How to Write Great College Application “Why Us?” Supplemental Essays

The “Why Us?” supplemental essay response can spell the difference between acceptance and rejection

During last 10 years of unprecedented competition for college admission, the “Why Us?” supplemental essay—the one that asks you to identify your reasons for applying to a particular college or university– has taken on increasing importance. In fact, some colleges and universities including the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech read the “Why Us?” essay before the Common App essay.

Why? Simple. Every year, colleges are overwhelmed by the number of applications they receive. Consequently, many colleges now try to expedite the applicant review process by looking to see how well the applicant knows the college and to assess how well the student has matched their interests and ambitions to those of the college before wasting time and money on reviewing the other parts of the applicant’s application. If the applicant hasn’t made case for how her specific intellectual goals and interests match those of the college to which she is applying, the admissions offers see no reason to waste time reading that applicant’s application.

Cut throat? Not really. It’s simply a matter of trying to expedite the admissions process given the overwhelming number of applications received year after year.

There’s a second reason that colleges and universities are looking to the “Why Us?” supplemental essays first. Admissions officers are assessing you with an eye to potentially inviting you into their homes. They’re reviewing your application looking to see if they want to live with you. That said, they want to know that you have shared interests and similar ambitions. The best gauge of this is the “Why Us?” supplemental essay response.

So how do you make yours stand out?

First, research school’s mission statement and motto. These statements will give you a sense of the character of school and the values of the school. Then you can use what you’ve learned to match what you write about own character to college’s character. For a more detailed explanation of the value of this strategy see “How to Write Outstanding Supplemental College Application Essays: A Strategic Approach.” 

Second, research the college’s course offerings and programs thoroughly. Spend serious time on the college’s online catalogue/course schedule and explore not only majors and minors, but also specific activities and opportunities that set this college apart from all the others you’re applying to. Then match your interests to those of the college to which you are applying.

Remember that the admissions officers are reading your supplemental essays to see how well you, specifically, not any other applicant, will fit into the college or the specific program to which you are applying. The key here is specificity. In other words, if you tell Columbia University that you want to be admitted because Columbia has great research departments, that’s not going to cut it. Instead, find specific research opportunities that interest you at Columbia and write about how those specific opportunities will help advance your specific interests. For example, if you are an aspiring biology major, are you interested in Columbia’s SURF program? If so, you want to explain—specifically—what drives your interest in the program and what specifically qualifies you for the program. Likewise, with Notre Dame University’s Mendoza College of BusinessDon’t write that you want to be admitted to the business school because the Mendoza College of Business is a great business school. Instead, find some aspects of the program that compel your interest and then write supplemental essays that show—specifically—what drives your interest in those aspects, what specifically qualifies you for admission to the program, and how you will contribute to the program if admitted.

You should also elaborate on campus organizations or programs that fit certain goals, and mention specific aspects of the campus community that make it a good social and academic fit for you. Be as detailed as possible, but be sure to relate these details to your specific goals and interests. Don’t just rattle off some course names and expect to wow the admissions committee. For a more detailed explanation of the need for specificity in supplemental essays, see “Three Tips for Writing Successful College Application Supplemental Essays.” 

Finally, you should include anecdotal evidence from your own academic experience to help make your “Why Us?” essay memorable. For example, if you developed an interest in environmental science as a result of your own experience researching your hometown’s battle against toxic dumping, try to weave that into your essay to suggest that your specific experience confirmed your interest in environmental science and that your passion for environmental science led you directly to whatever specific college you are applying to. If you’re interested in sports journalism and want to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, try incorporating the story of your early “broadcasting” while watching Northwestern football games with your parents at Ryan Field on your annual visit to the university, and then suggest that your long-held passion for sports journalism led you directly to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Remember, of all the supplemental response that you will have to write when applying to college, the “Why Us?” supplemental response is the most important. It’s not like “short answer” questions on a high school test that won’t count for much. Rather, it needs to be taken as seriously as every other part of your application.

Want help writing compelling “Why Us?” college supplemental responses, or any other part of your college application? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

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