Why Us? (And Why Not?)

Have you encountered it yet, seniors? The dreaded supplemental essay with the topic that radiates chills down your spine?

You know the one I mean. It’s being whispered about in the halls of your high school right now:

Why do you want to attend XYZ University?

I can sense it – you’re panicking right now, aren’t you? You’re questioning everything in your life, every choice you’ve made up to this point – the campuses you’ve toured, the coaches you’ve contacted, and even the major you see yourself pursuing. (“Biology?! What am I thinking?!”)

Meanwhile, your writing muse – the one who got you through that whole essay about your volunteer efforts at your local homeless shelter and made your passion for helping people shine – has packed up and left town:

What’s a harried high school senior to do?!

First, stop panicking. This is a standard supplemental essay question and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever died answering it. Thus you, my dear readers, are capable of answering it successfully too.

Here’s how:

  1. Breathe and step away from the computer. Breathing is good advice anytime (!) and stepping away from the computer removes the blank white space of a new Word document and infernally blinking cursor that reminds you of your muse’s untimely departure. Instead, pick up a note pad and writing utensil and sit somewhere quiet to reflect. (I’m serious about this, by the way.)
  2. Think about your first choice school (or the first one who’s asked you the “Why us?” question). Have you visited campus? What do you remember about it? What did you enjoy most about being there? What didn’t you like or what made you a little nervous? What about printed materials they’ve sent you or electronic communications/social media? What do you think of those? Dump all of your thoughts – even the stray ones – onto the page. Don’t judge them, don’t explain them, just DUMP THEM. ALL OF THEM. RIGHT NOW.
  3. Now put the pad down and leave it for 24 hours (or so). When you go back, evaluate your notes. What stands out to you? Was there any overlap (e.g. were there any stories that you remember a tour guide telling that are similar to something you mentioned from one of the school’s social media sites)? Are your thoughts centered on a central theme or are there multiple things going on?
  4. Write down the theme(s) of the notes. If everything you wrote down has to do with the school’s science programs (“great labs, research opportunities, loved that biology professor I met,” etc.), you have one theme to build your essay on. If you have a list of themes (“riding coach is inspiring – want to ride for her!, dorms were my favorite, science programs have high placement rates to vet school, students made me feel welcome,” etc.), your essay will be more list-based.
  5. Now (and only now!) you can begin to assemble the essay. Supplemental essays are typically much shorter than your primary essay/personal statement, remember, so get in, make your point, and get back out again. Don’t get too flowery – straightforward is the way to go. “I want to attend XYZ University because the science programs inspire me…” is a great way to open an essay that has a central theme; likewise, if your approach will be more list-intensive, it’s okay to say, “There isn’t one thing about XYZ University that appeals to me, but many…”
  6. Breathe again and give the essay time to breathe too. As with any essay, don’t slap this one together the day before you intend to add it to your essay; instead, give it a few days (a week or more if you can) where you ignore it completely, then go back and make your final tweaks before you submit it. Having it out of sight and mind for a bit allows you to review it with fresh eyes before submission and gives you the time and ability to make changes before admission officers see it.

The bottom line, students, is that the “Why us?” essay should be the easiest essay you write all application season. After all, you’re not applying to schools you don’t like or that don’t interest you; you’re applying to schools you’d really like to attend next fall! Organizing your thoughts is the name of the game, not manufacturing reasons for application that are designed to kiss up to admission personnel. (They can tell if you do that in your essay, by the way.)

And if it isn’t the easiest question you tackle in your application, maybe you’re not applying to the right school…

(Need help with a college application or the college search? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide you.)

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