How to Write the "Why Us?" Essay

by
President, Wow Writing Workshop

Many schools ask students to respond to a prompt like one of the following:

  • Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
  • Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University.
  • Whether you are undecided or you have a definitive plan of study in mind, what are your academic interests and how do you plan to explore them at New York University?
  • Which aspects of Tufts University’s curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, “Why Tufts?”

We call these “Why Us?” essays. Lots of students misunderstand the prompts—and miss out on an important opportunity to stand out. Recently, I read a typical one. It was a beautiful story from a student answering the “Why Us?” prompt for a Big Ten university.

Full of descriptive details about the school’s location and football stadium, the story painted a vivid picture of the long drive to and from the school in the family car with his dad, an alumnus. This boy was clear he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, he was comfortable inside the stadium, and he was certain he would feel at home at this university.

Unfortunately, this story did not respond adequately to the prompt.

To get moving in the right direction, consider what you want the college to know about you that is not evident from the rest of your application package. How do the college’s curriculum, clubs, and campus life support your interests? Why are you a good fit for the institution?

This task can be difficult, even for students who spent their childhoods wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with their parents’ alma maters. Most students have no idea what a school offers academically, socially, or culturally. The prompt is also challenging for students who want to tell admission officers how much they love the big city, how badly they want to escape their small towns, or how much they love the old buildings on campus.

Be careful! This is not what admission officers are looking for. They want to know why you are a good fit for their campus, whether you have the chops to succeed academically, if there are clubs and activities to support your interests, and if you are likely to graduate from this institution.

After speaking with admission officers from small liberal arts colleges, elite universities, and state institutions, I’ve found that regardless of size, status, or essay prompt, they all offer similar tips:

  • Don’t overthink it.
  • Tell us (admission officers) what you want us to know about you, not what you think we want to hear.
  • Answer the prompt honestly.
  • Make sure your essay is focused and written in your own words and your own voice.

You should never be thinking, “What are they looking for?” The better question is, “What do I want them to know about me?” They know how great they are; your job is to let them know how great you are and why you are a good fit for their school or program.

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