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Last updated March 21, 2024

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How to Write a Why Us Supplemental Essay

Key Takeaway

The "Why Us" supplemental essay is an opportunity to show alignment with your chosen college. To effectively write this essay, conduct in-depth research on the school's academic programs, values, and unique features that relate to your interests. Craft your essay to showcase how these elements resonate with your personal, academic, and professional goals. Avoid common mistakes such as vague connections or focusing on unrelated aspects of the school.

This post is one in a series of posts about the supplemental essays. You can read our core “how-to” supplemental post here.

The “Why Us” supplemental essay prompt—also known as the “Why This College” prompt—is one of the most common types of supplemental essays you’ll write during your application journey.

At the most basic level, Why Us prompts ask students to describe why they have decided to apply to the college in question.

Why Us prompts are important for both colleges and applicants.

When admissions officers review applications, Why Us supplementals help them understand how a student’s background, goals, values, and academic inclinations align with the school’s offerings. They also help admissions officers assess how serious a student is about wanting to attend the institution in question.

For applicants, Why Us essays allow you to make your case for school fit. They are the perfect opportunity for you to stand (metaphorically, of course) in front of the admissions committee and explicitly explain why you belong at a school.

In short, Why Us or Why this College essays let you explicitly tell admissions officers how you align with a school so you don’t have to leave the guesswork up to them. Let’s get into how you can write a Why Us essay that stands out.

What is a Why Us Supplemental essay?

Why Us supplementals can have a few variations, but they all get at a common question. Take a look at the following three examples.

1: University of Chicago

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

2: Duke University

What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well.

3: University of Michigan

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? (Required for all applicants; minimum 100 words /maximum 550 words)

Why Us Essay Strategy

To write a good one, you need to know something about the school—you’ll need to do your research.

By this point, you probably already know a bit about the schools you’re applying to. After all, you’ve hopefully built your school list based on schools that best align with your academic interests, stats like GPA and test scores, and personal interests like school type and location.

Now’s the time to put those key areas of convergence into action.

The key to writing these essays is to do some deep research into the school you’re applying to. If you’re focused on applying to schools that have esports programs, you need to find a compelling way to articulate your interests that aligns you with the school and its offerings.

A school’s offerings don’t always need to be academic, but it helps. They can also be social, athletic, or cultural.

Often, however, students have a harder time writing essays about cultural or social fit that don’t feel superficial. It’s not enough to write an essay about how nice everyone was when you took a college tour.

Instead of focusing entirely on a single experience you had while visiting the campus, talking to an alum, or being interviewed, do some serious research into the school and how it would fit you as a student and a member of the campus community.

How to do Why Us School Research

School research is an important step in writing good supplemental essays. But it’s absolutely essential for Why Us essays.

Why Us essays are all about making an argument for school fit. They’re your main opportunity to say, “Hey, admissions officer. I belong at your school!”

So what does any good argument need? That’s right—research.

Because schools want to see that you a) have taken the time to get to know the institution and b) can make a case for why you belong at the school, you’ll need to do good research and use it in a way that best supports your case.

The research you do may depend on the specific prompt Why Us prompt you’re responding to. But in general, there are two kinds of research you can focus on.

Method 1: Find Academic Alignment

The first place you can focus your research is, of course, on academics. Since colleges are schools, showing your academic alignment is a safe bet.

So what is “academic alignment” anyway?

Academic alignment means that your academic background, interests, and goals match up with what a school has to offer. Schools don’t want to admit students whose academic needs they can’t meet, and students shouldn’t seek out schools where they won’t be able to accomplish their academic goals.

This alignment can appear in a variety of places. Here are some of the most common:

  • Major options
  • Special concentrations or programs
  • Professors
  • Faculty research and labs
  • Student research opportunities
  • Academic initiatives and projects
  • Study abroad programs
  • Community partnerships
  • Classroom philosophies

To find this information, you’ll need to scour not just the school’s website but also the website of the specific department you’re interested in applying to.

In your research, there are lots of places you can look:

  • Course lists
  • Faculty biographies
  • Faculty CVs (these are basically faculty resumes that list all the academic work they’ve done)
  • Academic articles and books written by faculty members
  • Research lab websites
  • News stories about academic research and awards

With these facts in hand, you can write supplemental essays that draw specific points of connection between you and a school.

Method 2: Find Values Alignment

Academic alignment is an obvious and common approach to Why Us essay prompts. But there is also a less common approach. Take your Why Us supplemental essays a step further by looking at school values.

All colleges and universities have specific values that guide the institution. That’s why schools have mission statements that lay out what the institution is all about.

To find school values for your Why Us supplemental essays, look for a school’s motto, mission statement, or strategic plan.

Mottos sum up an institution’s values-based framework. School mottos are typically established at an institution’s founding. Often they’re in Latin and have English translations

Example: Yale’s motto is Lux et Veritas or “Light and Truth.”

Mission statements are statements about an institution’s values and purpose. They lay out and are occasionally revised or updated as institutional priorities change.

Strategic plans are documents published by university leadership. They establish a working plan the university will follow over the next several years. They often lay out strategic initiatives and reveal where the institution wants to invest the most time and resources. These initiatives often revolve around social

Brand identity is a way universities ensure all of their communications sound the same. While these aren’t always public, you can often look up a university’s brand guidelines. These guidelines are written for university employees who communicate to the public on behalf of the university. While there’s no specific way you can incorporate these guidelines into your essays, they can give you a very clear sense of how a university thinks of and markets itself. With that knowledge in hand, you can write an essay that shows exactly how you fit into the ethos of the institution.

Example: Vanderbilt has a comprehensive brand identity page.

Showing that your values align with those of an institution

Method 3: Find Other Alignment

Why Us essays don’t just have to be about academics and values. They can also be about areas of interest that you hold dearly, like music, community service, athletics, and more. If you’re a die-hard Scrabble player and notice that the school has a Scrabble club, then that’s a unique feature that you can draw out in your supplementals.

Pick your strengths and lean in. If you're a track star, find something about the athletic culture. If you're a musician, research the community music program. If you love creative writing... you get it. Schools love to see students who have a clear vision of where they're going and why.

Scour a school’s website and social media channels for these unique and compelling connections.

How to Write a Why Us Supplemental Essay

Step 1: Choose the major you THINK you’d like to study at the school. It’s OK to not know for certain!

Look at the majors and minors offered at the school and get a sense of what interests you. Once you have a decent idea about what specific program you might be interested in exploring…

Step 2: Do a deep dive into that program and learn about the work being done by faculty in the department.

What do the professors study? Are there any interdisciplinary centers on campus that you could see yourself participating in? Learn about what real students do on campus and familiarize yourself with what specific academic and extracurricular opportunities might be available to you on campus.

Step 3: Think about how these opportunities could be applied to your other interests and passions. Try to find an interdisciplinary connection.

Be creative here, and specific. Unlike the Common App essay, where reflection is key, in the Why X essay you are looking forward. Talk about what you will do if accepted. Be as specific as you can. Make your readers feel as if you’ve really done your homework and have a good reason for applying to the school.

Why Us Supplemental Essay Example

It helps to have an example, so I'll walk through how I would help a student research a school and write a Why Us supplemental essay.

To start, let’s say the student in question is interested in studying psychology and wants to get involved in prison abolition efforts.

To add extra granularity, let's pretend this student's top choice program is Lewis & Clark College.

Now let’s go step-by-step through the Why Us research process.

Step 1: Choose the major you THINK you’d like to study at the school.

Our first step is to explore L&C's psychology program. Our hypothetical student is academically inclined. Thus, our focus in the supplemental will be on demonstrating the strong fit between the school's academic climate and the student's intellectual interests.

So we google "Lewis & Clark psychology" and navigate our way to the department page.

We know we want to do research while in college, so the "research" tab on the right side of the page jumps out right away. Let's navigate to that page and see what's up.

We quickly realize that L&C emphasizes research, and particularly emphasizes the opportunity for students and faculty to collaborate on research.

Cool. So now we have some ammo to work with in the supplemental essay. We can "demonstrate fit" by writing about our interest in pursuing research alongside a faculty member while studying psychology. Boom.

Scrolling through the page, I also notice that the L&C Psychology Department is touting their summer research opportunities and their history of placing students in nearby research labs. More stuff to say you're interested in.

Remember, by contrast with the Common Application essay, which is about your life, the supplemental is all about sketching a detailed plan for your undergraduate study.

Step 2: Do a deep dive into that program and learn about the work being done by faculty in the department.

The next step is to enrich your alignment with one of the department's core offerings (research) by finding professors who are conducting research that you'd actually want to help out with.

Read professor bios and take a look at which courses they offer. Or, start with a course catalog, find ones you're interested in, and then figure out which professors teach them.

Mention these folks by name. Talk about how they could enrich your education and help you become the student you hope to be in a few years' time.

Step 3: Think about how these opportunities could be applied to your other interests and passions. Try to find an interdisciplinary connection.

Finally, I would recommend balancing out your essay by nodding to one of your extracurricular interests. In this case, our example student is interested in incarceration and prison abolition.

Given these interests, the student could talk about how she intends to study the relationship between early-childhood trauma and incarceration and co-teach psychology classes in L&C's prison education program.

By bringing her academic focus to bear on her interest, she is creating an interdisciplinary focus in her "Why X" essay that will help her stand out.

Most Common Why Us Mistakes

You’re almost ready to start writing. But before you begin, watch out for a few easy-to-make mistakes.

  1. Not making any specific connections to the school.

    Hopefully by this point, you know why this is a problem. A Why Us supplemental essay that makes no argument for why you belong at school isn’t adding much to your application.

    Unlike a Common App essay that should be applicable to every school you apply to, Why Us supplemental essays should be customized to each school. They should have the school name and any relevant, specific details you want to include.

    Feel free to explicitly state the name of a professor you want to work with or the title of a class you want to take. Including these specifics is much better than being overly general because the details show admissions officers that you’ve done your research.

  2. Making connections that are too broad.

    Other students try to make connections, but they make them far too broad.

    Let’s say you’re writing a Why Us supplemental essay for a liberal arts college.

    An inadequate answer to a “Why us?” question would be, “I want to go to your liberal arts college because of the small class sizes.”

    While that may be true, it’s not a very good argument for why you’re a good match for the school. It needs to be more specific—about you and the school.

  3. Focusing on features of a school that don’t connect with your background or interests.

    The final major mistake students make when writing Why Us supplementals is choosing to focus on details that don’t actually connect to their backgrounds or interests. In other words, students go wrong when they call upon random facts and figures.

Why Us Supplemental Essay Example

Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about any academic interests that excite you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue them while also embracing topics with which you are unfamiliar. (200-250 words)

Contrary to popular belief, the Buddha didn’t say “life is suffering”. He said “life is dukkha”, which roughly translates to anything impermanent, and clinging to that which is impermanent leads to suffering.

My interest in world religions led me to study Buddhism, which led me to practice meditation.((The writer begins with a compelling hook and jumps quickly into answering the “Why Us” question.)) Soon, I was researching online what neuroscientists observe in the brains of meditators, which brought me to the Mindfulness Center at Brown. Over the past year, I’ve followed an infinite trail of links and videos from the Center’s website about how meditation, an ancient practice present in all religions, influences modern psychology, neuroscience, public health, education, athletics, medicine, and philosophy.

So, I became interested in Brown and just about every academic subject under the sun.((These school connections are great because they show that the student was learning from Brown’s resources before they even began looking at colleges.)) I want to use my education and career to reduce suffering for others, and this goal transcends disciplines. Brown’s Open Curriculum would allow me to pursue my interdisciplinary interests while embracing my mission of improving lives.

To start, I’d like to branch out from psychology to neuroscience. My most likely path is to emulate neuroscientists like Brown’s Dr. Judson Brewer, who studies the brain on meditation and how mindfulness impacts habit change.((This reference is specific, relevant, and incorporated seamlessly into the essay.)) I’d also like to try public health courses to learn how organizations impact communities, and biology and chemistry courses to grasp the basics of medicine. All I do is grounded in an understanding of ethics and religion, and I am also interested in the education concentration as I seek to share my ideas with others.((This final sentence wraps up the essay beautifully by connecting everything back to the writer’s interests and values, which are related to those of the institution they’re applying to.))




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