When writing your supplemental essays, you’re bound to come across some version of the question “Why us?” Out of the thousands of schools in the world, you chose to apply here; now, the admissions team wants to know what made you chose them. While this may seem like a relatively straightforward question, it can be surprisingly challenging to navigate. To really nail this question you’ll have to be well-prepared, thoughtful, and organized, so in this blog post we’ve laid out the key principles to writing a great “Why us?” essay.
What they definitely don’t want
The worst possible thing an applicant can do is turn this essay into a laundry list of generic reasons for choosing a school. “I love UCLA because the weather is spectacular!” You know where else it’s warm? Every other UC school, the south, and about a thousand other places. “I want to attend Michigan because it is a big research university with great sports”…just like every other Big 10 school and countless others. The point being that mentioning things like weather, location, sports, prestige, and other non-distinguishing factors is not going to wow an adcom.
Reframing the question
Too often do students fall into the trap of making this essay all about the college and not about themselves. Colleges are not looking for an ego boost here; they did not ask you this question for you to simply tell them how great they are. They already know how amazing their school is! Instead, you should think of this question as “Why are we a perfect match for each other?” In doing so, you should be conveying who you are and why they have what you want. This is your opportunity to tailor the passions, interests, and abilities that you’ve discussed in the rest of your application to this specific school.
Steps to writing a strong essay
Make a list
Before you begin writing this essay, we recommend that you take the time to sit down and make a list of all the things that attract you to this college. It’s okay if at first these are general things like “research university” or “strong economics department.” The purpose of this exercise is simply to identify the areas that you value most in order to guide your research into the school.
Once you’ve identified the most important general areas of focus, you should move on to doing some specific research on the school. Your research needs to exceed common knowledge, like Columbia’s core curriculum or Princeton’s eating clubs, and should include making a list of majors and programs you’re interested in, clubs and organizations you’d like to join, specific classes and professors you’d like to take—the more specific and unique to the school, the better. Simply citing overarching facts about the school as reasons to attend will not make for a convincing, nor differentiating essay and are thus to be avoided.
Putting it all together
Now that you’ve done your research…put it to use! Usually when you meet someone for the first time, you don’t want them to know that you stalked them online beforehand – this is not the case with the “why us” essay! It should be abundantly clear that you’ve thought long and hard about this question and that the information you’ve used to make this decision could not have come from a five minute google search.
The key to this essay is taking broad and generic reasons for wanting to attend a school and turning them into special and unique answers. The best way to go about this is by combining the strengths and interests you’ve expressed in your application with what this school has to offer in order to create a cohesive answer to their question.
For instance, saying you want to go to a school because it is a research university in a big city isn’t a very compelling reason on its own. But if you pair that with the fact that you want to study Sociology and Urban Studies, then you begin to provide some context of why you are drawn to this school. Finally, you want to solidify the connection with the school by citing specific opportunities that they can offer. These can include urban sustainable development research being done by faculty to which you would like to contribute, professors whose work in the field of social policy has inspired your own interest, the campus chapter of Habitat For Humanity you want to join, or a community outreach program you’d like to start.
This same process can just as easily be applied to an english major who is drawn to a liberal arts school because the small class sizes will allow for deep and intimate class discussions, and the college’s literary magazine will provide a platform for them to share their creative writing. Taking a general factor like “urban research university” or “small liberal arts college” and linking it to both your interests and the school’s opportunities creates a thoughtful and unique answer.
When all’s said and done, you want to have painted a picture for the adcom of what it would be like to have you on campus. If they were to follow you around for a day, where would you be going? What classes would you be taking? How would you be interacting with their community and how would you make the most of all their school has to offer? In doing so, you must be concise and direct, as these prompts often come with a tight word cap. Finally, you want to be sure that this essay complements the rest of your application by reaffirming your core strengths and passions.
Dimitrius is a Political Science major at Columbia University who is committed to leveling the uneven playing field that is college admissions. When he's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, he's listening to trap music, consuming cable news in unhealthy quantities, and arguing with friends over the future of our country.
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After pouring their heart and soul into the Common App essay, students often run out of gas by the time they encounter any remaining supplemental essays. While supplemental essays may ask you anything from “What makes you happy?” (Tufts) to analyzing a Kermit the Frog quote (Dartmouth…seriously), the most important question in this section will, in some form, ask you to explain why this school is the perfect postsecondary home for you. Quite often, we observe that the “Why Us?” essay, in whatever permutation, lulls students into spewing clichés, empty hyperbolic proclamations, and other vapid, “let me just fill up this space” commentary.
Don’t worry—the task before you may be challenging, but it’s hardly nuclear physics. Everything you need to know to write a winning “Why Us” Essay can be reduced to seven fairly straightforward tips. The list below begins by highlighting a series of important “don’ts” and ends with the “do’s” that are essential for success. Follow all seven tips with fidelity and we guarantee that your essay will sparkle.
1. Avoid empty superlatives
Imagine an admissions officer, at the end of a long day’s work, getting ready to digest his or her 37th “why this college?” answer of the day. Picking up your essay, the officer learns that you want to attend their school because it is “great” and “has a stellar reputation.” Yawns ensue. After being reminded for the 37th time today of their school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, they take another sip of coffee and move on to the next file.
Heaping generic praise on your school is not going to sway anyone. If you’re going to shower a college with flattery, make it as specific and genuine as you possibly can. This requires research (more on this a moment).
2. Don’t play “Why Us?” Mad Libs
If you are applying to 8-10 schools, and will thus be composing 8-10 of these essays, your inclination to take shortcuts is completely understandable. Just make sure that these timesavers don’t turn into admissions-killers.
Having a general structure for all of your essays is okay, but try to avoid playing the fill-in-the-blank game. There are two main reasons we advise this: 1) Your essay will feel generic and uninspired and 2) you are more prone to mistakenly reference the wrong school’s name, mascot, colors, etc.
If, due to a time crunch, you end up playing a degree of college application Mad Libs, at least make sure you play it flawlessly. The last thing you want to do is tell the University of Florida that you’ve always been a huge Seminoles fan.
3. Ditch the non-essential details
On your visit to Brown, you made sure to try the famous pumpkin pancakes at Louis Family Restaurant. Awesome! Hope you found them to be delicious but if you feel inclined to write about the experience, do so on Yelp, not as part of your “Why Us?” essay.
Many essays contain the equivalent of, “I can picture myself strolling through Branford Courtyard (Yale)…” Specifics about why you want to attend a given school needs to be more meaningful than referencing campus landmarks and attractions.
Other details that won’t set you apart include odes to features like the “scenic New England autumns,” the “heavenly weather” at UC-San Diego or the “roar of the crowd on Saturdays at Michigan Stadium.” While there is nothing inherently wrong or off-putting about referencing restaurants, campus landmarks, weather, or sports, they ultimately take up valuable word-count real estate without doing anything to differentiate you from the pack.
4. The goal is not sameness
The best recipe for creating something unoriginal is beginning from a place of fear. It’s easy to play it super-safe and get sucked-into the clichés and tropes of the “Why Us?” essay. In the end you may produce a competent essay, but at a school with a single-digit admit rate, just about everyone will have produced something competent. To gain an admissions edge, you need to transcend competent blandness.
It all boils down to introductory game theory. In a competitive environment with more losers than winners (think of Stanford’s 5% or Columbia’s 7% admission rates), blending in with the pack isn’t going to add value to your candidacy. At least 95% of your equally brilliant peers applying to highly completive institutions will produce essays that lack an obvious flaw, but that isn’t the objective of an applicant wishing to distinguish him or herself.
To be clear, we would never advocate being different just for the sake of it—writing your essay in Dothraki, painting your response in watercolor, or writing something intentionally controversial. Your job is to be different in an organic and sincere way. So, how does one do that? We’re going to start answering that question right now…
5. Show that you did your homework
Let’s amend our uninspired example from our first tip: University X is “great” because Professor Anderson’s research on the human genome inspired you to study biology and you are impressed by the “stellar reputation” of their one-of-kind undergraduate research initiatives. You go on to lavish praise on their state-of-the-art laboratories that were completely revamped in 2016, with further renovations scheduled for 2019. In expressing your individual passion for biology, you paint a picture (not in watercolor) of how attending University X would tie-in to your academic and career aims.
Now, you have gotten the admission officer’s attention. Remember, admissions officers want to see that you have done serious homework on their institution indicative of students who, if admitted, is likely to actually enroll (the whole “demonstrated interest” thing).
So, where does one find this type of substantive information? We recommend utilizing the top college guidebooks, a real-life or virtual tour of campus, a chat with a university rep, or some good old-fashioned Googling to gather what you need.
6. Say more about your passions
In addition to highlighting elements of a school that appeal to you, this essay also provides a venue to further explain what makes you tick and why this particular college is the ideal milieu in which to cultivate your unique passions. What clubs, activities, or study abroad locales appeal to you? Are there unique degree programs or undergraduate research opportunities that will enhance your learning experience? Is there something different about the school’s philosophy, commitment to undergraduate education, required coursework, or foundational courses?
If you can’t come up with a sincere answer to any of these questions, you might want to rethink why a given school is even on your college list in the first place.
7. Focus on the match
In order to accomplish your goal of penning a superior “Why Us?” essay, you’ll need to merge our previous two tips—showing that you did your homework and saying more about your passions. A stand-out essay seamlessly and incisively connects the opportunities that the school offers to your unique interest and talents. Here’s an example:
You did your homework and know that Reed College offers a rigorous environment for intellectually serious, self-directed students. Instead of letter grades, students receive qualitative evaluations from their professors. All courses are taught by professors, never TAs, and research opportunities for undergraduates abound. It’s little surprise that an insanely high number of Reed graduates go on to earn Ph.Ds. in their respective fields.
Now that you’ve done strong research and extracted some key facts as well as the ethos of the school, it’s time to show why you belong there. You value substantive and constructive feedback over chasing A’s. You plan on getting a graduate degree and want to immerse yourself in research throughout your undergraduate years. You are craving direct contact with faculty. You spent your high school years independently pursuing an area of passion—creating your own reading list, seeking out adult mentors, etc.
Whether you’re interested in Reed College or one of the other 3,000 four year colleges and universities in the United States, your mission is to hone in on why that school is a great fit for you, and then, why you are a great fit for it. If, after reviewing your composition, you can check both of those boxes, and you’ve avoided the common pitfalls highlighted previously, then you can rest assured that you have mastered the “Why Us?” essay.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).