Why this college



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Part 1: How NOT to Write Your Essay

It's Early Action time, and many of you are writing your "Why us" college application statements. After reading many bad ones and a few good ones, I’ve put together this list of DOs and DON’Ts.

Let's start with the DON'Ts:

DON'T: Write about the school's size, location, reputation or the weather. 
Why? Because that's what half of America is writing about. Take a hint from Emory University, whose “Why us” essay used to read:

"Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a particularly good match for you?"

Why do you think they say don't write about those things? Because they're tired of reading about those things.

In fact, here's what to do after you've written your first draft: Go back through your essay and underline anything that sounds like it could have appeared in another student's essay. Then delete it.

In your "Why us" essay you're making a case, and the case is this: "You [the school] and I [the student] are a perfect match." But...

DON'T: Simply use emotional language to make your case. 
"I really really want to go to Northwestern because I just have this feeling that it's the place for me" does not a good case make. It doesn't show how you are a.) qualified or b.) a good match for the school. And for that matter, neither does the statement, "I can see myself rooting for the Wildcats at MetLife Stadium on Sundays."

Which reminds me:



DON'T: Screw up the mascot, stadium, team colors or names of any important people or places on campus. 
Why? It's the quickest way to show you're a crappy researcher. In the example above, the Wildcats play neither at MetLife Stadium nor on Sundays. (And, based on their home record these days, neither do the Giants. But I digress.)

Also, know that the "I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]" is a cliche of the "Why us" essay, but some students can't resist. Fine. If you're going to use it, though, at least get the team names and colors right. I've heard more than one admissions officer say that a screw-up like this can immediately disqualify an application. I'm not saying it definitely will, or that this is true for all admissions officers--some probably don't care--but don't give them a reason to put you in the "no" pile. Do your research. (And the USC colors are not red and yellow, incidentally, but "USC Cardinal" and "USC Gold.")



DON'T: Think of this as a "Why Them" essay. 
In other words, don't tout the school's bus system. "I know we have a good bus system, I take it every day!" says Erica Sanders, Director of Recruitment at University of Michigan. And don't parrot the brochures or website language--it could be that your reader actually wrote the words you’re copying and pasting.

Again, look at Emory’s (new) "Why Us" prompt, which reads:

"Undergraduates at Emory and Oxford Colleges are offered countless opportunities to engage with the student body, the faculty, and your academic program of choice--from hands-on research opportunities to student organizations to volunteering. What are some of the programs and/or activities you would plan to get involved with on either campus, and what unique qualities will you bring to them?" (Emphasis mine.)

Tip: Even if the school doesn’t ask for that last part, include it.

“So what should I put in my essay?” you ask, “And how do I know where to research?” I'm glad you asked. 

Read Part 2: What to Include in Your "Why Us?" Essay »

Read Part 3: All the Resources You Need to Learn About a Particular School 

Why this college? Tips from Essay Hell
Even though supplemental essays usually are short—usually a paragraph or two—many students are stumped on how to structure them. Or on just how to start or end them.

In general, since they are so short, you don’t have to get fancy. Jump right into your points or answers. Be direct, but include details and specific examples.

Here are a couple ideas to help you get going. These are for the most common supp: “Why you at our college?” or “What will you contribute to our college?” or “Why do you want to go to our college?”
Here are two very simple outlines that might help you structure your “Why You?” Essay 

A. Hit Your Best Point First 

First paragraph: Start with your best or favorite point you want to make about what excites/intrigues/attracts you to this school, and briefly explain why. Often, this point is an example of a larger feature you like about the school. (Example: On school tour, you learned all students are thrown in a fountain on their birthday, and how you think traditions like that show a tight-knit, supportive college atmosphere, which you like.) You can spend a couple sentences describing this point, including specific details or emotion to give it color and interest. If you want, you could end this paragraph with some type of broader statement about how what you value (give specifics) lines up with what they value. (If you know what you want to study, it’s probably best to feature its academic appeal first, or emphasize that.)

Second paragraph: Now flush out your other points. Try to provide 3-5 other examples of how your college goals lines up with what they offer, and how you know that, and why it’s important. Draw from several areas in these examples: academic (this is most likely the most important); social; lifestyle; location; philosophical; extracurricular activities, unique opportunities, etc. If you make a point, back it up with a specific detail or example.

Unlike a typical longer essay, there’s no need to summarize or wrap up your supplement with a “conclusion,” unless it comes naturally. Better to use your space to give specific examples and make points supporting your main ideas.



B. Start With What First Attracted You to the School

First paragraph: Start by stating what was the main thing that first attracted you to this school. (Even if it’s relatively lightweight, you can expand into more meaty reasons next.) For example, one student wrote about how he always wanted to paint his face with this college’s colors and cheer on their football team. Or you could start with your first impression while on a school tour, or with what a friend of a friend told you about her or his experience. These are just ideas on how to get started. At the end of this paragraph, you can make a more general statement about the overall main reason you want to go there–and mostly likely this will be about your field of interest (top engineering program; study abroad emphasized; key location for future goals, etc.)

Second paragraph: This is where you can give more details on other top reasons you connect with that school. (Something first attracted you, but as you researched you learned about more and more features that you liked…) You can flush out the idea of how what they offer supports your academic goals–give specifics, such as individual classes, internship opportunities, special facilities, top professors, type of peers, supportive values, etc. But you can also mention other parts of the school that attract you and support your education goals–socially, lifestyle, philosophical values, hobbies, location, etc. (I don’t believe you need to have an actual “conclusion” with these supps where you formally summarize your points, unless it works out that way.
Here are some other tips:

1. Do your research. Scour the school’s Web site. Look for what they value in their messaging (key words: innovation; entrepreneurial; leadership, sustainability, etc.) and see if you can include experiences from you own background or interests that support these. I love college counselor Ethan Sawyer’s awesome list of resources, How to Write a “Why Us” Essay,” to research your target schools for these supps.



2. Dig for Ways to Make it Personal. (This is my favorite tip.) The best way to brighten a generic answer is to find personal connections. Mention something you saw while on a college tour–such as how a professor interacted with students or a specific moment with a student that impressed you (you could even gather details if you watch the online campus tour.). Mention how you had heard something about a college from a friend or family member who went there (a specific detail that you liked), and why you care about that, too. Or maybe someone you highly respect went there and that peaked your interest. You could even quote a college rep.

3.  Look for specific examples and details of how what you want out of your college experience lines up with what they have to offer: internships, study abroad programs, exciting courses, stellar professors in your field of interest, unique learning opportunities, social activities, interesting locations, new facilities (Colleges will usually boast about these on their Web sites: libraries, media centers, training facilities, etc.).


4. Get creative in your research. Go beyond the school’s Web site to learn what they are all about on many levels. Ask friends or family who go or went there for details. Follow the school’s Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums for insider info. Read forums on popular student sites, such as College Prowler and College Confidential–but also take what you read with a grain of salt. When your school holds their college fairs, show up and collect information on your target college by asking specific questions to the college reps. You can even call the admissions folks at your target colleges and ask questions. That’s their job! 3.Collect information on what they value on many levels: academically, socially, environmentally, philosophically, lifestyle, etc. Are you a vegan and cafeteria food options matter a lot to you? Do you want a college that isn’t big on the Greek scene? Do you want a school with a rah-rah football team? Is an organic garden a must? Or a fencing club? Think hard about what you really care about, and feature that in your answer.

5. If you mention something that intrigues you, make sure you know what you are talking about. If you say you live in the suburbs and want a big city experience, make sure your college actually is in a big city (eg. Columbia is not in downtown NY; and NYU is in Greenich Village and LMU is not in downtown Los Angeles.) It all goes back to doing your homework, which, with the Internet is EASY! If you mention the school mascot or colors, get them right!

6. Read samples. They might be harder to find, but search Google for “sample supplemental essay” for your target school. It doesn’t hurt to see what other student shave written. I know you are smart enough to not copy what they say, but get ideas for your own answers.

7. Know why you want to go there. Yes, this seems obvious. But my guess is that many students will have certain colleges on their list of target schools, but actually don’t know that much about them, other than their general reputation. This is your chance to do a little research, and learn more about what they have to offer. At the same time, you will have more to say if they require this “Why you?” supp.

8. Start with your best point. These supp essays are usually quite short–between 100 and 300 words. This usually amounts to a couple paragraphs. Although it’s not enough room to include anecdotes (mini, real-life stories), you can still “grab” the reader by starting with your most interesting point or idea. And these usually involve details or specific examples, which are natural “hooks.”

Spend a couple sentences on that one point–including more details. For example, if your main point is a specific program they offer, or that you fell in love with the friendly vibe on campus during a tour, or you have dreamed about using your 5 years of high school Spanish in a study abroad to Argentina (which they offer), talk about that first. Then (in your second paragraph) you can include other important points, maybe three to five, and speak about them in more general terms. The idea is that you use the color and description of that first juicy point to engage the reader. If you think college admissions officers get bored reading hundreds of Common App essays, just imagine reading these supplements!
9. Triple check your essays before sending them out: The last thing you want is for a supplement to hurt your chances. If you are re-using this prompt for multiple schools, make sure to proof each answer to make sure you don’t accidentally tell one school why you love another.

Tips from College Essay Guy

Part 1: How NOT to Write Your Essay

It's Early Action time, and many of you are writing your "Why us" college application statements. After reading many bad ones and a few good ones, I’ve put together this list of DOs and DON’Ts.

Let's start with the DON'Ts:

DON'T: Write about the school's size, location, reputation or the weather. 
Why? Because that's what half of America is writing about. Take a hint from Emory University, whose “Why us” essay used to read:

"Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a particularly good match for you?"

Why do you think they say don't write about those things? Because they're tired of reading about those things.

In fact, here's what to do after you've written your first draft: Go back through your essay and underline anything that sounds like it could have appeared in another student's essay. Then delete it.

In your "Why us" essay you're making a case, and the case is this: "You [the school] and I [the student] are a perfect match." But...

DON'T: Simply use emotional language to make your case. 
"I really really want to go to Northwestern because I just have this feeling that it's the place for me" does not a good case make. It doesn't show how you are a.) qualified or b.) a good match for the school. And for that matter, neither does the statement, "I can see myself rooting for the Wildcats at MetLife Stadium on Sundays."

Which reminds me:



DON'T: Screw up the mascot, stadium, team colors or names of any important people or places on campus. 
Why? It's the quickest way to show you're a crappy researcher. In the example above, the Wildcats play neither at MetLife Stadium nor on Sundays. (And, based on their home record these days, neither do the Giants. But I digress.)

Also, know that the "I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]" is a cliche of the "Why us" essay, but some students can't resist. Fine. If you're going to use it, though, at least get the team names and colors right. I've heard more than one admissions officer say that a screw-up like this can immediately disqualify an application. I'm not saying it definitely will, or that this is true for all admissions officers--some probably don't care--but don't give them a reason to put you in the "no" pile. Do your research. (And the USC colors are not red and yellow, incidentally, but "USC Cardinal" and "USC Gold.")



DON'T: Think of this as a "Why Them" essay. 
In other words, don't tout the school's bus system. "I know we have a good bus system, I take it every day!" says Erica Sanders, Director of Recruitment at University of Michigan. And don't parrot the brochures or website language--it could be that your reader actually wrote the words you’re copying and pasting.

Again, look at Emory’s (new) "Why Us" prompt, which reads:

"Undergraduates at Emory and Oxford Colleges are offered countless opportunities to engage with the student body, the faculty, and your academic program of choice--from hands-on research opportunities to student organizations to volunteering. What are some of the programs and/or activities you would plan to get involved with on either campus, and what unique qualities will you bring to them?" (Emphasis mine.)

Tip: Even if the school doesn’t ask for that last part, include it.



Part 2: What to Include in Your Essay

Earlier we discussed what to avoid when writing your "Why Us" college application essays. Today, let's get positive and talk about what should be in there.



DO: Think of this as a "Why we are perfect for each other" essay.
Imagine you're on a date and the person sitting across from you leans in to ask, "So, why do you like me?" You can't just say, "Because you're hot." You're gonna need to be a little more specific. How do you do this? Here’s how:

DO: Fold a piece of paper in half to create two columns, then at the top label one "What I want" and the other "What they have."
As you're researching the school, bullet-point 10-15 specific, concrete reasons why you and the school are a great match for one another.

So, for example, if the school has a music and medicine program, put that in the right column. Next to it, in the left column, say why that's the perfect program for you. Or maybe you're interested in studying Chinese? Put that it in the left column and then look for something related to learning Chinese that the school offers--either academically or extracurricularly (an actual word but don't use it in your essay)--and put that it in the right column. How does this help? It takes your essay from:

"Michigan's well-known legacy, its fantastic football team and spectacular location in Ann Arbor are just a few reasons why I believe UM is the place for me." #supergeneric to...

"I look forward to Academic Argumentation (225) and Professional Writing (229), as I believe these courses will provide me with a firm basis in journalistic writing technique and improve my abilities to write analytically and develop well-supported arguments. Furthermore, the Professional Writing course will teach me how to write in a concise, straightforward style, a skill vital to a journalist." #likeaboss See what he's done there?



DO: Mention specific classes, professors, clubs and activities that you will actually be excited about being a part of.
And don't BS it. Imagine yourself on campus as a freshman. What are you doing? What conversations are you having? How are you involved? I want to say "You can't get too specific," although I'm sure you could if you try... On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being "I want to be involved in all the campus activities!” and 10 being "There was a particular student's dorm window I looked in during the campus walking tour and I saw her reading a Microecon book and drinking a Strawberries Wild from Jamba Juice--my favorite--and I thought--" (Slow down, creeper. And how did you know what flavor it was??) Anyway, keep it at like a 7 or an 8. And make sure all your details are relevant and appropriate. Here's a good gauge to know what’s relevant and appropriate. Ask:

  • Am I showing that I've done my research?

  • Am I demonstrating my intelligence?

  • Am I connecting what they have to with what I have?

If you’re doing all three, keep it in. If you’re not doing any of these, consider cutting. And I know I said that third thing already, but it's worth repeating: often students only say why the school is awesome. But remember that this essay is not about why the school is awesome. The school knows it’s awesome; the admissions readers spend a lot of their time telling students like you why it's awesome. Finally...

DO: Remember this is another chance to show a few more of your skills/talents/interests/passions.
Make a list of 10 things you definitely want the school to know about you. Ask yourself: are all these values/qualities in my main essay or another supplement? If not, the "Why us" may be a place to include a few more details about who you are. But remember: connect it to some awesome opportunity/program/offering at or near the school. Okay, I said I was finished but here's one more: If the school doesn't have a particular program/opportunity you're looking for, don't freak out. Look at this not as a dead end, but as an opportunity.

DO: Offer to start something.
And by “something” I mean a club, group, or activity. Fair warning here, though:

DON'T: Offer to start something that you probably can't start. 
Your freshman year, for example, you probably won't start a brand new International Studies and Dance double major. You might, however, offer to start the school's first West Indian Dance Company. Which reminds me:

MAKE SURE THEY DON'T ALREADY HAVE A WEST INDIAN DANCE COMPANY. Or whatever it is you're offering to start. And I'm not saying you shouldn't push for that International Studies and Dance double major once you're there… just get into the school first. You can push for the double major your sophomore year.


Part 3: Resources to use in Your Essay

1. Google – Obvious, but true. Search interesting phrases like “What students really think about LMU” or “Grinnell students' forum.” Find students’ perspective. What do alumni say? You’re collecting quotations, ideas and phrases. Don’t be afraid to quote, borrow and re-phrase.

2. Fiske Guide Online – It's long been one of the best resources for info about schools. It’s online, it’s searchable, and it’s worth the $20.

3. Unigo.com – Read real student reviews. They’re great because they’re by actual students who aren’t worried what the school thinks of what they say. (Official publications don’t want to say anything too bad about a school, so most schools seem great.) Go to the Unigo section that asks “What’s the stereotype of the students at your school?” and “Is the stereotype true?” If ten students in a row say the school is “intellectual, Jewish, white,” chances are there’s some truth to it.

TIP: If the “stereotype” comments contradict one another (one student says “hippie school,” another says “nerdy,” and another says “jocks and fratboys,” that could be a sign that it’s actually a pretty diverse school). 

4. Books – Remember books? The paper kind? Though much of the info is online, there are still a few good books with good info (available at your local bookstore or on Amazon.com):

  • The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2013: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want to Know

  • Colleges That Change Lives (Loren Pope)

  • The Best 377 Colleges (Princeton Review)

5. Real and virtual tours – The single best way to get to know a school is to go there. If you can, do it. If you can’t visit the school in person, go here:

youniversitytv.com - Tons of online tours.


campustours.com - More online tours.
youtube.com - Even more. Type in the name of the school and “online tour.”

TIP: Take at least five online tours (it’ll take you about 30 minutes) so you can compare schools. And here’s the best/most important step…but before you do it you have to have particular questions in mind:

6. Contact the admissions office and, if possible, talk to your local rep – Most colleges have particular reps for particular regions of the country (and the world). And you can talk to them. And they're really nice!

Three reasons why talking to your admissions rep is a good idea:

a.) It shows them you’re really interested in the school AND willing to do your homework. You’ll be able to write “when I spoke to so-and-so in the Admissions Office, she told me…” Schools love that–it shows you’re willing to take initiative.

b.) It’s the single best way to find out about the school. There are people who get paid to answer your questions. (My best friend was one of them.) Don’t be afraid. They’re not going to be mad at you; they’ll be happy you asked. They want to meet you.

c.) It lets them help you write the essay. What do I mean? Say you have a specific question. You play the santur, for example, and you’re trying to figure out if a school has a santur club. Ask! The college rep may say, “We don’t--you should start one!” (or) “What’s the santur?” (in which case you get to explain/talk about this very interesting part of yourself... see where this is going?) Warning: don’t abuse this! Admissions officers are pretty smart; they can tell when a student is trying to ingratiate him/herself. But having a frank conversation about particulars of the school is great! It’s what these reps do. If that conversation happens to lead to you talking about why you may be an awesome candidate for the school... great!

GREAT TIPS FOR THE WHY THIS COLLEGE ESSAY


But what if you’re writing a “Why us” statement for a school that isn’t your top choice? How do you get excited about that school? How do you fake it?
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