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Doing the 'Why Us?' Supplemental Essay Well

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By Casey Near on August, 5 2021 | 5 minute read

This is the classic supplemental essay question – "Why are you interested in us?" – and it's a tricky one to do well. Colleges want to make sure you've been an astute college shopper. Have you done your research? Have you figured out not just what makes them great, but what makes them great for you? That sweet spot between what you need in a college and what a college can provide for you is what takes a supplemental essay from good to great.

Too often in response to this question, students spend too much time talking about the facts of a college. But if I work at that college, I already know where I’m located, what majors we offer, and what clubs are on campus. What I don't know is what makes you intrigued by all of that and why you would thrive in that environment.

Before you dive into an outline, it’s helpful to start by figuring out what style of “why us?” question this is. Knowing what you’re answering will dictate how you answer this question. Here’s the three major types of “why us?” essay questions:


The Open-Ended Question

This is the most straightforward and most clear kind. The university simply asks why their school, why you're applying, or what led you to them. Examples of this style of question show up at Tulane, Tufts, and NYU.

Sample: Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, "Why Tufts?"


The Leading Question

These often lead with a quote, a mission statement, or some nugget of information that tells you they want you to reflect on how you're a fit for this element of the school. Examples of this often show up in the applications of smaller liberal arts colleges and mission-driven institutions (think Jesuit/Catholic-affiliated ones) like Bowdoin, Santa Clara, Rochester, and Notre Dame.

Sample: The founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, Blessed Basil Moreau, wrote, "We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart." How do you hope a Notre Dame education and experience will transform your mind and heart?


The Academic + Why Us Hybrid

This is common at bigger universities where you're applying to a particular college or major. They want to know not just why their school, but how your academic interests match and how you'll explore those. Classic examples of this style of question are found in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Cornell apps.

Sample: 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?

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5 Tips to Do This Well..

  1. What kind of question is it? Use the rubric above to see what kind of "Why Us?" this is. If it's open-ended, you have more freedom to do your own thing. If it's a leading or hybrid question, you'll want to make sure you address the prompt.

  2. Assess word count. If it's only 150 words (we see you, Tufts!), you can't fit in every reason you're applying. But if it's well over 600 (hello, Michigan and Tulane!), you're going to need to do some research – and some soul-searching – to make sure your response is chock-full of evidence.

  3. You're not Wikipedia. The first step in writing is to remember this isn't writing a treatise on what makes a particular school great. If I work at New York University, I'm already aware the school is in Washington Square Park, has 26k undergraduate students, and attracts a high percentage of international students. What I don't know is why that sounds appealing to you. This leads us to…

  4. Lead with your priorities. Maybe it's a community of fun-loving nerds, access to aerospace engineering coursework, or a sense of community. Whatever it is, make sure you articulate what you've realized about what you need in a campus first, and then lead them into how those priorities match up with what they offer.  

  5. Show evidence. Maybe they're one of the only colleges with a curriculum that allows you to major in graphic design and business, or their active clubs on campus and recent events show a commitment to social justice that matches your own. If you bring in details, make sure they match the priorities you mentioned (otherwise, you're just dropping professors’ names, buildings on campus, or class titles for no darn reason).

If you’re diving into other supplements, make sure to read my colleague’s thorough overview of the common supplemental topics here. Happy writing, all!    


About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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