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.
Latest posts by Dimitrius Keeler (see all)
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
Question: I have to write several essays explaining why I have chosen particular colleges on my list. I haven’t been able to visit any of these schools or attend fairs or meet college reps, and I can’t think of anything to say that would sound genuine and show that I clearly have a believable reason for my attraction. Even after thinking long and hard, I haven’t been able to come up with any decent reason for wanting to go to specific colleges. I don’t want my essays to sound as if they came straight from the website or brochure. I really hate writing these essays and need some suggestions on how to approach them.
I hate those “Why This College?” assignments, too. I’ve seen students write the same essay for totally disparate schools, plugging in new adjectives, as needed, almost as if they were doing a “Mad Lib.” For instance, “I’ve always wanted to attend a LARGE UNIVERSITY” quickly turns into, “I’ve always wanted to attend a SMALL COLLEGE.” Or “I prefer a COLD climate” is transformed into “I prefer a WARM climate.”
In a perfect world, I think colleges should make this essay optional. The prompt should say something like this: If you have a truly compelling reason for selecting our institution, please explain. However 99% of our applicants should not respond to this question, and if you write a bunch of B.S., it will be held against you 🙂
Of course, it’s hard enough to compose these essays when you do know why you’re interested in your target schools, and harder still if your reasons for applying are as vague as yours are.
Here are some suggestions of ways to personalize the process of writing these nasty things. Hopefully, at the same time this little exercise will force you to look more closely at the choices you’ve made and see if they’re really the right ones for you.
1) Check out the comments about your target colleges on College Confidential. Feel free to quote CC members in your “Why This College Essay.” For instance, “Penn caught my eye when I spotted a comment on the College Confidential discussion forum by a member who called himself, ‘Ilovebagels.’ I love bagels, too (but that’s probably not a wise reason to choose a college!) and also I was interested when he said, ‘I’ve found Penn to be a remarkably centrist institution. Which as a right-of-center person, I felt put it ahead of the other Ivies with their legions of hippies.’ This made me think that Penn might be a good fit for me, so I started to dig deeper …”
2) Make e-mail contact with a “real” student. Many admission Web sites have links that allow you to connect with a current student. You can also do this though a friend or acquaintance who attends your target schools, by using college Web site directories to find students who share common interests (e.g., the president of the outing club or captain of the squash team), or by writing to the admission office and asking if they might be able to refer you to a Classics major or pre-med student or anyone who shares your interests, your home state or country, etc. Then, after corresponding with this student penpal, you can cite his or her words of wisdom in your essay.
3) Comb through college catalogs–either hard copies, if you have them, or online–to find classes/programs/activities that seem special and appealing then discuss your findings in your essays. Obviously, these offerings should be pretty unusual. Admission committees won’t be impressed if you say, “I want to go to Princeton because I found that I can take classes in Shakespeare and organic chemistry.” If you peruse entire catalogs and can’t find something that excites you, you really should be rethinking your college choices.
Finally, check out this thread on “Why This College Essays” on CC if you haven’t already to get some additional tips on those ornery essays. There is some great advice there from “Shrinkrap.”
I’m not sure why you haven’t been able to go on visits, attend fairs, meet with college reps, etc. Perhaps it’s geography and/or finances. But, if at all possible, in the months ahead, I do urge you to take a closer look at the schools that interest you, if possible, and even some that don’t, just so you’ll have options to compare.
Question about admissions, financial aid, or college search?ASK THE DEAN