After pouring their heart and soul into the Common App essay, students often run out of gas by the time they encounter any remaining supplemental essays. While supplemental essays may ask you anything from “What makes you happy?” (Tufts) to analyzing a Kermit the Frog quote (Dartmouth…seriously), the most important question in this section will, in some form, ask you to explain why this school is the perfect postsecondary home for you. Quite often, we observe that the “Why Us?” essay, in whatever permutation, lulls students into spewing clichés, empty hyperbolic proclamations, and other vapid, “let me just fill up this space” commentary.

Don’t worry—the task before you may be challenging, but it’s hardly nuclear physics. Everything you need to know to write a winning “Why Us” Essay can be reduced to seven fairly straightforward tips. The list below begins by highlighting a series of important “don’ts” and ends with the “do’s” that are essential for success. Follow all seven tips with fidelity and we guarantee that your essay will sparkle.

1. Avoid empty superlatives

Imagine an admissions officer, at the end of a long day’s work, getting ready to digest his or her 37th “why this college?” answer of the day. Picking up your essay, the officer learns that you want to attend their school because it is “great” and “has a stellar reputation.” Yawns ensue.  After being reminded for the 37th time today of their school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, they take another sip of coffee and move on to the next file.

Heaping generic praise on your school is not going to sway anyone. If you’re going to shower a college with flattery, make it as specific and genuine as you possibly can. This requires research (more on this a moment).

2. Don’t play “Why Us?” Mad Libs

If you are applying to 8-10 schools, and will thus be composing 8-10 of these essays, your inclination to take shortcuts is completely understandable. Just make sure that these timesavers don’t turn into admissions-killers.

Having a general structure for all of your essays is okay, but try to avoid playing the fill-in-the-blank game. There are two main reasons we advise this: 1) Your essay will feel generic and uninspired and 2) you are more prone to mistakenly reference the wrong school’s name, mascot, colors, etc.

If, due to a time crunch, you end up playing a degree of college application Mad Libs, at least make sure you play it flawlessly. The last thing you want to do is tell the University of Florida that you’ve always been a huge Seminoles fan.

3. Ditch the non-essential details

On your visit to Brown, you made sure to try the famous pumpkin pancakes at Louis Family Restaurant. Awesome! Hope you found them to be delicious but if you feel inclined to write about the experience, do so on Yelp, not as part of your “Why Us?” essay.

Many essays contain the equivalent of, “I can picture myself strolling through Branford Courtyard (Yale)…” Specifics about why you want to attend a given school needs to be more meaningful than referencing campus landmarks and attractions.

Other details that won’t set you apart include odes to features like the “scenic New England autumns,” the “heavenly weather” at UC-San Diego or the “roar of the crowd on Saturdays at Michigan Stadium.”  While there is nothing inherently wrong or off-putting about referencing restaurants, campus landmarks, weather, or sports, they ultimately take up valuable word-count real estate without doing anything to differentiate you from the pack.

4. The goal is not sameness

The best recipe for creating something unoriginal is beginning from a place of fear. It’s easy to play it super-safe and get sucked-into the clichés and tropes of the “Why Us?” essay. In the end you may produce a competent essay, but at a school with a single-digit admit rate, just about everyone will have produced something competent. To gain an admissions edge, you need to transcend competent blandness.

It all boils down to introductory game theory. In a competitive environment with more losers than winners (think of Stanford’s 5% or Columbia’s 7% admission rates), blending in with the pack isn’t going to add value to your candidacy. At least 95% of your equally brilliant peers applying to highly completive institutions will produce essays that lack an obvious flaw, but that isn’t the objective of an applicant wishing to distinguish him or herself.

To be clear, we would never advocate being different just for the sake of it—writing your essay in Dothraki, painting your response in watercolor, or writing something intentionally controversial. Your job is to be different in an organic and sincere way. So, how does one do that? We’re going to start answering that question right now…

5. Show that you did your homework

Let’s amend our uninspired example from our first tip: University X is “great” because Professor Anderson’s research on the human genome inspired you to study biology and you are impressed by the “stellar reputation” of their one-of-kind undergraduate research initiatives. You go on to lavish praise on their state-of-the-art laboratories that were completely revamped in 2016, with further renovations scheduled for 2019. In expressing your individual passion for biology, you paint a picture (not in watercolor) of how attending University X would tie-in to your academic and career aims.

Now, you have gotten the admission officer’s attention. Remember, admissions officers want to see that you have done serious homework on their institution indicative of students who, if admitted, is likely to actually enroll (the whole “demonstrated interest” thing).

So, where does one find this type of substantive information?  We recommend utilizing the top college guidebooks, a real-life or virtual tour of campus, a chat with a university rep, or some good old-fashioned Googling to gather what you need.

6. Say more about your passions

In addition to highlighting elements of a school that appeal to you, this essay also provides a venue to further explain what makes you tick and why this particular college is the ideal milieu in which to cultivate your unique passions. What clubs, activities, or study abroad locales appeal to you? Are there unique degree programs or undergraduate research opportunities that will enhance your learning experience? Is there something different about the school’s philosophy, commitment to undergraduate education, required coursework, or foundational courses?

If you can’t come up with a sincere answer to any of these questions, you might want to rethink why a given school is even on your college list in the first place.

7. Focus on the match

In order to accomplish your goal of penning a superior “Why Us?” essay, you’ll need to merge our previous two tips—showing that you did your homework and saying more about your passions. A stand-out essay seamlessly and incisively connects the opportunities that the school offers to your unique interest and talents. Here’s an example:

You did your homework and know that Reed College offers a rigorous environment for intellectually serious, self-directed students. Instead of letter grades, students receive qualitative evaluations from their professors. All courses are taught by professors, never TAs, and research opportunities for undergraduates abound. It’s little surprise that an insanely high number of Reed graduates go on to earn Ph.Ds. in their respective fields.

Now that you’ve done strong research and extracted some key facts as well as the ethos of the school, it’s time to show why you belong there. You value substantive and constructive feedback over chasing A’s. You plan on getting a graduate degree and want to immerse yourself in research throughout your undergraduate years. You are craving direct contact with faculty. You spent your high school years independently pursuing an area of passion—creating your own reading list, seeking out adult mentors, etc.

Whether you’re interested in Reed College or one of the other 3,000 four year colleges and universities in the United States, your mission is to hone in on why that school is a great fit for you, and then, why you are a great fit for it. If, after reviewing your composition, you can check both of those boxes, and you’ve avoided the common pitfalls highlighted previously, then you can rest assured that you have mastered the “Why Us?” essay.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).