Did you think you were all done pouring out your blood, sweat, and tears in written form for your personal statement, only to be faced with the “why this college” supplemental essay? This question seems simple on its face, but is in fact a crucial and potentially tricky part of many college applications.
What exactly is the “why us” essay trying to understand about you? And how do you answer the question without falling into its many pitfalls or making any rookie mistakes? In this article, I’ll explain why colleges want you to be able to explain why you are applying. I'll also talk about how to generate and brainstorm topics for this question, and how to make yourself sound sincere and committed. Finally, I’ll throw in some “why this school” essay dos and don’ts.
Table of Contents
Why Do Colleges Want You to Write a "Why Us" Essay?
The Two Different Kinds of “Why This College” Essay Prompts
How to Write a Perfect “Why This College” Essay
Step 1: Research
Step 2: Brainstorming Topics
Step 3: Nailing the Execution
Example of a Great "Why This College" Essay
The Bottom Line
Why Do Colleges Want You To Write a “Why Us” Essay?
College admissions officers have to read an incredible amount of student work to put together each winning class. So trust me when I say that everything they ask you to write is meaningful and important.
The purpose of this essay goes two ways. On the one hand, seeing how you answer this question gives admissions officers a sense of whether you know and value their school. On the other hand, having to verbalize why you are applying is a chance for you to ponder what you want to get out of your college experience, and whether your target schools fit your goals and aspirations.
What Colleges Get Out of Reading Your "Why This College" Essay
Colleges want to check three things.
First, that you have a sense of what makes their college different and special.
- Do you know something about the school’s mission, history, and values?
- Have you thought about their specific approach to learning?
- Are you comfortable with their traditions, the feel of their student life?
Second, that you will be a good fit for the institution.
- Where do your interests lie? Do they correspond to this school’s strengths?
- Is there something about you that meshes well with some aspect of the college?
- How will you contribute to college life? How will you make your mark on campus?
And third, that this institution will, in turn, be a good fit for you.
- What do you want to get out of college? Will this college be able to provide that? Will this school contribute to your future success?
- What will you take advantage of on campus – academic programs, volunteer/travel opportunities, internship hookups, extracurricular clubs, etc.?
- Will you succeed academically? Is this school at the right rigor and pace for your ideal learning?
What You Get Out of Writing Your "Why This College" Essay
Luckily, in the process of articulating these answers, you will also benefit in several ways.
Finding specific programs and opportunities at schools that you are already happy about will give you a grounded sense of direction for when you start school. At the same time, by describing what is great about schools that are low on your list, you'll boost your enthusiasm rather than feeling these colleges are lackluster fallbacks.
Ensuring You're Making the Right Choice
At the same time, writing the "why us" essay can be a moment of clarity. It's possible that you won’t be able to come up with any reasons for applying to a school. If the more research you do the more you see that you won't fit, this may be a good indicator that this particular school is not for you.
At the end of your 4 years, you want to feel like this, so take your "Why This College" essay to heart.
The Two Different Kinds of “Why This College” Essay Prompts
The "why this college" essay is best thought of as a back and forth between you and the college. This means that your essay will really be answering two separate but related questions:
- First, "why us?" This is where you'll explain what makes the school special in your eyes, what attracted you to it, and what you will get out of the experience of going there.
- Second, "why you?" This is where you'll talk about why you’ll fit right in on campus, what qualities/skills/talents/abilities you’ll contribute to campus life, and how your future will be impacted by the school and its opportunities.
Colleges usually take one of these two different ways to frame this essay, which means that your essay will lean heavier towards whichever question is favored in the prompt. So if the prompt is all about "why us?", you'll focus more on waxing rhapsodic about the school. If the prompt instead is mostly configured as "why you?", you'll dwell at length on your fit and potential.
It's good to remember that these two prompts are simply two sides of the same coin. Your reasons for wanting to apply to a particular school can be made to fit either of these questions.
For instance, say you really want the chance to learn from the world-famous Professor X. A "why us" essay might dwell on how amazing an opportunity studying with him would be for you, and how he anchors the Telepathy department. Meanwhile, a "why you" essay would point out that your own extracurricular and academic telepathy credentials and future career goals make you an ideal student to learn from Professor X, a renowned master of the field.
Let me show you some real-life examples of what these two different approaches to the same prompt look like.
I hear the Rings of Power Department is really strong at that school too. Check out the Gandalf seminar on repelling Balrogs - super easy A.
(Image: T-Jacques via Wikimedia Commons)
“Why Us” PromptsYou can recognize this version of the prompt from wording like:
- Why [this college]?
- Why are you interested in our school?
- Why is this college a good choice for you?
- What is it that you like the best about our university?
- Why do you want to go to our college?
- University of Michigan: Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
- Tufts University: Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, “Why Tufts?”
Wellesley College: When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (PS: “Why” matters to us.)
- Brown University: Why Brown?
Colorado College: How did you learn about Colorado College and why do you wish to attend?
- Oberlin College: How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?
- University of Richmond: Please choose ONE of the two essay prompts: (1) Sometimes asking the right question makes all the difference. If you were a college admission counselor, what essay question would you ask? Please craft and answer your own essay prompt – in your response, reflect on what your chosen question reveals about you.; OR (2) Tell us about Spiders.
Tell me all about... me.
“Why You?” PromptsThis type of prompt turns the tables slightly, asking something along the lines of:
- Why are you a good match or fit for us?
- What are you interests and how will you pursue them here?
- What do you want to study and how will that correspond to our program?
- What or how will you contribute?
- Why you at our college?
- Why are you applying to our school?
- Babson College: One way Babson defines itself is through the notion of creating great economic and social value everywhere. How do you define yourself and what is it about Babson that excites you?
- New York University: Whether you are undecided or you have a definitive plan of study in mind, what are your academic interests and how do you plan to explore them at NYU?
- Bowdoin College: Bowdoin students and alumni often cite world-class faculty and opportunities for intellectual engagement, the College’s commitment to the Common Good, and the special quality of life on the coast of Maine as important aspects of the Bowdoin experience. Reflecting on your own interests and experiences, please comment on one of the following: 1.) Intellectual engagement, 2.) The Common Good, or 3.) Connection to place.
- Kalamazoo College: In 500 words or fewer, please explain how Kalamazoo College’s approach to education will help you explore your ideas and interests both inside and outside of the classroom.
- Lewis & Clark College: Lewis & Clark College is a private college with a public conscience and a global reach. We celebrate our strengths in collaborative scholarship, international engagement, environmental understanding and entrepreneurial thinking. As we evaluate applications, we look for students who understand what we offer and are eager to contribute to our community. In one paragraph, please tell us why you are interested in attending Lewis & Clark and how you will impact our campus.
- Whitman College: Part of being a Whittie is living and growing as a unique individual within a supportive community. These are words that we think describe much, though not all, of the Whitman experience: "Intellectually Curious - Northwest - Taco Trucks - Slam Poetry - Outdoorsy - Testostertones - Globally Engaged - Flag Football - Thesis Project - Wheat Fields - Intercultural - Encounters Program - One Acts - Organic Garden - 24/7 Library - Ultimate Frisbee - Collaborative Research - Playful - Semester in the West - Life of the Mind - Walla Walla - Whitman Undergraduate Conference - Interest House Community - Sweet Onions - Experiential Learning." Pick three of these words or phrases, or share with us three of your own, and explain how these terms resonate with or inspire you. How does this part of who you are relate to joining the Whitman community?
Sure, Ultimate Frisbee is cool, Whitman College. But when I get to campus, I'm starting a quidditch league.
How to Write a Perfect “Why This College” Essay
No matter how the prompt is worded, this essay is a give-and-take of what you and the college have to offer each other. Your job is to zoom in quickly to your main points, and to use precision and detail to sound sincere, excited, and authentic.
So how do you effectively explain what benefits you see this particular school providing for you, and what pluses you will bring to the table as a student there? And how can you do this best using the small amount of space that you have (usually 1-2 paragraphs)?
Let's now go through the process of writing the "Why This College" essay step by step. First, I'll talk about the prep work you'll need to do. Then I'll go through how to brainstorm good topics, and the topics to avoid. I'll give you some tips on transforming your ideas and research into an actual essay. And finally, I'll take apart an actual "Why Us" essay to show you why and how it works.
Step 1: Research
Before you can write about a school, you need to know specific things about what makes it stand out and appeal to you and your interests. So where do you look for these? And how do you find the detail that will speak to you?
In-Person Campus Visits
If you’re going on college tours, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to gather info. Bring a notepad with you, and write down:
- your tour guide’s name
- 1-2 funny, surprising, or enthusiastic things they say about the school
- any unusual features of the campus, like buildings, sculptures, layout, history, or traditions
Also, try to connect with students or faculty while you’re there. If you visit a class, write down which class and the professor’s name. See if you can briefly chat up a student (in the class you visit, around campus, or in the cafeteria) and ask what they like most about the school, or what has most surprised them about being there. Write down the answer! Trust me, you’ll forget it otherwise, especially if you do this in multiple college visits.
Virtual Campus Visits
If you can’t get to the campus of your target school in real life, the next best thing is an online tour either from the school’s own website, or from places like youniversitytv, campustours, or youtube (search "[school name] + tour").
You can also connect with students without visiting campus in person. Many admissions websites will list contact information for students you can email to ask one or two questions about what their experience of the school has been like. Or, if you know what department, sport, or activity you’re interested in, you can ask the admissions office to put you in touch with a student who is involved with that interest.
Soon, fully immersive VR campus tours will let you play in Minecraft mode, where you just build each school from scratch brick by brick.
Your Alumni Interview
If you have an interview, ask your interviewer questions about their experience at the school, and also about what going to that school has done for them since they graduated. As always, take notes.
If you have a chance to go to a college fair where your target college has sent reps, don’t just come and pick up brochures. Engage the reps in conversation and ask them questions about what they think makes the school unique, so you can jot down notes about any interesting details they tell you.
The College’s Own Materials
Colleges publish lots and lots of different kinds of things, any of which is useful for research. Here are some suggestions, all of which you should be able to find online.
Brochures and course catalogs. Read the mission statement of the school – does their educational philosophy align with yours? Read through college catalogs. Are there any programs, classes, departments, or activities that seem tailor-made for you in some way?
Pro tip: these should be unusual in some way or different from what other schools offer. For example, being fascinated with the English department isn’t going to cut it unless you can discuss its unusual focus, 1-2 exceptional professors, or the different way they structure the major that appeals to you specifically.
The alumni magazine. Are any professors highlighted? Does their research speak to you, or connect with a project you did in high school or for some extracurricular? Sometimes alumni magazines will highlight a college’s new focus or new expansion. Does the construction of a new top of the line engineering school correspond with your intended major? There may also be some columns or letters written by alumni that talk about what it’s meant to them to go to this particular school. What stands out about their experiences?
The campus newspaper. Students write about the hot issues of the day, which means that the articles will be about the best and worst things on campus. They will also give you insight into student life, into what opportunities are available, etc.
The college’s social media. Your target school is most likely on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media. Follow them to see what they are posting about. Exciting new campus development? Some professors in the news? Interesting events, clubs, or activities?
Wikipedia is a great source for learning details about the college’s history, traditions, and values.
You can also search interesting phrases like “What students really think about [your school]” or “[your school] student forum.” This will let you find for detail-heavy points of view, comments about specific programs or courses, and insight into student life.
Step 2: Brainstorming Topics
So what should you do now that you've done a bunch of research? Use it to develop connection points between you and your target school. These connections will be the skeleton of your essay.
Find the Gems in Your Research
You now have on hand all kinds of information, from your own personal experiences on campus, to your conversations with people affiliated with your target school, to what you learned from campus publications, to tidbits gleaned from the web.
Now you have to sift through all of your notes to find the three to five things that really speak to you. Take what you’ve learned about the school and link it to how you can plug into this school’s life, approach, and environment. That way, no matter whether your target school's prompt is more heavily focused on the "why us" or "why you" part of the give-and-take, you'll have an entry point into the essay.
What should these three to five things be? What should you keep in mind when you're looking for the gem that will become your topic? Here are some words of wisdom from Calvin Wise, the Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Johns Hopkins University:
Focus on what makes us unique and why that interests you. Do your research, and articulate a multi-dimensional connection to the specific college or university. We do not want broad statements (the brick pathways and historic buildings are beautiful) or a rehash of the information on our website (College X offers a strong liberal arts curriculum). All institutions have similarities. We want you to talk about our differences.
Time to find that diamond, amethyst, opal, tourmaline, or amber in the rough.
Check Your Gems for Color and Clarity
In other words, make sure that each of your three to five found things is something that your target school has that other schools don’t.
This something should be seen from your own perspective. The point isn't to generically praise the school, but instead to go into detail about why it’s so great for you that they have this thing.
This something you find should be meaningful to the school and specific to you. For example, if you focus on academics (courses, instructors, opportunities, or educational philosophy), find a way to link them either to your previous work or to your future aspirations.
This something should not be shallow and non-specific. Want to live in a city? Every city has more than one college in it. Find a way to explain why this specific college in this specific city calls to you. Like pretty architecture? Many schools are beautiful, so dwell on why this particular place feels unlike any other. Like good weather, beach, skiing, some other geographical thing? There are many schools located near these places, and they know that people enjoy sunbathing. Either build a deeper connection or skip these as reasons.
Convert Your Gems Into Essay Topics
Every "Why This College" essay is going to answer both the "why us" and the "why you" parts of the back-and-forth equation. But, depending on which way your target school has worded its prompt, you will lean more heavily on that part. This is why I’m going to split this brainstorming up in two, to go with the “why us” and “why you” types of questions.
Of course, since they are both sides of the same coin, you can always easily flip each of these ideas around in order to have it work well for the other type of prompt. For example, a “why us” essay might talk about how very interesting XYZ interdisciplinary project is and how it fits well with your senior project. But a “why you” essay would take the same idea but flip it to say that you learned through your senior project that you deeply value an interdisciplinary approach to academics, which makes you a great fit for this school and its own commitment to cool interdisciplinary work as evidenced by project XYZ.
Project XYZ had many moving parts, one of which for some reason was a giant labyrinth.
Possible “Why Us” Topics
- How a particular program of study/internship requirement/volunteer connection will help further your specific career goals.
- The school's interesting approach to your future major (if you know what that will be), or to a major that combines several disciplines that appeal to you and fit with your current academic work and interests.
- How the school handles financial aid and the infrastructure setup for low-income students, and what that means for you in terms of opening doors.
- A story about how you became interested in the school (if you learned about it in an interesting way). Did it host a high school contest you took part it? Feature a visual or performing art that you enjoyed and that you also do?
- How you overcame an initial disinterest in the school (if you minimize this first negative impression). Did you do more research? Interact with someone on campus? Learn about the school’s commitment to the community in some way? Learn about interesting research being done there?
- A positive interaction you had with current students, faculty, or staff, as long as this is more than just "Everyone I met was really nice."
- An experience you had on the campus tour. Super passionate tour guide? Interesting information that surprised you? Did something happen to transform your idea about the school or campus life (in a good way)?
- Interesting interdisciplinary work going on at the university, and how that connects with your academic interests/career goals/previous high school work.
- The history of the school, but only if it’s meaningful to you in some way. Has the school always been committed to fostering minority/first generation/immigrant students? Was it founded by someone you admire? Did it take an unpopular, but, to you, morally correct stance at some crucial moment in history?
- An amazing professor that you can’t wait to learn from. Is there a chemistry professor whose current research meshes with a science fair project you did? A professor who’s a renowned scholar on your favorite author/genre? A professor whose book on economics finally made you understand the most recent financial crisis?
- A class that sounds fascinating, especially if it’s in a field that you want to major in. Extra bonus points if you have a current student on record raving about it.
- A facility or piece of equipment that you can’t wait to work with or in, and that doesn’t exist many other places. A specialty library that has rare medieval manuscripts? An observatory? A fleet of boats?
- A required curriculum that appeals to you because it provides a solid grounding in the classics, it shakes up the traditional canon, connects all the students on campus in one intellectual project, or is taught in a unique way.
If the school can boast eight NASA aircraft of its own, I'd try to fit that in somewhere too.
Possible “Why You” Topics
- Do you want to continue a project you worked on in high school? Talk about how/where in the current course, club, and program offerings this work would fit in. Why will you be a good addition to the team?
- Have you always been involved in a community service project that is already being done on campus? Write about integrating life on campus with events in the surrounding community.
- Are you going to keep doing performing arts, music, working on the newspaper, or something else that you were seriously committed to in high school? Discuss how excited you are to join that existing organization.
- Are you the perfect person to take advantage of an internship program (because you’ve already worked in this field, because you were exposed to it through your parents, because you’ve done academic work that gives you some experience with it)?
- Are you the ideal candidate for a study abroad opportunity (because you speak the language of the country, because it’s a place where you’ve worked or studied before, because your career goals are international in some respect)
- Are you a standout match for an undergraduate research project (because you will major in this field, because you’ve always wanted to work with this professor, because you want to pursue research as a career option)?
- Is there something you were deeply involved with that doesn’t currently exist on campus? Offer to start a club for that thing. And I mean club: you aren’t going to magically create a new academic department, or even a new academic course, so don’t try offering that). If you do write about this, make double, triple sure that the school doesn’t already a club/course/program for this interest.
- 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?
- Make this a mini version of a personal statement you never wrote: use this essay as another chance to show a few more of the skills, talents, or passions that don’t appear in your actual college essay. What’s the runner-up interest that you didn’t write about? What opportunity, program, or offering at the school lines up with?
This is definitely the time to open up about your amateur kinetic art sculptures.
Possible Topics For a College That’s Not Your First Choice
- If you're writing about a school that you’re not completely psyched about, one way to sidestep the issue is to focus on what getting this degree will do for you in the future. How do you see yourself changing existing systems, helping others, or otherwise succeeding?
- Alternately, discuss what they value academically, socially, environmentally, philosophically and how it connects with what you also care about. A vegan, organic, and cruelty-free cafeteria? A relationship with a local farm or garden? De-emphasized fraternity involvement? Strong commitment to environmental issues? Lots of opportunities to contribute to the community surrounding the school? Active tolerance and inclusion for various minority groups?
- Try to find at least one or two things that you’re excited about for all the schools on your list. If you can’t think of a single reason why this would be a good place for you to go, maybe you shouldn’t be applying there.
Topics to Avoid
- Don’t write about the school's size, location, reputation, or the weather, unless it is the only one of its kind. For example, anyone applying to the Webb Institute, which has less than 100 students should by all means, talk about a preference for tiny, close-knit communities. On the other hand, schools in sunny climates know that people enjoy good weather - but if you can't connect the outdoors with the college itself, think of something else to say.
- Don’t talk about your sports fandom. The "I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]" is an overused idea. After all, you could cheer for the team without going to the school. So unless you are an athlete or an aspiring mascot performer, or have a truly one of a kind story to tell about your link to the team, try a different tack.
- Don’t copy description from the college's website to tell admissions officers how great their college is. They don’t want to hear praise; they want to hear how you connect with their school. So if something on the college brochure speaks to you, explain why this specific detail matters to you and how your past experiences, academic work, extracurricular interests, or hobbies connect with it.
- Don’t use college rankings as a reason for why you want to go to a school. Of course prestige matters, but schools that are ranked right next to each other on the list are at about the same level of prestige. What makes you choose one over the other?
- If you decide to write about a future major, don’t just talk about what you want to study and why. Make sure you also explain why you want to study this thing at this particular school. What do they do differently that other colleges don’t?
- Don’t wax poetic about the school’s pretty campus. “From the moment I stepped on your campus, I knew it was the place for me” is another cliché – and another way to say basically nothing about why you actually want to go to this particular school. Lots of schools are pretty, and many are pretty in the exact same way.
Pop quiz: this pretty Gothic building is on what college campus? Yup, that's right - could be anywhere.
Step 3: Nailing the Execution
When you've put together the ideas that will make up your answer to the "why us" question, it's time to build them into a memorable essay. Here are some tips for doing that successfully:
Jump right in. The essay is short, so there's no need for an introduction or conclusion. Spend the first paragraph delving into your best one or two reasons for applying. Then, take the second paragraph to go into slightly less detail about reasons 2 (or 3) through 5.
To thine own self be true. Write in your own voice and be sincere about what you’re saying. Believe me, the reader can tell when you mean it and when you’re just blathering.
Details, details, details. Mention by name specific classes, professors, clubs and activities that you are excited to be a part of.
If you plan on attending if admitted, say so. Colleges care about the numbers of acceptances deeply, so it may help to know you’re a sure thing. But don’t write this if you don’t mean it!
Don’t cut and paste the same essay for every school. Either al least once you’ll forget to change the school name or some telling detail, or else your vague and cookie-cutter reasoning will sound bland and forgettable.
You can also check out our more general step-by-step essay-writing advice.
Cookie cutters: great for dough, terrible for college applications.
Example of a Great “Why This College” Essay
At this point, it'll be helpful to take a look at a “why us” essay that works and figure out what the author did to create a meaningful answer to this challenging question.
Here is a "Why Tufts" Essay from James Gregoire '19 for Tufts University.
It was on my official visit with the cross country team that I realized Tufts was the perfect school for me. Our topics of conversation ranged from Asian geography to efficient movement patterns, and everyone spoke enthusiastically about what they were involved in on campus. I really related with the guys I met, and I think they represent the passion that Tufts' students have. I can pursue my dream of being a successful entrepreneur by joining the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society, pursuing an Entrepreneurial Leadership minor, and taking part in an up-and-coming computer science program.
Why Does This Essay Work?
Interaction with current students. James writes about hanging out with the cross country team and sounds excited about meeting them.
“I’m a great fit.” He uses the conversation with the cross country guys to talk about his own good fit here (“I really related with the guys I met”).
Why the school is special. James also uses the conversation as a way to show that he enjoys the variety of opportunities Tufts offers (their fun conversation covers Asian geography, movement patterns, other things they “were involved with on campus”).
Taking advantage of this specialness. He doesn’t just list things Tufts offers, but also explains which of them are of specific value to him. He’s interested in being an entrepreneur, so the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society and the Entrepreneurial Leadership courses appeal to him.
Awareness of what the school is up to. Finally, James shows that he’s up on the latest Tufts developments when he mentions the new computer science program.
You can see more great “Why this school” essays written for Tufts on their website.
The Bottom Line
- The “why this college essay” is looking for three things:
- To make sure you understand what makes their college different and special
- To make sure you will be a good fit in their college
- To make that this college will be a good fit for you
- The prompt may be phrased in one of two ways, “why us?” or “why you?”, but these are sides of the same coin and will be addressed in your essay regardless of the prompt style.
- Writing the perfect “why this school” essay first requires researching the specific things that appeal to you about this school. You can find this information by:
- Visiting campuses in person or virtually to interact with current students and faculty
- Asking questions from your college interviewer or from reps at college fairs
- The college’s own materials like their brochures and website, their alumni magazine, campus newspaper, or their social media
- Other sites on the internet
- To find a topic to write about, find the three to five things that really speak to you about the school and then link each of them yourself, your interests, your goals, and your strengths.
- Avoid writing about clichés that could be true for any school, like architecture, geography, weather, or sports fandom. Instead, focus on the details that differentiate your target school from all the others.
Are you also working on your personal statement? If you're using the Common App, check out completely breakdown of the Common App prompts and our guide to picking the best prompt for you.
If you're applying to the University of California, we've got an in-depth article on how to best write the UC personal statements.
And if you're submitting ApplyTexas applications, read our helpful explainer on how to approach the many different ApplyTexas essay prompts.
In the middle of the rest of the college application process? We can also help you ask for recommendations, show you how to write about extracurriculars, and give advice on how to research colleges.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays
In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:
- Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
- Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
- Admission/Entrance essays
Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college
Section 1: Planning Your Essay
Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology
When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.
The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:
- Succeed once they are admitted;
- Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
- Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.
In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.
Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:
- How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
- How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
- How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
- How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
- What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?
Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.
Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals
Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?
Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.
Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:
- Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
- Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
- Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
- Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?
Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants
This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.
Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.
Tip #4: Contribute to the University
Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.
One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.
Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.
- Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
- Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
- Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.
Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.
Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt
At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.
The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.
Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.
On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.
If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.
Section 2: Writing Your Essay
At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.
Tip #6: Write with Specific Details
The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.
As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:
- Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
- Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
- Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?
You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.
Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction
Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).
With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.
You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.
Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style
An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:
- Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
- Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
- Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.
As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.
Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay
This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:
- Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
- Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
- Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?
Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines
College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.
The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:
- Final deadlines
- Reminders of upcoming deadlines
- Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)
Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic
At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.
Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.