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How to Write the "Why us?" College Essay

Many colleges, such as Tufts University, Bowdoin College, and Cornell University, assign the “Why us” or “Why this college” prompt as a supplemental essay. The purpose of this essay is for you to demonstrate, through concrete details and examples, why you are a great match for the school. It is also an excellent opportunity to demonstrate interest.

Colleges look for 3 main things in your “Why us” essay:

1. You understand the school and the opportunities it offers.

2. You have a plan of how you will make the most of these opportunities.

3. You can identify spaces where you can contribute to the school and its community.

Colleges rely a lot on this type of essay to determine how likely a student is to attend their school, which is a critical factor in their decision-making process as it affects their yield rate and other related statistics (acceptance rate, ranking, etc.). It is therefore important that you pay special attention to the way you craft your “Why us” essay. Read on for some Do’s and Don’t’s to help you get started.

Don’t’s

Let’s start with some common mistakes and things to avoid.

#1. Treat this as a “Why them” essay.

A lot of students make the mistake of only talking about the school and its cool opportunities. Great, that addresses number 1 on the list of what colleges look for in the “Why us” essay. However, it only addresses number 1, and not much else. The school knows it’s awesome. You don’t have to tell them how beautiful their buildings are, or how cool this one tradition is. They know.

Here are some common, stereotypical “Why them” statements:

1. Everyone tells me that attending your school will improve my job prospects.

2. Your faculty is world-class, and your facilities are state of the art.

3. I admire the prestige of your amazing institutions and professors.

4. Everyone knows your school and as a result I started looking at your YouTube videos and fell in love.

The reason why these statements are lacking is because they show no insight into 1) what the school is about (their values), 2) what the school offers (their resources), 3) how they would benefit you (connection to your values and interests) or 4) how you would benefit them (your contributions).

It is better to think of this essay as “Why us,” with us = college + you. Why are you perfect for each other? We provide concrete action items for how to avoid a “Why them” essay and craft a strong “Why us” essay below.

#2. Write about school ranking, location, size, reputation, and weather.

Truth is, everyone notices those surface-level things right off the bat. Everyone knows Harvard is an Ivy League school with a reputation for academic excellence. Everyone knows Silicon Valley is in Stanford’s backyard. Chances are many other students are writing about these things, too, and you don’t want to blend in. Also, by dwelling on these things, you risk coming across as lazy for not doing deeper research.

#3. Copy and paste from the school website or brochures.

It is critical to do careful school research, including reading the website and brochures carefully. However, don’t just simply copy and paste straight from their website. There is a chance that the person reading your essay is in fact the person who wrote the material on the website, and you don’t want this to happen. Instead, think about how you can rephrase key information in your own word, or better yet, elaborate on what these things mean to you.

#4. Get niche information or proper names wrong.

Proofread, again and again. It already looks bad if there are typos or grammatical errors, but it would look much worse if a mascot name is misspelled, or if a niche information (such as a major) is inaccurate. If you are writing about how you are excited to work with a particular professor, triple-check that you got their name down correctly. Getting unique things wrong is the quickest way to reveal insufficient research.



Do’s

Now that you know what to avoid, let’s get on with some concrete steps to write a “Why us” college essay that stands out.

#1. Research extensively and carefully

Diligent research should be a given for any college essay, but especially so for the “Why us” college essay, as you must be able to provide specific examples for how you and the school would be a great fit for each other. While doing your research, here are a few topics you can dive into:

1. School culture (school values and vision, what the study body is like, spaces for specific identities, etc.)

2. Academic opportunities (majors, classes, professors, research opportunities & facilities, study abroad opportunities, initiatives, etc.)

3. Co-curricular activities and student organizations (student clubs, pre-professional organizations, internships and externships, fellowships, etc.)

4. Residential life (housing options, networking opportunities, food and dining, etc.)

Here are some ways you can learn more about a college:

1. Study their websites.

2. Talk to a current student or alumni. You usually can write to the college’s admission email address to ask to be connected with a student.

3. Talk to an admission officer, local rep, and/or professor.

4. Read expert reviews. Some resources you can check out are:

1. Princeton Reviews 2. Fiske Guide to Colleges 3. Colleges That Change Lives 5. Read student reviews

  • Unigo.com has great question prompts and a host of answers that can help you understand students’ perspectives if you don’t have the chance to talk to an actual current student or alum.

  • Reddit often has a subreddit that is specific to the school. You can get a lot of unfiltered thoughts about a school there.

6. Do an in-person or virtual tour 7. Attend college fairs. 8. To know about specific classes, read syllabi.

#2. Fill out this chart (courtesy of The College Guy)

As explained above, an excellent “Why us” essay should be as much about how the college would be a good fit for you as how you would be a good fit for the school. This chart will help you organize your information and match the opportunities available at each institution with your interests, goals, and contributions.

The link itself contains columns that include a list of what you want, socially, academically and personally along with what the institution offers. This helps you correlate what you want with what the college offers, so you can connect the two in an essay. This kind of deep connection can sometimes be the make or break of acceptances at selective institutions. It will serve you well to pay attention here.

#3. Use this opportunity to highlight your significant qualities and interests

Think of this essay as another place for you to really reiterate your significant qualities and interests, but in the context of a particular school environment. Does the college have a strong Education program with a lot of opportunities for research, student teaching, and hands-on experience? Awesome. However, this information is only relevant if you are passionate about education and want to engage in that field.

To really illustrate how you and the college would be a good match, first note down 2-3 things that you absolutely want colleges to know about you. This could be your academic interests, your personal characteristics, your niche hobbies, among other things.

Then, using your information in the chart and your 2-3 crucial things above, practice writing “Why us” statement using this formula: School feature + Connection to You = Why Us.

Example 1: The school’s emphasis on global engagement and diverse offerings of study abroad programs (School Feature) provide a platform for me to nurture my intercultural competence, which is vital to my identity as someone who has lived in four different countries (Connection to You).

Example 2: Project-based courses such as “Design Thinking & Communication” (School Feature) will help me grow as a designer (Connection to You) in developing, testing, and prototyping creative solutions while giving me the opportunity to make meaningful social contributions (Connection to You) by working with a local client to address a in the community.

#4. Be specific

As much as the word count affords you, be specific. Provide concrete examples. Don’t just talk about general area such as “the Economics major” or “the various student clubs on campus.” Tell them what exactly about the Economics major interests you. Is it a particular class? A professor? How about research opportunities? Similar things can be asked about the “student clubs” feature.

Expand on your “Why us” statements above with more specificities. If you have mentioned your plan to pursue a particular major, follow up with a handful of classes that interest you and why, such as Example 2 above. If you are discussing the variety of student organizations, name 2-3 clubs you’d like to join that center around different interests. If you want to do research, name a center you want to be part of, or an opportunity you want to seize. In reviewing your writing, the key is to scan for capitalizations: you (almost) want to name drop!


Last Note

If you only take one thing away from this blog, let it be that the “Why us” college essay should be about you and college together.

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