How to Write a Stellar “Why Us?” Essay

For students applying to selective universities, the “Why Us?” supplemental essay can be a very important part of the admissions process. The Common Application makes it incredibly easy for students to apply to a large number of colleges with the simple click of a button, but more selective universities seek specific details on why a student is interested in their college or university. Smaller colleges and more selective universities tend to include a supplemental essay in the application as a way of ensuring that the student understands the mission and culture of that unique university. However, larger and less selective universities are now also including similar essays. With many students applying to ten, fifteen, even twenty colleges, the “Why Us?” essay can be the deciding factor for students on the cusp.

So what makes a thoughtful and quality “Why Us?” essay?

• Change the response to “Why Me”. Students should use the essay space to talk about why they would be a good fit at that specific college. Applicants should tie in their academic and extracurricular experiences to opportunities at that college.

• Be as specific as possible. Responses to this essay should be extremely specific to that college, and the response should ultimately be something that could not be used for any other college. When writing about an interest in a specific major, students should go beyond just mentioning the program name. Rather, they should talk about specific classes they hope to take, or a particular professor who is doing interesting work at that university.

• Write about experiences on that campus or meetings with representatives or alumni. Chances are the college has tracked a student’s interaction with them over time; however, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate this demonstrated interest. If a student had a meaningful interaction with an alumnus or admission officer, or if the student fell in love with the college during a campus tour, these are great examples to cite in the essay.

What should students avoid?

• Location, location, location. If a student is applying to college in California because he loves sunshine, this might not be the best topic to write about in the limited essay space. Likewise, if a student is excited to attend a college because it is a mere 1.5 hours from NYC, it suggests the student is more interested in activities off-campus than spending time at the college itself. Certainly location is a big factor in choosing a college, but it should not be the focal point of this brief essay.

• Sports teams, mascots, and school colors. Applicants should not waste the supplemental essay space with a response focused on athletics. Application readers know their school colors and mascot’s name already, so students should not simply re-state those facts. One obvious exception would be the student who is planning to play a sport and is a recruited athlete.

Keep in mind the majority of these supplemental essays are very short, between 100-300 words on average. Students don’t generally have space to write a well-developed multi-paragraph essay, so essays that get straight to the point often work best. The main Common Application essay is a better place for students to showcase their unique writing style and voice, while the supplemental essay is the perfect place to pinpoint interest and interactions with the college. Outside of the evaluative admission interview, it is the best place for students to paint a picture of themselves as future leaders and community members on that campus.

Local Test Prep & Tutoring Resources

teacher and student

As juniors (finally) receive their PSAT scores, floods of parents calls and emails begin to come my way asking for test prep and tutoring references. Students are anxious about their testing schedule and initial scores, while parents are hoping to find the best tutor for their child’s unique test prep needs.

Over the last year or so, I’ve met with a handful of tutors in the area to learn more about their strategy and niche. Below is an overview of some of my go-to tutoring companies, as well as basic information about the work they do with high school students, particularly juniors.

1) NorthStar Tutoring Services – NorthStar Tutoring has been operating in the Seattle area for a decade, and the owner Khanh Do is really passionate about his work with students on SAT and ACT prep. Most of the tutoring they do is in-home but they also offer Skype and Whiteboard tutoring as well. All tutoring is conducted one-to-one through a customized 32-37 hour course, usually taking place over a three month period. This is a fantastic option for students needing a comprehensive plan and for those seeking admission to colleges with an emphasis on stellar scores. They also do some work with younger students preparing for private school admission tests.

2) Northwest Educational Services – This small company is located in Queen Anne, very close to the Seattle Pacific University campus. Greg Smith is the owner who is extremely friendly, approachable and enthusiastic about helping students. He has a very strong academic background (Middlebury College), and an compelling personal story about struggling with dyslexia. His company serves a wide-range of students but seems to focus more on high school. Because of Greg’s personal background, they are a great resource for test prep and tutoring for students with learning differences. They do a lot of work with diagnostics, self-awareness, advocacy and coping mechanisms.

3) Applerouth Tutoring – Applerouth is a larger national test prep company with a strong presence here in Seattle. The founder is regularly at the forefront of discussions about new tests and strategies before they roll out, and they maintain a great and very helpful blog. Applerouth’s tutors do in-home and online tutoring and they offer a large number of free mock tests in the area throughout the year. They’ve also developed a great ACT prep book for their students.

4) University Tutoring – This local company is based in U Village, close to the University of Washington (not surprising given the name). The majority of the students they serve are in high school, and their team of tutors are mostly all University of Washington students, both undergraduate and graduate. They work with a lot of high school students on subject matter tutoring and subject test prep for APs, SAT IIs, etc. Many high school students prefer to work with younger or more laid back tutors, a strength of University Tutoring in my opinion. This company is also a good fit for families looking for more short-term help as they have many options for hourly tutoring instead of just full multi-month packages.

Do admissions counselors REALLY search for applicants on social media?

Back in May I attended the SuperACAC conference in Reno, Nevada with thousands of other independent college counselors, admissions officers, high school guidance counselors and educators. A few blog posts ago I summarized a few of the key takeaways from that conference, but I wanted to elaborate on one session in more depth below. Students increasingly ask me whether admissions representatives and application readers will search for them on Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media accounts. Though it is something I never did while reviewing applications for the University of Washington (nor did my colleagues), it IS becoming increasingly common.

The conference session backed up this assumption with facts. Cornerstone Reputation recently published one of the most comprehensive surveys of how a student’s online presence plays in to the admissions process. This educational research firm reached out to the nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges and top 100 national universities seeking more information on how admission officers are using social media searches in the application process. 66% of liberal arts colleges responded to the survey while 44% of national universities responded.

Here is the executive summary of their findings:

“● In the 2012-2013 admissions season, 27% of admissions officers searched applicants online.
● The following year 40% of admissions officers searched applicants online, an increase by 13 percentage points, which is a 48% increase of admissions officers conducting searches in one year.
● 59% report that other admissions officers at their schools utilize online searches.
● More than half of all admissions officers surveyed have performed Google and social media searches to find information about applicants.
● 44% found content that left a negative impression on them about the applicant.
● 46% found content that positively impacted their impression of an applicant.
● 76% of schools surveyed have no formal policy on searching applicants.
● 24% of admissions officers believe that an applicant could gain an advantage in the admissions process by building a positive online presence.”

This isn’t to say that students should go out and delete their social media accounts for the duration of application season. The reality is that admissions counselors are reviewing hundreds, and often thousands of college applications. At large universities with less selective admission criteria, it is fairly unlikely that an admission counselor or application reader will Google an applicant. Sure, there are times when an extraordinary achievement or a unique extracurricular activity may merit an applicant search; however, this is the exception at less selective schools who admit the vast majority of applicants (75%+ admission rate).

However, as the Cornerstone survey reveals, this is becoming more and more common at the nation’s most competitive colleges and particularly at smaller, liberal arts colleges. This isn’t surprising as admission rates continue to plummet and the review process becomes even more tedious. For smaller liberal arts colleges, this is a great way of determining cultural fit with the institution which is generally one of the most important aspects of the review process at these schools. Admission counselors want to admit students who understand the social and academic environment at that small school and will thrive there. They want students who will make good roommates, teammates and contributors to the small community. Social media and online searches can really help admissions counselors to admit the right students for their communities.

Though it is a little late for seniors to build a strong social media presence geared towards college admissions, it is not too late to do the basics. Students should ensure that their social media presence accurately reflects who they are and what they are comfortable with a college knowing about them. Instead of deleting all records of online existence, students should simply clean up their accounts, particularly if they are applying to selective colleges.

What are SAT II subject tests?

Next week, many juniors around the country will take SAT II Subject Tests, another standardized testing hurdle at the end of a very busy spring. Though not required by the vast majority of colleges out there, a select number (~50 competitive colleges) do require at least one subject test in addition to the standard SAT or ACT. These are short course-specific tests that in many ways align with the AP test for that subject. Unfortunately they generally don’t translate into college placement or advanced standing, but are simply another means of understanding your academic background and standardizing it across different high schools, education systems, countries, etc. More information on the types of tests offered and upcoming test dates can be found here on the SAT website.

If you are one of those students seeking admission to highly selective universities (Ivy league, top 50 liberal arts colleges, top Engineering programs), etc. you are the chosen ones who will likely need to take at least one subject test before applying. Please click here for an excellent resource on colleges that consider or require subject tests in the admissions process. Obviously the list may change between now and when you click submit, but a general rule of thumb is that smaller and/or more selective colleges will typically consider any additional test scores you submit with your application package. If you’ve already started creating your college list, be sure to double check requirements with each of your colleges over the summer.

Another “record-breaking” year in college admissions

Just a few days ago, the Ivy League schools released their admission decisions to tens of thousands of hopeful students around the world. Of course, as with every year in recent history, the vast majority of those students were denied. Twitter exploded with sadness and outrage, both from students as well as from the college admissions counseling profession.

Parents and students get all worked up about the name brand recognition on a student’s diploma. However, I always encourage families to broaden their horizons and think beyond the big names they’ve heard over the years. Often times those schools may not even be a good fit for the student’s personality or learning style. And, let’s face it, many students have no interest in  the cold, snowy winters of the Northeast.

The college search process should involve thoughtful reflection on a student’s values, learning goals and academic and personal interests. I work with students to help them determine “fit”, to help them find a college experience where they will be comfortable growing, developing and trying new things. Sometimes that could be an Ivy league experience but often it might be a school you’ve never encountered.

The following articles have been circulating a lot in the college admissions realm. The first provides further statistics on admission rates across these colleges while the last two articles provide arguments against and for elite colleges.

1) Ivy League statistics

2) Argument against elite colleges

3) Argument FOR elite colleges

My advice for students and parents out there: Don’t get caught up in the hype! Don’t force yourself into believing that acceptance to one of those schools is your only ticket to success. Don’t hire a private counselor to get you in to one of those 8 coveted schools for the sake of bragging rights to your friends and family. Do thoroughly research your options (there are thousands of great colleges out there!) and ensure that you are building and applying to a list of schools where you would be happy and comfortable.