How to Write the “Why University of Michigan” supplemental essay (2022-23)?

One of the most challenging questions for our students shows up on the University of Michigan supplement: 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?

Writing 500 words on the Why U of M? topic is easier for students applying to the nursing school or engineering program.  It’s not so bad for those who want to be musicians or architects. But what if you are applying to U of M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Why U of M? Prompt is Not as Hard as You Think!

Responding to this prompt is less challenging  than you might think. Are you interested in a specific program? Do you want to do research for a professor you’ve read about? Is there a unique program at UM-LSA that you are looking forward to? Be sure to write about it and show that you really understand what it is about.

Do not tell the admissions committee you “bleed maize and blue” or that you have been attending Big Ten football games since you were a toddler. Don’t repeat the stats on the LSA web page. Your audience knows they have gifted faculty, dozens of inspiring programs and opportunities for undergraduate research and exploration.

What Do You Know About Yourself?

What do you know about yourself? Are you curious? Creative? Innovative? Do you love a good challenge? Are you a problem-solver?

What do you know about U of M-LSA? What appeals to you about liberal arts? Are you interested in the Residential College? Do you want to participate in the University Research Opportunity Program? Do you want to go to the Biological Station? Are you curious about the Institute for Social Research?

Choose a story that demonstrates how your best qualities intersect with the best of U of M, then give it your all.  

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Before you read more about how to think about and parse any college essay supplemental prompt, consider what you think you know about the college essay. Ask yourself, what if everything I think I know about the college essay is wrong?

There’s a good chance the information you’ve heard is indeed wrong. That’s because a lot of inaccurate and out-of-context information makes its way to you through the Internet, books, blogs, and even inside your high school hallways. It’s so important to get accurate information when you are applying to college. That’s where we come into the picture at Wow. We will always give you the most accurate information regarding the college essay, its purpose, how to write one that is effective and also captures the right kind of attention (the kind you want!) inside the admissions office.

No one knows more than the college essay than Wow.

Want to know what else admission teams care about? Click here. If you want to learn more about how to write a college essay that Shawn and any admissions officer would want to read, please join me for a monthly free webinar for students (invite your bring your friends; Mom and Dad are invited, too!)

We offer the college essay class, called Everything You Think You Know About the College Essay Is WRONG, the second Wednesday of each month at 7:00 pm Eastern (February – September). In it, I take students like you through the first 4 steps of Wow’s signature process to give students a taste of our approach to the college essay. I dispel the college essay myths, share our best tips, and answer questions live. Can’t join us live? No problem! Just register, and I’ll send you the recording.

There’s so much information about college essays out there, how can anyone, even a bright, talented student, tell the difference between what’s worth listening to and what’s not? That’s where I can help. I’m a journalist by training, and I only share information I have checked and double-checked, then checked again.

I go straight to the source – college admissions officers like Shawn Felton – to find out what they’re looking for in application essays, and I’m excited to share what I know with you.

Tips to answer any type of college essay prompt

In every case, your answer to a Why College X? Prompt needs to address three important areas:

  1. The school: What attracts me to this college or program?
  2. The student: What do I want readers to know about me?
  3. The stories: How does what I know about the program mesh with what I want readers to know about me? How can I illustrate this intersection? (stories/anecdotes)

Many students have very little idea what a school offers academically, socially, or culturally. Sometimes students choose a college because of the location or its status. This is not what admissions officers want to know. They may need to know you will be comfortable in a big city, but they are more interested in their school and what the college or program offers. Do you have the chops to succeed academically? Are there any clubs and activities to support your interests? Why do these factors matter to you? Depending how familiar you are with the school, answering these questions may require some research (online, in-person visits, talking to current students or alumni, etc.)

Each year, we meet many young people who insist that a school is perfect because they feel at home inside the football stadium and love listening to stories around the Thanksgiving dinner table from Dad, Aunt Lisa and Cousin Diana, all enthusiastic and accomplished alumni. Colleges want students to be comfortable for many reasons, but this type of answer is never sufficient. It does not answer the prompt.

You can use the illustration below as a thought-starter for thinking about a Why This College? essay. As with personal statements, focus on content before structure and polish. Make sure you understand the purpose of this type of essay. 

Diagram, venn diagramDescription automatically generated

To prepare for writing a Why This College? essay, go to the prompt ask yourself these questions Below. This can generate useful notes and ideas that will help you in the writing process:

  1. What is the prompt really asking?
  2. What appeals to you about the college/university/program?
  3. What do you want the readers to learn about you from reading your response?  
  4. Why are you compatible with this school/program?
  5. What examples/illustrations can you share to demonstrate your compatibility?
  6. Before drafting your essay, write out a simple paragraph or bullet points responding to this question: When they are done reading this essay, what will readers know about me that they can’t find out from the rest of my application?

If you have already written a Why Us? Essay,

  1. Note how this prompt is similar to or different from the other school’s Why This? prompt. 
  2. Use your other essay(s) as a starting point for this one but use examples for this school. 
  3. Make some notes about what you are interested in and what this school offers that address those interests (academic, social, intellectual, cultural, etc.)

Pay attention to the different categories (academic, social, intellectual, cultural, etc.) noted in the specific prompt you’re trying to answer. Here is a sample table for a student applying to the University of Michigan’s LSA program who needs to write this supplemental essay:

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? (100-550 words)

The School (What attracts me to this university?)Me (What do I want readers to know about me?)Stories (How does what I know about the program mesh with what I want them to know about me?)
Survey classes supplemented by smaller learning opportunitiesI am independent enough to make the most of large settings and also stay engaged in a small groupI took language courses at the community college last year. I had to keep my own schedule, turn in assignments without prompting, etc. For English, I took a junior/senior seminar at school, where every student had to participate in discussion and even lead the discussion sometimes. The day I lead our session on She’s Come Undone was fun and invigorating.
Opportunity to explore areas I’m not familiar withI am curious about so many thingsI am always going to programs at the art museum, library, etc., whether they are about composting, poetry, or investments.

This table, like the questions above, will be useful for generating ideas and understanding the prompt. We encourage you to fill out this chart for every Why This College? essay you write, as it will help you see the common themes you can use across multiple Why This College? essays, as well as key differences you should be sure to include.

Community Essays

Some schools want to find out how students might contribute to the campus community by learning about how they participate in their current community.

The University of Michigan has asked this type of question for several years. It is a typical community essay prompt:

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong and describe that community and your place within it. (300 words maximum)

Kim Bryant, U-M’s Assistant Director of Admissions, Visitor Experience & Engagement, spends a lot of time reading and reviewing essays—thousands of application packages each season. She has spent decades inside the admissions office in Ann Arbor and loves hearing student stories.

She knows what she wants from a community essay: “We have an amazing, vibrant, thriving community made up of students in athletics, strong academics, research, over 1,200 student clubs and organizations. We want to know what applicants do in their community, church, high school, synagogue, and mosque. What are they going to do on our campus to make a difference in the world?”

Here are a couple more prompts that ask students to write about how they have contributed, or hope to contribute, to a specific community.

University of Pennsylvania

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classrooms, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)


At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200-250 words)

Diversity and Inclusion Essays

Some colleges present opportunities for students to discuss how they will contribute to a diverse and inclusive campus. While these prompts can sometimes sound similar to the community essays described above, pay attention to what each school specifically asks students to focus on in their essays.

Duke University

Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better, perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background, we encourage you to do so here. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)

Pomona College

We believe that everyone has something to contribute and receive from a diverse community. Why is belonging to a diverse and inclusive college community important to you? (200 words maximum)

Rice University

Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System and undergraduate life is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural tradition each student brings. What life perspectives would you contribute to the Rice community? (500 words maximum)

Activity Essays

Often, colleges like to know more about how a student spends their time than the sentence or two that students include on the activities section of an application or resume. When asked, “Which activity would you continue in college?” or “Tell us about one significant activity,” students need to expand upon the activity by explaining what they like about it, what they find engaging about the activity and why this is important to them.

As with all essay opportunities, make sure you know why you are sharing a story. If you write about tennis because you won six championships, that information is likely already in your application. If you write about how hard you worked to get along with your new doubles partner, and as a result you became a better team player, that’s something readers wouldn’t already know.

One of our students wrote an amazing activity essay about learning the value of hard work when he cleaned out a dumpster; it was not the easiest task to get while working at a summer camp. But he was asked to do it as part of his job in the kitchen of the overnight camp he had attended for many years. His colorful description of the activity, along with what he learned, showed how hard he worked under the worst of circumstances. His essay revealed his character. That’s why it worked. And that’s why we loved it.

Every activity essay, no matter how short, offers a space to share something new and meaningful about yourself and your interests. Consider these examples:

Georgetown University

Briefly discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (Approximately one-half page, single-spaced)

Vanderbilt University

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (200-400 words)

Harvard University

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (50-150 words)

Princeton University

Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (Please respond in about 150 words.)

Influential Person Essays

The prompts on college applications are not always as straightforward as they appear. Consider the “influential person” essay prompt, which might look like this: Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

Colleges do not want to just read stories about Aunt Rose, a beloved first-grade teacher or the student’s great-grandfather who invented the crinkle potato chip. Instead, you need to write about how this special person helped shape you, what you gained from the relationship, and why it matters to you now.

It is admirable if Aunt Rose saved five children from a burning house or won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But what does that have to do with you? Were you one of the kids she saved? Are you a volunteer firefighter because of this experience? If not, let Aunt Rose apply to college on her own. She might even earn a scholarship for her heroic acts.

Issue Essays

Even if a college asks students to discuss an issue (racism, poverty, domestic violence, world hunger, gun control) that is relevant to them, admissions officers still want you to reflect on that issue from a personal perspective. Consider the “issue essay” prompt, which might look like this: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Are you passionate about the environment? Do you follow politics like a veteran pundit? Are you a vegetarian or an advocate for the elderly? These are admirable issues, but unless you can explain what you have done because of this great concern, this essay won’t shine; it won’t be effective. Why did you become a vegetarian? How has it affected your daily life? What insight have you gained while teaching Mom and Dad to cook tofu? Answers to questions like these demonstrate reflection.

University of Virginia

Rita Dove, UVA English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, once said in an interview that “there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.” Describe a time when, instead of complaining, you took action for the greater good. (Roughly 250 words)

Creative Essays

Students generally either love or hate creative essays. Here are three sample prompts from the University of Chicago, the leader of the creative, provocative prompt:

  1. What if the moon were made of cheese? Or Neptune made of soap? Pick a celestial object, reimagine its material composition, and explore the implications. Feel free to explore the realms of physics, philosophy, fantasy…the sky is the limit!
  2. What’s so easy about pie?
  3. It’s said that history repeats itself. But what about other disciplines? Choose another field (chemistry, philosophy, etc.) and explain how it repeats itself. Explain how it repeats itself.

In addition to a personal statement, UChicago asks students to write several supplemental essays, including one creative essay, about 1-2 pages long.

Students who attend UChicago like questions like this. But if you can’t bear the question, it might be a sign that UChicago is probably not a good fit.

The idea is to have some fun with this essay. “Write it any way you want,” the school tells students. “We think of (the creative prompt) as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.”

Other schools offer creative prompts as well. These samples come from current and past application seasons.

University of Vermont

Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined!) best describes you? (500 words maximum)

Stanford University

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 words maximum)

Covid Prompts

The Common App, Coalition App, and some colleges, like the University of Texas, added prompts during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, some optional and some required. The Common App’s prompt was optional. Colleges ask these types of questions to find out how you lived through challenging circumstances like Covid or other natural disasters in a genuine way.

Common App Covid Prompt

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. (250 words, optional)

This prompt, or one like it, may remain on the Common App and other applications for the 2022-23 application cycle; it might or might not seem relevant for you. If you have something to add to your application surrounding a natural disaster of any kind, this is a good place to share that information. But remember, no whining and no gloating. This is a place to share information you want colleges to know about you.

The Common App added this question to the Additional Information section, where students have always had the opportunity to share other information, about circumstances like an extended absence from school, long-term illness, or a significant decline in grades. If you feel you have something to share in the Additional Information, or another optional section, it is recommended you discuss your circumstances with your high school counselor or another trusted admissions expert.

There’s no need to manufacture challenges or heroic efforts in an answer to any prompt.

The Covid prompt, and all supplemental essays, offer a chance to share something new with colleges and give a more complete picture of who you are. Make the most of this opportunity.

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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