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3 Steps to Acing the “Why us?” Essay

If you’ve started working on supplementary college essays, you may have seen prompts asking you to explain why you’re choosing to apply to that school. For example, Tufts University asks, “Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, ‘Why Tufts?’ (100–150 words).”

Many students freeze up when faced with such essay prompts. “How am I supposed to answer that one?” you may wonder. It’s important to know that, when making admission decisions, some colleges consider demonstrated interest: how well applicants show they understand the unique character of the college and what they’ve done to prove they’re strongly interested in attending. For these colleges, the “Why us?” essay is the perfect opportunity for students to show they’ve done work to understand what makes an institution tick.

It’s important to understand that this essay isn’t just asking what you like about the college but why you’ve decided the college is the best fit for you. If you’re intimidated by the thought of writing such an essay, take heart. You can reach the finish line in three simple but important steps!

Step 1: Ask yourself what attracted you to the college

If your answer is the stunning campus or the great college town, you’ll need to dig deeper. What specific academic programs or opportunities does the school offer? If there’s a particular major of interest, go to the website and see what courses are offered and who’s teaching them. Read faculty profiles and consider reaching out to an instructor to explore how your interests might align with their research experience.

Another avenue is taking a look at the college’s mission statement, frequently found under the “About” tab on a school’s website. If there are any values mentioned in its mission that resonate with you, consider discussing them in your essay. You can also learn about a college’s strengths by attending an in-person or virtual tour or by chatting with current students or alumni. (The College T is another way for high school students to connect with undergraduates at colleges of interest.) Take notes during these tours and conversations, as they can provide valuable talking points for your essays. 

Step 2: Consider what you have to offer the college

Next, you need to consider how you’ll contribute to the campus culture or community. Even though the “Why us?” prompt may not have asked explicitly about your potential contributions, this information can strengthen your response. Perhaps you have a talent that might enhance a college’s music ensemble, skills to boost an athletic team, a specialized academic interest that fits perfectly with one of the available majors, or a great idea for a new club. If something like this applies to you, lay your cards on the table and let the college know.

Step 3: Express how you and the college are a great match for each other

This is the crux of your essay: showing you’ve done a thorough job of researching and self-reflection and making a compelling case for the match. Again, your answer to this essay prompt should show you really understand the college you’re choosing. Your job isn’t simply to list the wonderful features of the university (especially not the obvious, well-known ones) but to connect your specific interests, values, and plans with the school’s offerings. It’s the difference between saying to someone you just met, “Let’s be friends—you seem really cool,” and “We should hang out because we both love watching rugby and eating fish and chips.”

Examples of “Why us?” essays

Here’s an example of how one of my students responded to the “Why New York University?” essay–with successful results:

“I am especially interested in the interdisciplinary aspect of the Integrated Digital Media major. I wish to apply my interest in arts to a strong technical framework, which would provide a good basis in the professional world. I wish to find innovation in the way we tell stories; I want not only to make use of the rapidly advancing technology in our world, but also to ground these stories in tradition. In our increasingly digitized world, many shun the beauty of the past, and while I acknowledge that there is beauty in progress, I wish to bring the relics of our foundations to a greater audience. At NYU, I want to utilize the tools that this major gives to students to go out and create. The uniquely international environment of the school provides a valuable opportunity to learn about the stories the diverse student body has to offer. Anything can be a story, so long as there’s someone to tell it. I want to seek those untold stories; to listen, to be inspired, and to tell them to the world.”

Here’s how another student who’s now happily attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute responded to their prompt:   

“The emphasis on project-based learning at WPI, and especially the student-driven IQP, seem to me an ideal way to learn. In subjects like music and language a student does not just study theory and structure. They play music, speak a language, and create using what they learn. The learning philosophy for other fields should not be any different. Applying learned knowledge makes what you know into what you truly understand. I would love to be able to join in on a community of equally driven peers. Should I have the chance to participate in the dynamic WPI community, I will throw myself with equal enthusiasm into all the opportunities present.”

College admission committees want students who are eager to attend their school and are well matched to their offerings. Make it easy for them to accept you: Do your research, connect the dots, and show genuine interest when they ask you, “Why us?” 

This article was originally published in CollegeXpress.