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The Simple “Why Us” Essay Strategy that Works | 2021 - 22

School Supplements
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
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Colleges can’t go on dates. They can’t notice you in the cafeteria, think you’re cute, and invite you to lunch. So instead, they invented one of the scariest application essays out there: Why Us? 

Applicants tend to do poorly on Why Us essays — filling them with platitudes; showing only a cursory level of research (ex: praising US News rankings); and mentioning things that would apply at any school (ex: “great professors”). 

You’ll do better if you think of this as a get-to-know-you date. Dates go well when you ask questions of the other (researching the school) and show that their interests match yours (being specific about what you’d do once on campus). 

Here’s our winning formula: [your college-related interests] + [research on how the school matches those interests] = an essay that makes schools swoon. This method shows the school the two things they’re most interested in: that you’ll (1) be a good fit at the school, and (2) likely attend if admitted (Will this relationship go somewhere?).

This article will walk you through each element. If you’re ready to get started, check out our free Why Us essay-building tool in our college admission dashboard.

Colleges ask Why Us to see how much you want to go there;Yes you can update your Why Us essay for different schools;If the prompt asks about your major follow our Why Us process;Our 5 tips for articulating your college related interests;Our 3 tips for showing how your interests match what the school has to offer;Use a super direct approach to turn your brainstormed content into an essay
Colleges ask Why Us to see how much you want to go there;Yes you can update your Why Us essay for different schools;If the prompt asks about your major follow our Why Us process;Our 5 tips for articulating your college related interests;Our 3 tips for showing how your interests match what the school has to offer;Use a super direct approach to turn your brainstormed content into an essay

    Colleges ask Why Us to see how much you want to go there 

    Let’s get into the minds of the admissions team. Colleges that require Why Us essays often care about yield — how many of the students they admit actually enroll. This matters in the all-important college rankings. 

    To ensure a high yield, colleges will track a number of, well, surprising metrics. Think: email opens, website cookies.

    However, writing a great Why Us essay is the best way to show a college you’re serious about them. (Remember, you can use the Why Us essay module in our dashboard to guide you through writing this essay for each college). 

    Yes you can update your Why Us essay for different schools

    You can't write the exact same thing for each school, but you can often write something similar. 

    First, you don’t need to articulate your college-related interests more than once. It’s an intense process, as you’ll see below, but once it’s done, it’s done.

    Second, we’ll show you how to research the schools and match your interests to them. Sadly, no, you can’t skip this for any school. However, it gets easier as you do it a second or third time, and writing up how you match with the school may not change that drastically.

    If you’d like specific guidance on various schools’ Why Us essays, you’ll find almost anything you want among our “Rock your supplements” guides.

    If the prompt asks about your major follow our Why Us process (most of the time)

    If a college wants to know why you want to major in, say, engineering at that particular school, then the process we lay out in this article will work perfectly. These schools are interested in the “Why Us” things: whether you’ll be a good fit and likely enroll. One example is Cornell.

    On the other hand, the process is different if the prompt is only asking about your interest in a particular major. These schools are looking for a track record of interest and success in that field. Examples include MIT and many public universities. 

    Some schools have both Why Us and Why Major essays. In that case, be sure to have separate content for each. Your Why Major essay can tell your “Intellectual Origin” story — we show you how below — while your Why Us essay should focus more on academic fit. 

    To make sure you nail these essays, consider having a professional (that’s us!) give you feedback

    Our 5 tips for articulating your college related interests 

    Time to get dolled up. You’re about to go on a Why Us date and first impressions matter. Specifically, the thing colleges most care about are your academic interests. What does this prospect hope to learn by attending college? That’s why every Why Us essay needs an exciting academic answer. 

    (By the way, this key aspect of Why Us aligns with Intellectual Curiosity, one of the 5 traits colleges look for in applicants. If you’ve done your application brainstorming through our module, you may have some good anecdotes to start with already.)

    Sure. But maybe academics aren’t your forte. Or maybe they are your forte, but you’re not really sure what you want to major in yet. 

    Or maybe this sounds really scary, and you’re wondering how to write about your academic interests in a way that adds three inches, conceals that pimple, and wind-machines your hair. 

    We can assure you that you should always be yourself. When you try to pretty up your actual interests, you come off as inauthentic, and worse — bland. Second, if you’re interested in going to college, you do have compelling academic interests. These next 5 exercises will prove it to you.

    1. Begin by brainstorming your academic interests

    You’ll do best on any date if you have a strong sense of who you are. For Why Us, that means knowing what interests you want to develop in college. This is easier than you might think. 

    The first step is to think of something academic or career-related that interests you deeply. It could be:

    • A field of study,
    • Things you enjoy that you might want to continue in your potential career (such as helping others or teaching), or
    • Types of jobs that interest you. 

    Now, try to delve deeper into that interest by thinking about:

    • What most interests you about it?
    • What first got you interested in it?
    • How does this interest relate to your ambitions (if any)?
    • Are there classes related to this interest that you’d like to take at college? 
    • What big questions do you have about this interest? 
    • What are you most curious about within it? 

    Note that you can organize your thoughts here free in the Dashboard at our guided Why Us brainstorming module.

    For example, if you’re attracted to the idea of working on Wall Street, you might be interested in economics; you might have started trading stocks for fun as a high school sophomore and got hooked; you might be curious about the behavioral science behind bubbles and busts. 

    Or perhaps you’re interested in math; maybe one of the things you like about math is showing peers that it’s more intriguing and approachable than they think; maybe you can’t wait to explore statistics to better explore math’s real-world applications; maybe you like the idea of teaching math as a public school teacher.

    Maybe volunteer work is important to you. You see yourself working in the nonprofit sector one day. You might think about what classes will provide insight into that work — sociology for insight into today’s social problems; or American history, to understand what trends lead to the issues you’ve encountered as a volunteer, or even a management class related to running an organization that strengthens communities. 

    You can do this exercise a few different times until you feel you’ve come up with 1-2 academic interests that represent “the real you.” Akin to great hair and makeup, this is what you want to show off on your date.

    2. Reveal your intellectual origin story

    Batman’s parents were murdered in a robbery. That’s why he’s committed to fighting crime. Wolverine had adamantium forcibly fused onto his bones. That’s why he’s so resistant to authority. 

    A great backstory can add heft, depth, and believability to a character. It works for Hollywood, and it can work for Why Us, too. (To keep up the dating metaphor, sharing something about your upbringing is a great way to get someone to know and like you better.)

    As with a backstory, your intellectual origin story can show that your interest is no flash-in-the-pan but a deeper part of your identity that will likely help you find continued success in college and beyond. Simply put, your intellectual origin story consists of the experiences you've had that led to the interest(s) you identified above.

    Note: some Why Us essays explicitly ask about how you developed your interest; some don’t. In either case, it’s important to think about it, as it’s great essay fodder. However, if the school asks about your intellectual origins story in another essay prompt, try not to have too much overlapping content. Not to worry, there are usually lots of interesting things you can say about a single interest over multiple essays without being redundant.

    Brainstorming your intellectual origin story is easy. Here are some guiding questions: 

    • What’s your intellectual origin story? 
    • What first sparked your interest in your field of study? 
    • How has your interest in it grown or evolved since then? 
    • Was there a moment or experience that ignited your interest in the subject? 
    • Was there something you learned that made you curious to learn more? 
    • If it was a gradual process, how did your interest grow?

    BTW, if you feel you need extra guidance here, you’re certainly not alone. Sometimes the best way to develop your backstory is through a parent, teacher, or friend. And you can also ask a service like us to make sure you’re putting forward your best material.

    3. Give your extracurricular interests their own brainstorming session, too

    Say you meet a hunk with a good job. Would that be enough for you to get serious about him? No! You’d still be wondering what he likes to do outside of work. Similarly, your school is wondering what you’ll get up to on campus once you put down your biochem textbooks. 

    So, get out that (possibly metaphorical) pen, and start musing on:

    • What kinds of volunteering, clubs, or organizations do you hope to continue participating in during college? Why do you want to continue?
    • What kinds of volunteering, clubs, or organizations do you hope to try for the first time during college? What do you hope to gain from these experiences?

    The key here is to show admissions readers how you’ll be engaged on campus. While, yes, it’s a good idea to prioritize activities related to your academic interests, you can also think more broadly. Schools love hearing about what’s important to you and your personal growth. 

    • Are you looking for work or research opportunities in college? What kinds? 
    • How do you want your college to support you?

    A word of caution on study abroad: avoid it unless you have a very specific and unusual idea for where and what you want to study. It can come off as “I can't wait to go to this school so I can leave and go somewhere else!” You don’t want to answer their Why Us? with an Actually, Them.

    If you’re interested in paid work opportunities in college, you could list some of your top choices for work options affiliated with the college. For example, internships at local businesses or start-ups, or lab experience with a professor. 

    • If you’re a maker and/or interested in creative pursuits, how do you hope to develop your skills in college? 
    • What will that look like on a college campus?

    Creative pursuits — if you have them, and (Be you!) it’s fine if you don’t — can be real assets in this essay, whether they complement your area of study or show your depth outside of it. To make them concrete and exciting to your admissions officers, think about:

    • How will your skills evolve as you keep learning? 
    • How will you pursue them at the college? (Ex: clubs, activities, classes, or something else.)

    By the way, we know these lists of questions are getting long (and we’re not done). If you want an easy place to answer them and keep your thoughts organized, you know you can do it in our Dashboard.

    4. Sell your powerfully unique personality with your “defining words”

    Let’s say you’ve been on a few dates. You found someone who is attractive, has a good job and does fun things you also like to do (monster truck rallies!). You’re set, right? Still no. 

    The problem is you don’t know what this person’s values are. Monster truck rallies are cool, but they’re not generally deal breakers — the make-or-break comes down to what the person stands for. 

    With that in mind, let’s take a moment now to brainstorm your “defining words.” And not just because they provide the deep substance that will ultimately win your school over. These questions are also really fun.

    • If you started a school, what would the motto be? 

    You might begin your answer: My favorite book is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which meditates on a Hebrew word that would be my school’s motto: timshel, meaning “Thou mayest.” 

    Or here’s another approach: I have a life-long relationship with the word “hustle.” From the basketball court to the classroom and my future job, life is a hustle. 

    • What can you offer your school community? What kind of impact do you want to have on your campus?

    Some examples here might include:

    The Incrementalist: I’m always the facilitator and voice of reason in any situation. Even though I’m not a “class president” type, my experience as a peer facilitator will help me resolve disputes and encourage mental health among classmates. 

    Or the Bold Strokes: I’m always looking for something to do, and if I can’t find it, I’ll start it myself. I founded two clubs at my high school, and I wouldn’t hesitate to start another in college if necessary. I’m good at bringing people together and getting things done. 

    • What drew you to the schools you’re applying to? Do any of them stand out as having a mission or philosophy that uniquely aligns with your defining words? 
    • Do their resources or opportunities align with your defining words?

    Answers might look like The University: I value independence and collaboration, and for that reason, I don’t want to go to a school where the oldest student is in their early twenties. I’m applying to a few universities because I want the opportunity to interact and learn from graduate students

    Or the Spiritual: My faith is important to me, so I’m applying to a few Jesuit schools. I’m inspired by the Jesuit belief in education and service working together to make the world a better place.

    5. Describe what your time on campus will actually look like

    If you start falling in love on a date, you might start daydreaming about what your life as a couple will really be like. Will you be a couple that loves to go out and party? Or stay home with a great movie? Will you cook together? Will you adopt a puppy?

    For the Why Us essay, this translates into thinking about the two most fundamental aspects of being a college student: learning, and making friends. 

    • Describe what you hope your college friends will be like. What are their backgrounds? 
    • College is an opportunity to learn from everyone around you. What do you hope to learn from your college friends? 

    Here’s an example: I’ve never traveled outside of the US, so I’m excited to meet international students and make friends with people from all over the world. 

    Or: In my high school, it isn’t considered cool to love school or get obsessed with different academic subjects. I can’t wait to no longer be the only person who wants to talk about philosophy until three in the morning or watch obscure French movies. 

    • How do you learn best? Is it from lectures? Group discussions? On your own? Do you love hands-on learning opportunities? What about you makes you like to learn this way?

    What’s nice about your answers here is that they can help spotlight you as a thinker — showcasing your serious side and your potential for college success. 

    For example, an introvert might begin: I’m pretty quiet in class, but I love taking notes. My favorite way to learn is when the teacher gives a lecture on an interesting subject, and I translate all that material to my reliable notebook. 

    Or, an extrovert’s answer might start: My favorite way to learn is by breaking into groups to solve a problem together. I love collaborating with other people to find a solution; it’s much easier than doing it on your own. 

    Thus conclude all our questions about you. While it’s a lot of self-reflection, we’ve put our students through this process thousands of times, and we know it pays off. 

    If you’re still feeling a little overwhelmed, that’s normal. Consider asking a friend or trusted adult to give a second opinion on what you’ve come up with. You can also share anything with us pros, whether it’s a polished draft or your jumbled brainstormed thoughts — we’ve seen it all, and we can give feedback that will get you on track.  

    Our 3 tips for showing how your interests match what the school has to offer

    It takes two to tango. Show the school how great you’ll look together. 

    1. Read the prompt closely for how the school sees itself

    In the old days, dating had hundreds of prescribed rules. There were dances with steps you had to know, dance cards to fill out, and chaperones to keep you in line. Luckily, those rules are over. 

    However, one rule continues to reign over the Why Us dating scene. We’re going to lecture you about it as though we were a Victorian chaperone: answer all parts of the prompt

    Essays tend to have their own particularities, and schools will definitely dock points for missing them. (Is she going to answer a text that’s obviously a copy/paste job you use on all the girls? Definitely not.)

    Your first task is to decide whether there’s anything in particular you should focus on as you write. For instance, some schools emphasize their smallness or sense of community; some provide no guidance at all. Either way, you need to read the prompt closely.

    We suggest: 

    • reading the prompt twice, even if it looks straightforward,
    • underlining any words that seem extra important; and
    • rewriting the prompt in your own words, with a summary of your answers. 

    For example, if your school flirtingly asks you: Why are you applying to Occidental? What are your intellectual curiosities, and why do you think Occidental is the right place for you to pursue them?

    You can’t just blurt out how cute you think Occidental is. Be love-struck. Ponder their questions deeply. You might write in your scented journal:

    This prompt is asking how my intellectual curiosities align with what Occidental has to offer. I’m going to focus on Psychology, talk about 2 big curiosities I have around it (childhood development and information acquisition), and connect it with Occidental’s research opportunities and class offerings in the psych department.

    Once you’ve put in that kind of thought, there’s no way your answer can miss. Unfortunately, as professional writing coaches, we’ve seen smart applicants often miss critical pieces of essays we’ve reviewed. Don’t let it happen to you. 

    2. Research will set you apart: get specific on what you’d do on campus

    If you were on a dating site, at some point you’d need to move on from creating your profile, and start reading those of others. As it happens, colleges have spent tons of money and time on their dating profiles, hoping to entice people just like you. They’re called “websites.”

    If you look at these websites, you will score lots of points. To be clear, we do mean that you’ll need to spend a few hours on research. Trust us, this will make a nice contrast to most applicants, who seem to do a few minutes of research (if any).

    Schools spend so much on their websites; they’re just aching for someone to notice. However, while you need to be serious here, don’t get scared off. This isn’t research that requires a lab coat and pipettes, or even a magnifying glass and deer-stalker hat. 

    It’s actually quite simple:

    1. Google the department you’re most interested in. 
    • They’ll have a separate page just for that department. How convenient!
    • Take a look at their class offerings, research opportunities, fellowships, and whatever else they’ve deemed worthy of mention. Anything catch your eye? Scribble it down. You’ll be able to use that.
    • Tip on researching classes: The general curriculum is usually less exciting and tends to be similar across schools. Look at the more advanced, esoteric classes intended for junior/senior students. Take a look at course syllabi. 
    1. Department sites often have articles about students and faculty who’ve done newsworthy things. Read these over. 
    • When your heart rate starts going up and your head gets dizzy, it’s not love — it’s envy. You want to be that student; you want to study with that prof. Make a note. When you share these feelings with your school, your chances of making those wishes come true are going to skyrocket. 
    1. End with a general search for the school’s organizations and clubs that relate to your interests.
    • If you feel your heart soar as you read about their a capella program or glance over issues of the literary magazine, make a note of it. It’s likely to be gold for your essay.

    This level of specificity will make your admissions reader feel really special. Imagine how (if it were a college) Hogwarts would feel reading:

    As someone who’s been restored to their true form using a Mandrake antidote, following a transfiguring curse, I’m excited to take Professor Sprout’s Advanced Mandrake Seminar, once I’ve met the prerequisites, and to apply to help Professor Longbottom in his research on the restorative properties of lesser-known Mandrake varietals. 

    Now, that being said, you may still find all of this research a bit overwhelming. If you’re not sure of yourself, call in a friend, parent, or mentor, or even consider using a service like us at Prompt, to look over how you’ve integrated this research. Is it specific enough (or too specific?), and does it sound like the real, interesting you? 

    3. Two is better than one: go deep on a second academic interest

    So that was “research.” Hope you enjoyed it because we recommend doing it once more with another academic interest. 

    Exceptions to the rule:

    • First, you certainly can write an excellent Why Us essay with just one meaningful academic interest. Don’t force a second if you find you can’t make it work naturally.
    • In addition, many Why Us essays are short. If the prompt asks for 150 words or less, stick to just one. 

    Use a super direct approach to turn your brainstormed content into an essay

    Congratulations! You’ve done a ton of brainstorming. That was the hard part. Compared to that, actually writing up this excellent content will be easy.

    That’s because Why Us is an essay that needs a super direct approach. There’s no reason to go with a flowing, flowery style here. 

    Yes, we’ve pushed you to think of Why Us as a romantic date. However, the analogy breaks down a little at this point. This essay’s style should not be “Love Letter.” It should be straight geometry — we fit together. “I’m interested in X, and you have Class and Activity that match X.

    However, a lot depends on word count. Give things a little more depth if your essay is limited to 600 words or so. Keep it to the point if you’ve only got around 150. Let’s take a look. 

    All essays:

    • Follow the formula. Present your 1-5 most important interests + how the school matches those interests. 
    • Start with academic interests. Extracurriculars should go further down. If you have any social reasons, they go last. 
    • If the school is your top choice (or a top choice), say so. Remember that one of the reasons schools ask Why Us is because they want assurance that you’ll accept if admitted. However, don’t say it if it’s not true. 

    Short essays (250 words or less)

    • For short essays, there’s no need for an introduction or conclusion. If you must, you can include a brief intro. But a conclusion will eat up too much room. Forego it. 
    • You might organize this essay with 1 paragraph on your academic interests, and 1 on your extracurricular and/or social interests. 
    • Example

    [Important interest] I’m interested in mastering navigation and sailing. While I’ve taught myself as much as I can within the shallow waters near my island, these arts are disfavored in my culture. Thus, I haven’t had the chance to gain advanced skills. 

    [How school matches interests] I’m particularly eager to take Professor Maui’s star navigation class. I know he teaches using hands to determine latitude by measuring the angles between stars and horizon. I’m also eager to gain practical experience by seeking to restore the heart of Te Fiti as part of the Heart of Te Fiti Restoration Club.

    Long essays (500+ words)

    • For longer essays, you may want to add in your Intellectual Origin Story. Show why your interests matter to you, and how you developed them over time.
    • Even though you have more space in these essays, still keep your introduction and conclusion short. Spend all the time you can showing what a great fit you’ll be with the school. 
    • You might organize this essay with 1 topic sentence for each of your major interests.
    • Example

    [Important interest] I’m interested in mastering navigation and sailing. 

    [Intellectual Origin Story] My whole life, I’ve felt drawn to the water. The Ocean itself once became an anthropomorphized being in order to hand me a magical stone. Lately, as I’ve assumed ruling duties, I’ve become more and more convinced that recent problems — including agricultural blight and a decrease in fishing-ground productivity — can only be solved by exploring further afield. 

    [How school matches interests] While I’ve taught myself as much as I can within the shallow waters near my island, these arts are disfavored in my culture. Thus, I haven’t had the chance to gain advanced skills. I’m particularly eager to take Professor Maui’s star navigation class. I know he teaches using hands to determine latitude by measuring the angles between stars and horizon. I’m also eager to gain practical experience by seeking to restore the heart of Te Fiti as part of the Heart of Te Fiti Restoration Club.

    Medium-length essays — Try something in between those two approaches!

    Finally, make sure you get feedback on your drafts. Give your reviewer a little tutorial on what colleges are really looking for (you can send them the link to this post), or else hand it off to a professional who knows what the essay needs to do. Bottom line: make sure someone you trust gives feedback before you hit submit.


    For more information on Why Us essays and other supplements, check out: 

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