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How to write an amazing "Why Us" supplemental essay

In Essays and Senior.

One of the most common types of supplemental essay is referred to as the "Why Us" essay--where the “Us” in question is the school to which the applicant is submitting. 

Unlike the Common App Essay, which is near-universally required by colleges, supplemental essays are provided on a case-by-case basis by the colleges themselves.

Their parameters vary widely. Some are on the shorter side, clocking in at 100 words or fewer, while some rival the length of the Common App Essay at 500 words or more.

The supplementary essay is generally intended as an opportunity for students to show why a specific school is the one for them.

While the Common App Essay is designed by the Common App organization, supplemental essays are written by colleges and universities, so their prompts (and the kinds of responses they solicit) align more explicitly with the recruitment goals and priorities of a college.

That is, the supplementary essay is a college's tool for screening applicants, sometimes (but not always) by providing challenging or confusing prompts.

For example, the below prompt is real and really challenging. It's both an opportunity to be creative and is potentially impossible to answer.

Why Us Essay Prompt Example #1: The University of Chicago:

"You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?"

Most prompts are far less adventurous than this, asking something simple such as, "Why X school?"

These essays are designed to give students an opportunity to talk about the specific features of a school or program that makes them want to attend.

It's a good idea to always keep one eye on the prize in the supplementary essay: that is, giving a clear reason why you belong at X school - regardless of whether that school is the University of Oregon or Johns Hopkins.

Answer the Why Us essay by researching the school

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 Research a School to Write a Winning Supplemental Essay

It helps to have an example: I'll walk through how I would help a student research a school. Say the student in question is interested in studying psychology 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. 

A note before we get going: Check out my post on using "advanced Google search" to master these research steps. Google is an ass-saver. 

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.

Point of Emphasis: Pick your strengths and lean in. If you're a track star, talk about the athletic culture. If you're a musician, emphasize 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.

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

Identify specific highlights on the school's page to demonstrate interest & fit

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.

Talk about Professors Whose Research Aligns with Your Interests

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 catalogue, 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.

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.

3 checks to write a great supplemental essay

To summarize, here is a little checklist that you can apply to write any supplemental essay. 

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

  2. Do a deep dive into that program and learn about the work being done by faculty in the department
    1. 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. 

  3. Think about how these opportunities could be applied to your other interests and passions. Try to find an interdisciplinary connection. 
    1. 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. 
About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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