Your Roadmap to College Admissions Success

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Tips from College Essay Guy

Your Roadmap to

College Admissions Success
Lee Bierer – President/Coach
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. – 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

  • 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: - Tons of online tours. - More online tours. - 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!


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?

Tip #1: Don't fake it. What do I mean? If a school is on your list and you're not excited about it, why is it on your list? Take it off. Or, better yet: 

Do your research and get excited about the school. Chances are, you may not be excited about a school because you don't know much about it yet. Try this: think of a school you're not excited about applying to but probably will, and write down on a piece of paper everything you know about it. (Not a ton, eh?) See, here's something you may not have been told. 

Finding a school that “fits” you is an active process, not a passive one. That’s one reason I appreciate and am an advocate for the “Why us” essay--you get to (read: have to) research and find out if the school you’re pledging your allegiance to is actually one that you want to pledge your allegiance to. So get researching! If, once you’ve researched for a while, you’re still not super excited about the school you’re writing the essay for, ask yourself: do I even want to apply here? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you need some new schools to get excited about. But what if you’re set on applying to a school but you’re just not, I don’t know, feeling it? Try this:

TIP #2: Write your “Why Us” statement for a school you areactually excited about... then switch out the variables. Okay, for any “Why us” statement to work, you need specifics--and not just about the school--about what you’re interested in doing while attending the school. For example :

I’m eager to become involved in UChicago’s Urban Health Initiative as I’m committed to both increasing health care access and nurturing strong patient-physician relationships. And in the same way that researchers at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab have drastically changed cancer treatment through nanomaterials and particle physics, I hope to play a part in revolutionizing cancer treatment by looking at its causes. Crazy specific? Yeah.

But watch this: I am also eager to become involved in University of Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital as I’m committed to increasing access to children’s health care and nurturing strong patient-physician relationships. And in the same way that researchers at Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab have drastically changed cancer treatment through nanomaterials and particle physics, I hope to play a part in revolutionizing cancer treatment by looking at its causes.

Sneaky? Maybe a little. But also true, right? Aren’t those the things you’re interested in doing wherever you end up? Well there you go, then.

I wrote in a different post that the best way to sound excited in your “Why us” statement is to actually get excited about the school you’re writing for. How? By doing research.

But is there a way to tell the difference between a student who really wants to go to a particular school and one who’s well, BS-ing the essay? (Ha, that sounds funny.) And here’s a hint: your BS detector is actually pretty good. You just need to turn it on. Do so now...Activate!

Turn on your BS-detector and tell me if this sounds like the person actually wants to go to this school or not so much:

Given that I am an individual that genuinely enjoys being introduced to new concepts, ideas, and new information, Kalamazoo would definitely be a great fit for me. Being around sophisticated and intellectual students, with similar ambitions as mine, would inspire me to challenge myself on a daily basis. By doing so, I would gradually grow not only as a student, but as a human.

What do we learn about what makes K-Zoo special in this student’s eyes?

Survey says... Absolutely nothing. Let’s try again:

SMU has a program called the NCA, which stands for the National Communication Association, and it helps support students to be able to solve problems by communicating. SMU also has over 90 student organization for students to get involved with that can complement their academic pursuits, which will allow me to join organizations I really enjoy.BZZZZT.


I like the fact that the professors are dedicated to helping students succeed in their studies and are willing to help… Oh, as opposed to that other university where the professors aren’t dedicated to helping students succeed.

So how do you write sentences that sound like you actually want to go to the school? Like this:

I believe USC is perfect for me because, though other schools offer a Judaic Studies major, I have yet to find a program as comprehensive as USC’s. Take, for example, courses like “Biblical Hebrew” (as opposed to just Modern Hebrew) and “Why Be Jewish?”

Like a boss. Look how specific. Beautiful.

And another, from the same student:

Though the CogSci program at USC is in its inaugural year and little information was available during my open house visit, I was able to contact Associate Professor of Psychology and Linguistics Toby Mintz through email and was happy to discover that USC’s program is extremely interdisciplinary in nature, cross cutting traditional disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and anthropology. I have always been interested in languages (I speak three), consider computer science a strength and am drawn to the “Philosophy of Language” courses, as I recently wrote a research paper addressing the potential implications of applying J.L. Austin’s work with “performative utterances” to smart-phone technology.

Now that’s legit.

Has he demonstrated interest in the school? Yes.

Has he done his research? Oui.

Is he clearly showing why he’s specifically interested in USC while revealing more about himself? نعم.

Get it? Got it? Good.

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