to overuse the latter two.

Verb tenses: Verb tenses provide information to the reader about what point in time an action takes place. There are six basic tenses in the English language, three simple (past, present, and future) and three perfect (past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect). You might use only one tense in your essay, but it’s more likely that you will need to use different tenses in different sections of your essay, or even within the same sentence (e.g., "In elementary school, I hoped to be an astronaut when I grew up, but now I plan to become a medical researcher").

For example, perhaps you use past tense when relating a specific experience, and then shift back to present tense later in the essay when describing who you are now. Be careful to be consistent with your tenses, especially when making lots of revisions (don’t switch back and forth between present and past in the same story). It can be easy to accidentally shift tenses when making lots of edits, so proofread carefully. Here's an example of what a sentence with improper tense use can look like, and how to solve it.

  1. Improper mixed tenses: As my dad was opening the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.
  2. Resolved (past tense): As my dad opened the door my heart was racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes would have on me.
  3. Resolved (present tense): As my dad opens the door my heart is racing, knowing the impact the next few minutes will have on me.

For more grammar help, two good resources are the Grammarly Handbook and the Grammar, Punctuation, and Style section in Haverford College’s Resources for Writers. 


What are run-on sentences and how can I avoid them?

Run-on sentences are two or more sentences joined incorrectly or even just unwisely. Complex sentences, when used carefully, make your writing more sophisticated. However, these sentences still must be grammatically correct and should not be so long that they make it difficult for the reader to follow your thoughts. There are a few different mistakes to avoid:

Fused sentences: A fused sentence is two separate independent clauses (complete sentences on their own) joined without punctuation or conjunctions (and, but, or, however, therefore, etc.).

  1. Bad example: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  2. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us, and I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.
  3. How it can be improved: At home my brothers were loud enough for all of us. I preferred the quiet escape of books and music.

Comma splices: A comma splice is when two independent clauses are joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) or with a word that is not one of these conjunctions.

  1. Bad example: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  2. How it can be improved: I escaped the tension at home by driving to the beach, but even then my mind couldn't stay still.
  3. Bad example: I always thought I would attend my local community college, however, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.
  4. How it can be improved: I always thought I would attend my local community college. However, my plans took an unexpected turn when I heard about QuestBridge during my sophomore year of high school.

Sentences that are too long: A complex sentence that is grammatically correct can still, if not constructed carefully and thoughtfully, be unnecessary and hard for readers to understand. Try reading your essay out loud to find any run-on sentences in this category, and then break them into smaller sentences.

  1. Bad example: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand, because I knew we could only get through this together.
  2. How it can be improved: As we pulled up the driveway, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I reached over and grabbed my mom's hand. I knew we could only get through this together.

Please keep in mind that there is always more than one way to correct any run-on sentence; the above examples do not represent all possibilities.


When is it appropriate to use sentence fragments?

A sentence fragment is a group of words that cannot grammatically stand alone as a sentence — it is missing a subject and/or a verb or is a dependent clause. For a good explanation of sentence fragments and how to correct them, please see Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

While most sentence fragments should be corrected, thoughtfully and creatively using them for special purposes can strengthen your essay. Specific instances where it's okay to use a sentence fragment include when it:

  • Is used for emphasis
  • Answers a question
  • Functions as a transition
  • Is an exclamation


Is it okay to use a thesaurus as I write?

A well-written essay will use varied vocabulary that is not overly simplistic, and making good use of a thesaurus can strengthen your essay. However, in an effort to sound more sophisticated, be careful not to rely so much on a thesaurus that your language sounds unnatural and perhaps includes words that even the reader doesn't understand. Your essay should still be in your voice, and should not simply include the biggest words you can find. When the reader can tell that a thesaurus was overused, it may become difficult to focus on your message instead of simply the large words that you use. Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

  • Unnatural: I invariably find myself ambushed beneath copious volumes of course-work, laboring to inhale air.
  • Natural: I always seem to be trapped beneath copious amounts of homework, struggling to grab a breath of air.

You'll notice that the second sentence still contains with word "copious", which is generally not be used in everyday conversation. It works well in this case, because the sentence is not full of words that appear to be pulled from a thesaurus. Furthermore, the word itself enhances the image the author is trying to convey without being so obscure that the reader has to look up the definition.


Which cliches should I avoid?

Certain common phrases become cliche when they are overused and portray a lack of original thought. College admissions officers read dozens, often hundreds, of essays — you want your essay to stand out, not blend in with the crowd. One way to do that is to avoid these types of phrases, and instead find a way to creatively convey your thoughts in your own original words. Below are some examples of these types of phrases:

  • In today’s society…
  • At the end of the day…
  • Live life to the fullest…
  • All walks of life…
  • Survival of the fittest…

For more on cliches, including additional examples and strategies to avoid them, see the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center.


What is the concept of "flow" and why is it so important?

"Flow" is often used to describe the way that the essay moves from point to point. It can refer to each paragraph or how the paragraphs are connected to one another. An essay that flows well does not include choppy sentences, illogical structure, or paragraphs that are out of sequence. An essay that flows well includes transitions and transitional devices. 

Your essay should also have a common thread that connects each paragraph logically. 


How many paragraphs should I use?

Essays of this length generally work best with more than one paragraph. These paragraphs can simply follow a typical essay layout: introduction, body paragraphs, conclusion.

In the introduction, grab the reader’s attention and clearly explain the subject of the essay. Avoid repeating the essay prompt so your introduction stands out. Make sure your body paragraphs are in logical order and develop your primary point(s). There is no set number of body paragraphs for an essay and a good paragraph has one central point. In the conclusion, you can summarize your main points and leave your readers with an impactful final sentence.

Remember, you should feel free to use paragraphs in whichever way fits your essay. It's perfectly fine to leave a quote or short phrase as a separate paragraph, just be sure to have someone else make sure your essay reads easily.

Tip: it's easiest to read essays with a line break between each paragraph!


How can I use transitions to improve the flow of my essay?

Transitions can be a few words or even a few sentences. They connect your ideas and views throughout the essay. A list of transitional devices can be found here.

When writing your college admissions essay, it can be easy to jump from one idea to another, as you might want to talk about many different things. First and foremost, we suggest narrowing your focus to a few key ideas or topics. Then, make sure that every sentence and paragraph leads to each other. You don't want to leave the reader behind as you quickly move from one idea to the next.

Here is an example of a how a transition can improve the flow within a paragraph. (Source here.)

  1. Before transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. There are other things to note about Tan as well. Amy Tan also participates in the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders with Stephen King and Dave Barry.
  2. With transition: Amy Tan became a famous author after her novel, The Joy Luck Club, skyrocketed up the bestseller list. Though her fiction is well known, her work with the satirical garage band the Rock Bottom Remainders receives far less publicity.

Similarly, you should make sure that the reader can understand why one paragraph follows the other. You want your ideas to build off of each other throughout the essay, instead of being fragmented. Use transitions to achieve that goal.


What does "full circle" mean and how can I incorporate it?

An effective essay is one that successfully concludes all the ideas it has carried throughout. This is done most effectively when there is a common thread that is concluded at the end of your essay. 

For example, a student might write about three different ideas in their essay:

  1. How their family has taught them to be grateful.
  2. How they have grown into a leader during high school.
  3. Their desire to give back to their community after college.

To come "full circle" they will need to touch on each of these points near the end of their essay. Doing so will tie the ideas together more cohesively in the readers mind and help them follow the structure of the essay. Similarly, a student might write about just one primary point (for example, how they have grown into a leader during high school). They should still include a summative statements and/or a paragraph near the end that wrap up their thoughts on this matter. Bringing you essay full circle will allow you to emphasize your primary point(s) and leave a lasting impression.

It can also be effective to refer back to your introduction in your final sentences. In this sample essay, you can see how the author mirrored the same sentence type at the end (with the student calling and speaking to someone on the phone). In doing so, the difference between those two phone calls, and thus the personal growth of the author, is emphasized. This neatly brings the essay and the points therein full circle. 


How can I identify and avoid tangents?

When you are writing about something that is personal to you or that you are passionate about, you can easily go off on a tangent. When this happens, you lose sight of the point you are trying to make and lead the reader to a completely different topic. The best way to avoid tangents is to ask someone to proofread your essay for you. Sometimes you may not know that you have strayed off topic.

If you are not comfortable with asking someone to read your essay, read your essay carefully. If each paragraph and sentence supports the main point of your essay, you have successfully avoided unnecessary tangents.


How can I make a good first impression?

The reader's first impression of your essay isn’t limited to what you write in your first sentence — the entire first paragraph is filled with opportunity to leave a good first impression. The beginning of your essay is also a space for you to introduce the themes you will use throughout your essay. Remember, you don’t have to start with a conversation, event, or other creative piece of writing, although that is one strategy.

Admissions officers read hundreds of college applications and essays. It takes effort to stand out from the crowd and make them want to thoughtfully read your essay, instead of just skim it. A great first impression will give your essay (and thus, your entire application) a head start.

Sometimes it’s easiest to write your introduction after you’ve written the rest of your essay. You might find that there’s a quote, or some symbolism, or other detail you want to start with at the beginning and carry throughout the rest of your essay. If you find yourself spending too much time on the introduction, write other parts of the essay and come back to it later!


What are cliche essay introductions that I should avoid?

There are many ways to begin an essay, and some are more common than others. Contrary to what you might have been taught in school, you should avoid repeating the essay prompt to make your introduction stand out.

For example, the QuestBridge National College Match biographical essay topic has historically asked students to: “describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations."

Accordingly, many essays begin with some variation of the following: “There have been many factors and challenges that have shaped my life and aspirations.

Avoid falling into the “cliche introduction” trap by never repeating the prompt verbatim. Using a few words from the prompt is acceptable, but often there are more interesting and captivating ways to begin your essay.


What is a "common thread" and why is it important?

The term "common thread" refers to an idea, topic, or theme that is carried throughout your essay. It doesn’t have to be explicit — you don’t have to explain how every paragraph relates to the common thread. However, it should be prevalent enough to ensure your essay is united. It can be particularly difficult to use common threads in biographical essays, but that is where they are most important. Unfortunately, there will never be enough space to tell your complete story. Instead, you should use a common thread to convey the primary point you want admissions officers to understand about yourself. When they finish your essay, what is the one thing you want them to remember about you?

In this sample essay, the student’s common thread is the process of growing from a follower into a leader. This character growth and maturity are the one thing the student wants to stand out above all else. You can see how this thread is weaved subtly into the essay — it’s present, but not overwhelming.


How am I supposed to make a unique point in my essay?

With thousands of students writing essays in response to the same prompts, certain topics quickly become overused. To avoid these, take time to think about what makes you unique. Here are a few ways you can get started in this brainstorm process:

  • List adjectives that describe you.
  • Make a timeline of your life.
  • Reflect on a memorable event.

There are several cliche college essay topics that you should be aware of: 

  • The Big Issue: I believe that world peace is the most important…
  • Tales of My Successes: I’m student body president and…
  • The Jock Essay: Football taught me the importance of teamwork…
  • The Autobiography: I was born on February 22, 1996…
  • The Significant Relationship: My mom/dad/boyfriend changed my life…
  • Moving: I attended three different middle schools…
  • The Trip: I had to adjust to a different culture in my trip to…
  • The Academic Risk: I took all APs and risked not getting a 4.0…

(Adapted from Harry Bauld’s On Writing the College Application Essay)

While you are welcome to write about any of these topics, please know that many students do write about them. You should be convinced that you have a unique spin on that particular topic that will really make your essay memorable. Also, remember that a topic does not have to be particularly thrilling to be unique. It’s possible to write a compelling essay about something as mundane as working at a fast food restaurant! What really matters is the time and effort you put into writing your essay.


Why is it so important to focus the essay on myself?

The college admissions essay isn’t just a place to demonstrate your writing skills, it’s also the place where the reader should learn more about you. Many college essays are well written, but miss the target because they focus on someone or something besides the student. A perfect example of this is an essay that primarily tells the story of a student’s mother. While it’s entirely possible that the student’s mother is an inspiring person, the college is deciding whether or not to admit the student, not the mother. An essay that doesn’t give the admissions officers more insight into yourself doesn’t pull it’s weight in your application.

At the same time, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about people in your life who are important to your development and story. Just be sure to do so in a way that emphasizes the person’s impact on your life and your own personal development. In this sample essay, some details about the student’s parents are included but the primary focus is on the student.


How and where can I add more detail to my essay?

Your college essay is a perfect place to add in the interesting, descriptive details you might leave out of academic papers. By "details" we mean a few different things:

Adjectives and adverbs — use these to help your story come to life for your reader. In the following examples, the writer is saying essentially the same thing, but by using more descriptive writing, the second example is far more engaging and interesting to read.

  • Little detail: I walked into my first high school class, feeling nervous.
  • More detail: On September 2nd, at 7:58 a.m., I walked into the first class of my high school career. My stomach churned as my nerves overwhelmed my emotions.

Describing a setting, situation, or event with concrete examples to back up your description. In the following example, the writer talks about his/her hometown in two very different ways.

  • Little detail: My hometown is a small town in a very rural area. It is very isolated from the more urban areas of New York.
  • More detail: My hometown, located along the rural stretches of the Columbia River, has a population of 523. 

Speak of broad topics, such as a personal character quality, while offering evidence in support of it. In the following examples, the writer claims to have a strong work ethic, but only in the second example does the writer illustrate this.

  • Little detail: Throughout my life I have developed a strong work ethic. There have been many things that have taught me the value of hard work. My parents in particular made sure I developed a strong work ethic as I grew up. Although I used to have little self-discipline, I am now driven by my strong work ethic.
  • More detail: Beginning in middle school, I was expected to work at my parent’s store during the summer. I stocked shelves, assisted customers, and swept the floor as a full time employee. Those long summer days allowed me to recognize the value of hard work, and gain respect for my parents’ self-discipline. My strong work ethic can be directly credited to those working summers.


How do I strike a balance between challenges and successes?

Students from low-income backgrounds may have encountered many challenges in life. While those challenges and obstacles are worthy of mention, it's important to focus on how they were overcome. The ability to reach high achievement levels in the face of these obstacles is noteworthy, and admissions officers want to hear more about that. They don't, however, want to read an entire essay that is excessively negative — where it seems the writer hasn't learned anything from the challenges he or she has faced.

Avoid listing the challenges you have faced. Instead, mention them but then shift to explaining what you learned as a result, how you were inspired, etc. In doing so, you will show great character development and a maturity that admissions officers are looking for.


On the occasion of the graduation of Williams’ 400th QuestBridge scholar in June, the magazine looks at the college’s work to expand access to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. To read about the first cohort of QuestBridge graduates, see The Quest Continues.

By Michael Blanding ’95

“I feel like I can literally go anywhere in the world.”

Like many of his classmates, Jonathon Burne ’17 expressed a sense of possibility as he prepared to graduate in June. But for the Arabic studies and political science major, who is headed to New York for a fellowship in immigration law, the words carried a deeper meaning.

Before coming to Williams, he had neither traveled outside Southern California nor considered an elite four-year college as an option.

Burne’s mother emigrated to the U.S. from Honduras. His father grew up in a middle-class family in Orange County. They met when she became his drug addiction counselor. A few years after Burne was born, his parents began using methadone and heroin together. Then they began manufacturing drugs and ended up in jail.

Burne went to live with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather was a linguistics professor and instilled in him a love of reading. Burne’s parents divorced soon after they got out of jail, and Burne bounced between Los Angeles and Orange County. He attended five different school systems while navigating ongoing instability in his family.

In high school, his honors history teacher told him about QuestBridge, a program that connects academically qualified students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with highly selective colleges. The opportunity seemed inconceivable to him.

“I had no way to conceptualize the idea of free money for college,” says Burne. “Yet there was a community of people who had come from backgrounds similar to mine and found ways to thrive.”

He joined Williams’ Class of 2017 with nine other QuestBridge students receiving full scholarships. Another 50 students affiliated with the program, who received nearly full scholarships, enrolled as well.

In four short years, Burne traveled to seven different countries through Winter Study courses and summer fellowships. He spent the spring semester of his junior year in Amman, Jordan. He stayed on for a summer internship with an international development law firm and enrolled at a Jordanian institute for language studies. The experiences reaffirmed his “commitment to serving vulnerable migrant populations through academic, humanitarian and legal advocacy,” he says.

When Burne and his classmates crossed the stage at Williams’ 228th Commencement, the college celebrated the graduation of its 400th QuestBridge student since joining the program in 2004. It’s just one of a number of initiatives at Williams that, over the past several decades, have added up to measurable results—not only in broadening access for exceptional low-income students but also in building the most talented and diverse student body possible.

“Socioeconomic diversity isn’t a nice add-on,” says Williams President Adam Falk. “It’s essential to every element of our mission to have a broad impact on the world. If we’re going to be relevant to society in the century to come, we have to educate students from every part of that society.”

Higher education is widely considered to be a powerful engine of upward mobility. But a growing body of research is calling into question how well colleges and universities fulfill that role. One series of studies comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project, led by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. The research, published earlier this year, shows that it’s increasingly difficult for people born after 1980 to move up the economic ladder and achieve more than their parents did.

Another Chetty study shows that the “opportunity gap” is growing, especially among the nation’s 38 elite colleges and universities. Approximately one in four of the richest students—those in the top 1 percent of the income distribution—attends an elite college, compared to less than half of 1 percent of the poorest students—those in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

“If you look at access at elite colleges in the last 20 years or so, there’s been virtually no change,” says Benny Goldman, a pre-doctoral fellow on the research team.

Williams is one of a handful of schools that are the exception, Goldman says. Comparing the Class of 2003 to the Class of 2011, the share of students from the bottom three-fifths of the household income distribution increased from 14 to 20 percent. And the share from the bottom fifth of the scale increased from 2.5 to 5 percent.

“That’s a doubling of representation,” Goldman says. “It’s clear Williams has made quite a bit of progress.”

The progress rests in part on a solid financial foundation. Williams is one of only 44 schools in the country that practices need-blind admission and meets 100 percent of demonstrated need, awarding $52 million in scholarships each year. To do this, the college has more than quadrupled its financial aid budget over the past 15 years, offering aid to 4,000 students during that time.

Jared Currier ’09 received an MBA at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and now works in marketing at General Mills. (Photo by Ryan Donnell)

Access is also a focus in Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams, a $650 million fundraising effort now in its third year. The college set a goal of $150 million in endowed support for financial aid, with an eye toward endowing the entire program over several decades.

But financial aid alone can’t move the needle on accessibility, which Williams recognized not long after it established its need-blind admission policy in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) ranked its 35 members—private liberal arts schools that were highly selective and need blind—according to the percentage of students receiving aid of any kind. Williams was second from last, with 28 percent.

“It was upsetting,” says Tom Parker ’69, then Williams’ associate director of admission. “We asked some hard questions about why.”

Williams convened a financial aid task force, which set a goal of increasing the number of aided students to 40 percent by 1990. The admission office cast a wider net in recruiting and began using student data from the College Board to target communications about financial aid to academically qualified, low-income students.

Meanwhile, in 1989, a group of Williams economists, including Catharine Bond Hill ’76, launched the Williams Project on the Economics of Higher Education to examine accessibility more broadly. Funded with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and often using Williams as a test case, the researchers published data-driven books, articles and working papers on a number of topics, including whether low-income students underperformed their more affluent peers academically (they didn’t); what low-income students at COFHE schools paid out of pocket for tuition (too much, prompting Williams to virtually eliminate loans from aid packages); and whether there really were enough high-ability, low-income students out there to meet enrollment targets (there were).

So, if the academically qualified students were out there, and the financial aid was readily available to them, why weren’t they applying to Williams—or to any other highly selective schools? That question has driven much of the college’s work on accessibility.

Naya-Joi Martin ’09 has a business degree from Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and now works for its admission office. (Photo by Kay Hinton/Emory Photo)

Each year, an estimated 30,000 students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds are academically qualified to attend Williams and its peer institutions. Yet many of these students don’t apply to a single highly selective college.

Some don’t know these schools exist or are a viable option. Some are overwhelmed by the admission and financial aid processes. Some are reluctant to disclose socioeconomic information or lack something in their applications—an essay or references—that provides information about their backgrounds or circumstances.

Enter QuestBridge. In 1987, Stanford undergraduates Marc Lawrence and Michael McCullough began bringing economically disadvantaged high school students from East Palo Alto to campus each day for college-level classes and clinical experiences. The program soon grew into a five-week residency for high schoolers around the country that continues to this day. But McCullough felt the program didn’t reach far enough.

He and his future wife, Ana, developed QuestBridge in response. “There was so much interest in what we were doing and so many students that could use the support in ways that we knew how to do,” Ana McCullough says.

The “bridge” in QuestBridge is simple. The program identifies exceptional students who meet the criteria for admission at one of its highly selective college partners and helps those students apply to the college of their choice. The colleges, meanwhile, provide full scholarships to QuestBridge “matches” and meet the demonstrated need for a larger pool of students who just miss the financial qualifications for a full scholarship.

Amherst, where Parker joined the admission office in 1999 after serving as admission director at Williams, was one of the first schools to join QuestBridge in 2003.

“The faculty advisory committee was overwhelmed,” he says of response to the first matches’ credentials. “They said, ‘Here’s a kid with a 1390 on the SATs where English isn’t spoken in the home. We’d love to teach this kid.’”

Williams, where Hill was serving as provost, joined a year later and welcomed 14 matches to the Class of 2009. Among them was Jared Currier ’09, who grew up in a tiny logging town in Maine and worked after school at the restaurant where his mother worked, and Naya-Joi Martin ’09, who says her mother, a touring backup singer, made possible Martin’s private school education and extracurricular lessons in the Bronx. (Read their stories and others in “The Quest Continues.”)

Successful QuestBridge applicants are usually in the top 5 or 10 percent of their class academically and take the most rigorous classes offered by their schools. They typically come from households with incomes less than $65,000 per year, and they’re often the first in their family to attend a four-year college. The students may demonstrate an “unusually high level of family responsibility (caring for siblings or working to support the family),” as the program’s website states, and they’re involved in leadership or community activities.

Their applications include information about their schools—such as how many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and what programs are offered—as well as directed essay questions that help admission officers get a more complete picture of their circumstances and how the students might transition to college.

“In the traditional application, the onus is on the student to share any information they want to about their socioeconomic status or their family life,” says Liz Creighton ’01, Williams’ dean of admission and financial aid. “The QuestBridge application prompts the student to talk about their lived experience and reflect on how it has impacted their life. It helps the applicant understand that admission officers want to gain a deeper understanding of their story and that the information will be used to help contextualize the rest of their application.”

Providing such context has a measurable impact on students’ chances of being admitted to college. Mike Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, found that providing consistent high school data increased an economically disadvantaged student’s chances of being admitted by 25 percent. Admission staff had “a better sense of what the student accomplished relative to what opportunities were available,” he says.

The number of QuestBridge scholars at Williams has steadily increased since Burne and his classmates joined the Class of 2017, from 60 in his cohort to 77 in the incoming Class of 2021. To help cover their tuition, the Class of 1969, Parker’s class, is supporting financial aid for QuestBridge as part of its 50th reunion gift.

QuestBridge is just one of a number of programs and policies implemented over the years aimed at making the college more accessible, or “need-seeking,” Falk says.

“Because low-income high school students don’t have access to the same resources as their more affluent peers, we know we have to affirmatively seek them out if we want to enroll them at Williams,” he says. “We’re not blind to their economic circumstances. We’re actively looking for students who need financial assistance.”

Creighton now oversees both admission and financial aid to better align the college’s efforts to be need-seeking. Williams also created a deanship dedicated to supporting first-generation and low-income students. (The incoming Class of 2021 has the highest percentage of first-generation students ever, 20 percent.)

“For each of the 550 students we enroll, there are 550 sets of needs and experiences,” Creighton says. “One of the beauties of a small school like Williams is that we can be high touch and responsive to individual student needs.” Says Falk, “We have to make sure that every student, whatever their economic circumstance, understands and believes that all of the resources of the college are there for them. It’s absolutely essential that low-income students develop a sense of ownership that can come so easily to others—that this is my college, and it’s here for me.” The college helps remove barriers to accessibility with need-based grants covering study abroad, Winter Study courses, independent research and summer internships. Textbooks and course materials are free for all aided students, and there’s need-based funding for job interviews and graduate school visits and preparation.

Jonathon Burne ’17 is headed to New York City for a fellowship in immigration law. (Photo by Mark McCarty)

To make it easier for high school students from low-income families to visit campus, the college offers Windows on Williams in the fall, a three-day, all expenses-paid program. Students attend classes, meet with faculty and undergraduates, stay in the residence halls and attend workshops on admission and financial aid. A similar program called Previews is held in the spring for admitted students. Those who enroll can also participate in the Summer Science or Summer Humanities and Social Sciences programs, five-week mini-semesters to introduce them to life as college students.

“These may be the only opportunities many students have for an immersive experience on a college campus before they arrive for their first year,” Creighton says.

It was a Windows on Williams visit that first brought Burne to campus before he submitted his QuestBridge application. He says he struggled at first to adjust to the unfamiliar landscape. But a conversation about Marxism with English professor Christian orne in the Faculty House dining room during the visit sealed the deal for him.

“I was doing all these readings by myself and never had a chance to vocalize what I was learning,” Burne says. “It was hard to walk away after that and say that I would not like to come here.”

Michael Blanding ’95 is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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