How to Write Great Supplemental College Essays

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop
The Why Us? Essay is Critical

When it comes to college essays, the personal statement most often comes to mind. But many colleges also require supplemental essays. Top of the list: The Why Us? college essay.

Just like any piece of writing required as part of your application package, the Why Us? college essay is an opportunity to share something meaningful about you that you want that college to know. The essay is your interview – your elevator pitch to state your case for admission.

Why should College X pick you?

Many schools ask students to respond to a Why Us? college essay prompt like one of the following:

  • Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University.
  • 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?
  • We would like to know more about your interest in We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand – Why NYU?
  • What excites you about Tufts’ intellectually playful community? In short, “Why Tufts?”

Lots of students misunderstand the prompts and miss an important opportunity to stand out. I just reviewed a typical essay that missed the mark: It was a beautifully written story from a student answering the “Why Us?” prompt for a Big Ten university.

Full of descriptive details about the school’s location and football stadium, the story painted a vivid picture of the long drive to and from the school in the family car with his dad, an alumnus. This boy was clear he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, he was comfortable inside the stadium, and he was certain he would feel at home at this university.

Unfortunately, this story did not respond adequately to the prompt. He focused on his dad and a football stadium, not on himself. Your task is to focus on YOU!

To get moving in the right direction to answer any Why Us? prompt, consider what you want the college to know about you that is not evident from the rest of your application package. How do the college’s curriculum, clubs, and campus life support your interests? Why are you a good fit for the institution?

This task can be difficult, even for students who spent their childhoods wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with their parents’ alma maters. Most students have no idea what a school offers academically, socially, or culturally. The prompt is also challenging for students who want to tell admission officers how much they love the big city, how badly they want to escape their small towns, or how much they love the old buildings on campus.

Be careful! This is not what admission officers are looking for. In your Why Us?  college essay, they want to know why you are a good fit for their campus, whether you have the chops to succeed academically, if there are clubs and activities to support your interests, and if you are likely to graduate from this institution.

After speaking with admission officers from small liberal arts colleges, elite universities, and state institutions, I’ve found that regardless of size, status, or essay prompt, they all offer similar tips:

  • Don’t overthink it.
  • Tell us (admission officers) what you want us to know about you, not what you think we want to hear.
  • Answer the prompt honestly.
  • Make sure your essay is focused and written in your own words and your own voice.

You should never be thinking, “What are they looking for?” The better question is, “What do I want them to know about me?” They know how great they are; your job is to let them know how great you are and why you are a good fit for their school or program.

Get the Wow Advantage on your college essay!

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about the author
Kim Lifton

As President of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company, Kim Lifton leads a professional team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. She teaches students how to write application essays for college and graduate school, and adults how to write anything that involves the written word (such as books). Kim also supervises Wow’s business communication services, including running online seminars for small business and nonprofit leaders interested in blogging and social media. Contact Kim at kim@wowwritingworkshop.com.

“The best part about the Wow program was how manageable each of the steps were, and how effective they were, too.” Sarah, student