“Why Us” Essays

What Is a Why Us? Essay

Many colleges require answers to essay prompts beyond the long personal statement. These might range from asking about a historical event you could have witnessed (Stanford) to your favorite book (University of Southern California). One supplemental essay that frequently stumps students is the Why Us? essay. This essay challenges students not just to describe themselves or list features they like about the college, but to connect their interests with the characteristics of the college to demonstrate why student and school are a good match.

A Why Us? essay prompt might look something like these:

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words) University of Southern California

Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University. (max 800 words)

Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (max 300 words)

How will opportunities at Purdue support your interests, both in and out of the classroom? (max 100 words)

Why the Why Us? Essay

Before you sit down to write your response, consider how a college would use this prompt – what information do they hope to get out of it? Remember that any essay a college requires is one that they have to spend time reading. In fact, in 2020 Georgia Tech dropped the long Common App Personal Statement in favor of only requiring two “supplemental” essays, including their version of the Why Us? essay. Georgia Tech is explicit about why they use this prompt (and their explanation would apply to many other colleges).

The traits of a strong essay include ones that:

  • Demonstrate authenticity & self-awareness
  • Demonstrate thoughtfulness
  • Display attention to topic, style, and grammar
  • Demonstrate a student has thought about why Georgia Tech, specifically, is a fit for them and how their goals align with Georgia Tech’s mission statement: The Georgia Institute of Technology is a public research university established by the state of Georgia in Atlanta in 1885 and committed to developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.

One reason this is an often used prompt is that colleges are interested in accepting students who will actually enroll. This is something they keep close track of and try to predict accurately, especially as numbers of applications increase. Yield is the ratio of students who attend to students who are accepted. It is usually expressed as a percentage. When colleges do a poor job of predicting yield, they either have a class that is smaller than desired (with lower tuition revenues) or a class that is larger than expected (causing shortages in housing and seats in classes). Asking students to directly express why they think a college is a good fit helps to distinguish between students who are likely to arrive in fall and those who applied based on a rankings list, because their friends are applying, or because a parent said they should.

How to Approach a Why Us? Prompt

Try to draw strong connections between your interests and the opportunities at the college. When you read about academic programs, extracurricular activities or unique opportunities at the college, which make you think, “Hey, if I were there I could…”  Which opportunities light you up and what ideas do they spark?

Make a list of 10-15 reasons you would like to attend the college. 

  • What are you looking forward to as a prospective student?
  • What aspects of your future academic department are you especially intrigued by?
  • Are there any particular classes you hope to take? Why those courses?
  • What clubs or teams interest you?
  • Are there particular outreach or networking programs that have caught your eye?
  • If you are accepted at several colleges, why would you choose this school over other colleges?

Now connect your interests to these unique college features.  These responses might follow a pattern like:

Because I’m interested in (aspect of prospective major), I’m excited by (program, way of teaching, club, opportunity), because it would (possible outcome).

Or you can flip it around:

Because I want to (achieve goal or outcome), the (program, club, opportunity, way of teaching) attracts me, since it would let me (combine parts of your identity, have access to something special, be supported in a significant way). 

The depth of your explanation will depend on the word limit for the response. An 800-word response is going to need a thoughtful response with vivid detail, while a 100-word response will only allow you to explore a few ideas.

This response shouldn’t read like a laundry list of facts about the college. Instead it should connect what you are interested in, what the college offers, with a “so what” type explanation. If you are interested in computer science and are torn between artificial intelligence and the internet of things AND Georgia Tech has a Threads curriculum that lets you study both, THEN what do you hope to get out of that experience. If a college is well-known for its interdisciplinary programs, coop requirement, or individualized major; why does that make you sit up and take notice.

If you are coming up short on reasons why this school is a good match for you, it may be a sign that you need to do more research. Sign up for a virtual presentation from the admissions office, explore the pages for the academic departments you are interested in, read social media news streams from not only the main official account but also departments and clubs, and browse recent articles in the campus paper.  Expect to spend several hours doing this type of research.

If you would like help with essays or other aspects of the college admissions process, contact me at lisa@admissionsdecrypted.com.

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