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An essay prompt found often on applications is, ‘Why us?’ Why do you want to come here and what will you do once you arrive? A taste of this year’s crop include: 

USC: Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC. 

Northwestern: What are the unique qualities of Northwestern — and of the specific undergraduate school(s) to which you are applying — that make you want to attend the University?

Johns Hopkins: Given the opportunities at Hopkins, please discuss your current interests (academic, extracurricular, personal passions, summer experiences, etc.) and how you will build upon them here.  

One of the best ways to attack this question is to learn as much about the college as you can. Set aside an hour to really gain a sense of the place. If you can’t do this, don’t waste the college admissions office time — and, more importantly, your own — by writing generalities about the school’s size, location or reputation (“Northwestern is very well respected…,”), and put the $70-90 application fee into something more profitable.

One thing to keep in mind when writing college essays: they are all about you. No matter what the question, you need to explain what it is you’re looking for and why. What type of person are you? Do you have the poise to approach a professor and discuss ways to research a problem? Do you have intellectual needs that must be fulfilled? All these questions should factor into your answer. 

As for the research, start broad and then narrow your focus.

Use the guides (Princeton Review’s Best 380 Colleges, the Insider’s Guide to Colleges by Yale Daily News, and Fiske Guide, which has an online resource for $20), to help you understand the curriculum, special majors, top professors, and the most popular departments.

Narrow your search by going to the college’s website and reading about key departments of interest. For example, if you were curious about the advantages of NYU’s Stern School of Business, look at Why Stern? on the website, where you’ll find details about the flexible curriculum, small classes, exceptional faculty, truly global university, leadership opportunities… It would be a shame to miss this because of lack of due diligence.

Better still, get beyond the screen or the printed page and actually talk to someone in the admissions office, or find the regional admissions representative who is oftentimes your first reader — the more he or she knows about you, the better; the more questions you ask him or her about the campus, the better. 

What the ‘Why us?’ essay encourages is how you and your interests perfectly combine with what the school offers. Make this clear in a convincing, straightforward manner, and you can rest assured that your essay will benefit your candidacy. Use specifics in creating matches between your interests and what the college offers. This might include internships, undergraduate research opportunities, case study contests, honors programs, dual degree programs, professors, classes and clubs.

So that is one way you might piece together an imposing essay to validate your candidacy. But is this the only approach to respond to the ‘Why’ essay?

 If you take a look at the Johns Hopkins’s prompt above, it sounds like Why Hopkins? to me. Yet, go to the Essays that Worked section on the Hopkins website, and you’ll find a number of essays, including "Breaking into Cars" by Stephen. He does not discuss any of the features of JHU. Admissions, however, determined his essay one of the best received that year.

“Through his anecdotes from growing up, we got a sense of how he might approach his studies here at Hopkins,’” the university's undergraduate admissions committee noted. 

If an essay clearly explains who you are, the admissions committee is liable to infer anything. Be you, be natural, be specific, be knowledgeable, be engaging — and let the chips fall where they may.   

Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC, has been counseling students for the last 10 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800, (714) 734-8100


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