Why the “Why Us” Essay Matters

This summer rising high school seniors will be visiting colleges, either in-person or virtually. They will attend an admissions office information session and go on a student-led campus tour; if they are visiting in-person they may check out the bookstore for some swag or the student center or athletic facilities. (Students doing in-person visits should still do some on-line pre-visit research – at minimum checking out the college’s website before attending the information session and preparing a few questions for the student tour guide).

If visiting in-person, students should record their observations while on campus – this is one time when it’s okay for them to have their cell phones out to take notes and pictures! Likewise, students visiting virtually need to take notes and screen shot things that are of particular interest to them.

Why should students do this? For one thing, no matter how students visit a college – virtually or in-person – after a while they start to blur together. Good notes help students remember one college from the other. And these good notes come in handy when students, many months later, sit down to answer the “why us” essay on the college application.

What is the “why us” essay and why do colleges ask it?

Many colleges ask students to explain why they want to attend their institution. Colleges typically ask this question to gauge interest, to predict if the applicant will attend if admitted. Colleges care about this because of their “yield,” that is the percentage of admitted students who accept the offer of admission. Yield rates matter to colleges because they are a factor in college rankings, and because colleges like to have bragging rights to high yield rates.

But students often treat the “why us” essay as a bit of an afterthought. Having poured their heart and soul into their personal statement, they sometimes approach the “why us” essay as a fill-in-the blank exercise: “I am so excited to attend [name of college] because of its  location, excellent reputation in STEM and over 200 clubs and student organizations.” News flash: colleges do not like these generic responses, and they do help a student at all!

Students will be thankful for detailed notes that remind them of that specific something that piqued their interest and made them feel that this college is the right fit for them. Maybe it’s the café in the library where they can imagine getting their late-night coffee, after having worked as a barista all through high school; maybe it’s the field behind the Science Center where they can play club soccer, since they are captain of the varsity team in high school; maybe it’s the singing group they heard practicing and hope to join, because they have been taking voice lessons since they were eight.

Whether it’s a unique major, a special study abroad program, or a particular club or organization, a great “why us” essay addresses the student’s personal connection to the college and why it matters to them. Last year one of my student’s “why us” essay discussed how they fell in love with a college because they could tell it lived its motto, “for Humanity.” How did they know? When touring the school they saw how carefully the college adhered to Covid-19 safety protocols. Wow! This showed that the student paid close attention to what was happening on campus, and why the felt they could truly imagine themselves a student there. This was definitely not a fill-in-the-blank essay, and the student was admitted. While this essay alone did not account for the admission, it strengthened an already strong application.

There is no “right” way to answer a “why us” essay. But, students need to give it the time and attention it deserves and make sure it complements the rest of their application. That said, a word of caution. When answering the “why us” question, there are a few things students should avoid:

  • Talking about the location, unless it is directly related to their academic or extracurricular interests.
  • Telling the admissions office things they already know (such as X school is known for its strength in STEM).
  • Repeating information that is already in their application.

So, back to the original question – why should students care about the “why us” essay? It allows them to show colleges that they have done their research about the institution. It allows them to demonstrate how they will contribute to the academic and/or non-academic life of the college. And, above all, writing the “why us” essay can help students think deeply about whether a particular college is actually a good fit for them.