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.

Campus Visit Notes: University of British Columbia (Canada)

College:  University of British Columbia

Location: Vancouver, BC Canada

Type of Institution: Research university

Size: 41,000 undergraduates. 50,000+ including graduate students

Admissions Advice: UBC, like most Canadian universities, has a very numbers-centric admissions process. They focus mostly on GPA, standardized test scores, and rigor of a student’s high school curriculum. Admission requirements and standards vary from major to major, so it is crucial that students research those requirements before applying.

Most popular majors: Biology, Psychology, English, Commerce (Business)

Words to describe students I met: Cosmopolitan, independent, diverse, outdoorsy, self-motivated

Unique academic aspects: My excellent tour guide was very open about the average class sizes and the struggles to keep students engaged in their education in such large lectures. The average class size for freshman is 150 students, which is of course broken down into smaller tutorial/lab sections led by teaching assistants. To help track attendance and engagement in the large classes, professors use “i-clickers”. They can display questions or polls on the big screen and students then click in a response which is aggregated and displayed on the screen in a bar chart. This can often help guide the direction of the lecture and is a great way of keeping track of who is in class and who doesn’t show throughout the course.

University of British Columbia also has an excellent reputation for its co-operative education (co-op) programs. Students across all disciplines, including humanities, can do research or internships during their undergraduate experience for academic credit and for pay. This is much more common in Canadian schools in general, but is catching on a bit more in the US, particularly for STEM students.

Unique social/cultural aspects: UBC is a true melting pot of cultures and backgrounds. More than 21% of the students on the Vancouver campus are from abroad, and those from Canada represent many diverse cultural identities. It is a really remarkable place and great for students who want that international flair but don’t want to travel far.

I was also pleased to learn that on-campus housing is guaranteed for freshman year, and there are beds for 11,000 students on campus. I toured some of the dorms and met with two different resident assistants. They are serious about building community on campus and helping students to connect to each other (and to the university itself) during that first year.

Colleges that seem similar:  University of California-Berkeley, University of Washington – Seattle, University of California- Los Angeles,  other Canadian universities

Concerns about this college: University of British Columbia is a true research university. The college is proud of its research funding, projects, and the companies that have spun off from these academic ventures. However, I was surprised to learn that UBC still only receives half of what the University of Washington receives in research dollars each year and has nearly double the student population. This leaves me with some concerns about how this funding trickles down to undergraduates or how accessible these opportunities are for students in general.

Overall impressions: I enjoyed my visit to this campus, which is one of the largest universities I have ever visited (aside from Arizona State & Ohio State). UBC’s location perched along the waterfront is truly beautiful, and it is still close enough for students to enjoy the downtown Vancouver city life about a 20 minute bus ride away. As with any large university, it takes a student with maturity and independence to do well on this campus and to not get lost in the mix. And it is a fantastic option for budget-conscious families as the total cost of attendance for international students is around $36,000 USD per year.

Campus Visit Notes: Washington State University

College:  Washington State University –

Location: Pullman, WA

Type of Institution: Public research university

Size: 20,000+ undergraduates, about 30,000 total including all campuses and graduate programs

Admissions Advice: Washington State has a fairly straightforward admissions process using an index of GPA and test scores (this also carries over the scholarship awards).  There are ways for students to be admitted that fall below the criteria, however. They use a rolling admission model with a Jan 31st deadline, so I advise students to apply early and find out within a few weeks. Added bonus: No essays are required for general admission!

Most popular majors: Animal science / agricultural studies majors, business, kinesiology & sport science, hospitality, engineering, journalism. (They have 150+ majors/minors so there is literally something for everyone).

Words to describe students I met: outgoing, full of school spirit, laid-back, welcoming, collaborative

Unique academic aspects: As a land-grant institution, WSU has really excellent programs in agriculture, food science and zoology. They have the only vet school in the state and will soon open a new medical school in Spokane. This is a great launching point for students interested in hands-on research with animals in preparation for graduate programs and fellowships.

My tour guide, a senior in the animal science program, already had one publication under her belt and had been doing research since her freshman year. For the motivated student that isn’t afraid to seek out opportunities, WSU could be a great fit. Students have access to research with less competition from their peers.

Unique social/cultural aspects: School spirit is alive and well at WSU. The football field is beautiful and located in the mix of other campus buildings, bringing the community together to cheer on the Cougs. Just on the other side of the football field are tons of off-campus apartments full of students. It is common for students to live in dorms for freshman year only and then move off-campus, but still close enough to walk.

Colleges that seem similar: University of Oregon, University of Montana,  Boise State, Oregon State University, University of Idaho (just 15 minutes down the street)

Concerns about this college:  Pullman isn’t a metropolis. It is a college town which swells to 35,000 people during the academic year, the majority of whom are students. There is a great little airport nearby but access to bigger city experiences and amenities are quite far away. Additionally, WSU does have a party-school reputation though Greek life represents only 1/4 of students. I’d argue this isn’t anything to be concerned about as it is a large enough university that students of all social scene preferences will find their niche, whether it involves late night video gaming sessions, theater groups or the party scene.

Overall impressions: I really enjoyed my WSU visit! After years of working in admissions at UW, WSU’s sworn enemy, I have a special place in my heart for this “rival” college. My tour guide was among the best I’ve ever had and I was really impressed with the visit program as a whole. I really felt a strong sense of community on campus and around Pullman. And how can you not love a campus tour that ends with some ice cream from the campus creamery? (Seriously. You should try it.)

Acceptances so far: early & rolling admission colleges

The past few weeks have been very exciting for Parry College Counseling and for my wonderful group of seniors! Before Christmas break has even started, a time when many students finally buckle down to complete applications, many of my seniors have already been admitted to at least a few colleges. And my students have been awarded $425,000 in merit scholarships as well, with more to come. I’m so proud of the hard work they’ve put in over the past few months!

Many colleges do rolling admission, meaning that applications are reviewed as they are received, and students are often notified of the decision within weeks of applying. Several of my students took advantage of early action or early decision deadlines, applying to a top college before November 1st and finding out the decision in mid-December.

Here is a list of acceptances at this point in the process:

  • Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
  • Texas Christian University
  • Northeastern University
  • University of Washington – Seattle
  • Western Washington University
  • University of Montana – Missoula
  • Southern Oregon University
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • Washington State University
  • Linfield College
  • Willamette University
  • Northern Arizona University
  • Whitworth University
  • Goucher College
  • Idaho State University
  • Azusa Pacific University
  • Evergreen State College
  • Columbia College Chicago
  • Pacific Lutheran University
  • University of Oregon
  • University of New Mexico
  • Colorado State University-Fort Collins
  • Boston University

Of course the bulk of my students applied to colleges as regular decision applicants and have not yet found out their fates. For selective universities, students won’t be notified of their admission decisions until March, so the waiting game continues. I will post more results as those spring decisions come back.



Campus Visit Notes: University of South Carolina

College:  University of South Carolina –

Location: Columbia, South Carolina

Type of Institution: Large public research university

Size: ~ 25,000 undergraduates

Admissions Advice:  South Carolina is becoming more competitive each year as the university continues to recruit heavily out-of-state. The average admitted student GPA (weighted) is close to a 4.0, and test scores are also surprisingly high (24-29 ACT; 1130-1280 SAT).  For those admitted, generous merit scholarships for non-residents often make this more affordable than a student’s local public university.

Most popular majors: Business, Biology, Physiology, Public Relations, Psychology

Words to describe students I met: Socioeconomically diverse, spirited, conservative, independent, preppy, welcoming

Unique academic aspects: The South Carolina Honors College is consistently ranked among the top public university programs in the country. The program offers 400 Honors-specific courses each year, awards special research grants to its students, and the average class size is fourteen. Plus students have excellent advising support which is crucial at larger public universities.

USC also has a unique College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management (HRSM) offering majors in  Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management; Integrated Information Technology; Interdisciplinary Studies; Retailing; and Sport and Entertainment Management. For students with career interests in these fields, South Carolina is a great option with lots of hands-on experiences available on-campus with its SEC teams and throughout the region.

Unique social/cultural aspects: During my visit I decided to do a quick workout in the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, the largest gym in South Carolina and a truly state-of-the-art facility. If you can overlook the fact that it is named after such a controversial political figure, it is an incredible space and was an interesting social experience for this west coaster. Girls were dressed up in the most fashionable lululemon outfits and full make-up, while guys stared at themselves in the mirror while drinking protein shakes. For students who enjoy fitness (and socializing while they are doing it), this is an amazing place. For an old person like me, this made me feel even older and fairly self-conscious.

Also, for being a traditional southern university, the Greek life is actually less popular than you’d think. About 21% of students are involved in fraternities or sororities, so it is not the only option for having a social life. There is a bit of a divide between Greeks and non-Greeks on campus, but with 25,000 students around and 400+ clubs, there are opportunities for everyone. And finally, the sports culture is huge here. USC is a part of the SEC, and football is king. Hundreds of thousands of people tailgate before every home game, and the stadium holds more than 85,000 cheering fans. This shapes a lot of the college’s culture and social scene, especially in the fall.

Colleges that seem similar: University of Alabama, Clemson University, University of Florida, Florida State University, Ohio State University

Concerns about this college:  Because the culture of the college is very different from the laid-back feel of Seattle and the west coast, I strongly suggest that students visit before accepting an offer of admission. The college has been pushing to increase geographic diversity through generous merit scholarships, so this culture is changing a bit each year. Currently, about 40% of USC’s students are from out-of-state. But still, students who are not familiar with the south may experience some culture shock. In my opinion, college is a great time to experience a new part of the country and new viewpoints, so this might be a perfect fit for a student with that mentality.

Overall impressions: South Carolina is the quintessential large southern university. The campus itself is large and beautiful, and the relatively mild climate is a plus for students who hate the cold (though summers are brutal). The Five Points district of the city has a real college town feel to it and is packed every weekend. After spending about a week in the area, I’ve decided that Columbia itself is not my favorite place on earth but it does have a lot of charm.


University of Washington application is open: Apply early!

uw building

About two weeks ago, the University of Washington finally opened up its freshman application. Hundreds of overachieving, Type A aspiring Huskies have already submitted the application well ahead of the December 1st deadline. An expected 30,000+ high school seniors will wait until the deadline week to complete the application.

I spent several years in the admissions office at University of Washington and, I can tell you, the weeks leading up to December 1st can be brutal. Not only are counselors returning from months of visiting high schools and meeting students and families at college events, but they are also dealing with a high volume of panicked phone calls and emails about the application. Further complicating the situation is the fact that December 1st is right after the Thanksgiving holiday which, as you may suspect, is a state holiday weekend as well. That wonderful UW counselor you connected with at your high school this fall will probably not be sitting at her desk waiting to answer your call on Black Friday. Likewise, your high school counselor will be enjoying the weekend with their own families instead of a providing you with a copy of your transcript to fill in your course grid.

My #1 piece of advice is this: Submit the UW application before November 15th! Open it up now, take note of your user name and password, and begin filling in the basic information. If you have trouble answering a question, send an email to admissions and they will happily respond within a few days. While there is no statistical advantage to submitting your application early, you do have more time to ask questions and get answers in a timely manner. Plus then you will be able to sit back, relax and enjoy your Thanksgiving break.

Second tip: Be sure to complete the self-reported sections of the application completely and to the best of your ability. Here’s a quote from my amazing former colleague who will be working with prospective students and reviewing applications in the coming months.

“The UW application tries to accommodate applicants who come from a variety of different academic backgrounds.  It’s important to complete the application by the December 1 deadline to the best of your abilities.  You can trust that the UW Admissions staff can usually figure out what the applicant entered, but they will always contact an applicant if anything is unclear or missing.  As long as you submit your application by the December 1st deadline, your application will be reviewed and considered.”   — Sabrina Moss, Lead Counselor for International Student Admission

Sabrina is referring to UW’s self-reported course and grade section of the application in particular. Instead of requesting official transcripts from your current high school, UW requires students to self-report this information to the best of their ability in a course grid. Be sure to obtain a transcript from your high school counselor so you can fill this section in accurately and, as Sabrina mentions, if there are any questions UW admissions will contact you by email for clarification.

And my last tip for success is that aspiring business, computer science or engineering majors should talk about their interest and background in these disciplines in the essay and/or additional comments section of the application. Don’t re-hash your resume entirely, but be sure your passion comes through. UW admits a small number of students directly into these competitive majors by simply checking the box that you are interested in that major on the application. Take this further by detailing your accomplishments and goals in a short 1-2 paragraph essay in the additional comments section. It’s not a perfect system by any means and is still incredibly competitive, especially for computer science, but it is worth a little extra effort for that consideration.

Campus Visit Notes: Western Washington University


College: Western Washington University –

Location: Bellingham, Washington

Type of Institution: Medium size public university

Size: 15,000 students (only 1,000 are graduate students)

Admissions Advice: Admission to WWU is not quite as competitive as the state flagship (UW); however, it is a popular option for students from Washington state. The middle 50% GPA range is 3.28 – 3.78 and course rigor is important in the review. Students on the lower end of this range (or below it) should address their academic performance in the application. Additionally, school profiles are not used in the WWU application, so students attending a particularly rigorous high school should include some school profile information in the application as well.

Most popular majors: Environmental Sciences, Psychology, Business, Sociology

Words to describe students I met: Eco-conscious, open-minded, quiet leaders, liberal, active, curious.

Unique academic aspects:  The Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington is a great fit for students who want to design their own education and chart their own course of inquiry. There are about 500 students enrolled in this college, one of seven at WWU. Students receive narrative evaluations (no grades!) and classes are very discussion-based. Some of the program themes include: social and environmental responsibility, justice, experiential learning, and cultural diversity, among others. The program’s loose structure is similar to The Evergreen State College a few hours south in Olympia, but students who participate in Fairhaven have the benefit of being a part of a larger institution.

Unique social/cultural aspects: WWU’s campus is visually awesome! There is a mix of architectural styles around campus plus a number of sculptures and large public art pieces. The campus is also perched on a hill overlooking the water (Bellingham Bay). I haven’t been on many campuses quite like it!

WWU is also unique in that it does not have a Greek life (no sororities or fraternities). The student body is very active and inclusive, and after my short visit it became very clear that a Greek system would not fit with the social culture of the campus.

Colleges that seem similar: University of California – Santa Cruz, The Evergreen State College, Pitzer College, University of Puget Sound

Concerns about this college: 90% of WWU’s student body is from Washington State. While this is great news to Washington state taxpayers, it means that classroom discussions may not have much in the way of diverse geographic and international perspectives. A big part of the college experience is learning from your peers – learning about their upbringing, new parts of the country and different perspectives. However, because our state is fairly diverse ethnically, at least this aspect of diversity is being increasingly reflected on campus.

Overall impressions: After many years of recruitment travel with WWU admissions officers and dozens of nights spent eavesdropping on the university’s “pitch” at college fairs, I’m so happy I was able to physically visit campus. Bellingham is charming, and still close enough to two major cities for students who need big city access. Western’s campus was beautiful and the students were very welcoming (even though the Northwest isn’t known for being overly friendly). It is a great fit for a student looking for a mix of lecture and seminar classes, an engaged and inclusive student body, and a beautifully green setting.