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How to answer that college admission question: ‘Why US’

December 6, 2018

College Scoops reached out to Lisa Jardin after listening to the podcast, “Anything Goes with Kim Berns” on August 2nd, which focused on the college admissions and college visit process. We connected as we both lived and worked overseas while raising a family. Lisa shared her recent post below with College Scoops.

Why Us?

Two tiny words that carry so much weight, but to be fair, if I were a college, I’d want to know too. The thing about the Common Application is that it’s universal. You are writing an essay to send to every school. It answers the question of why you, but doesn’t touch on anything specific to the school that receives it. Often my students send me a draft of a Why Us essay and I send it right back with this comment: “This essay could be any school with similar attributes.” They might mention the beautiful
campus, or the school spirit, or maybe the excellent sports teams, and study abroad opportunities. This is 2018; many, many schools have these same characteristics. The key to nailing this essay is specificity.

This is my suggestion, and it takes some forethought and planning, but not much more than a small notepad and pen. The forethought part has to do with making sure you throw the pad in your backpack when you go on school visits. Force yourself to write down at least three things that are unique to the school you are touring. This could be the cozy nook in the library, the incredible quality of the food in the cafeteria, the poster for the upcoming “The Office” trivia night, or a group of students in hammocks on the quad during finals week. Whatever it is for you that stands out on your visit (and make sure there are at least three of them), jot those down in your notebook. Then, six months later, when the supplemental essays come out, you aren’t staring at a blank page when trying to answer this prompt – you have material! All of a sudden, memories of the fresh sushi you ate in the cafeteria, the diverse signage on the bulletin board in the union and how Sydney, your tour guide, was one of the most interesting 19-year-olds you’ve ever met will come flooding back.

Sometimes schools direct the Why Us prompt to be answered more academically, like this year’s University of Chicago’s essay question. “How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.”

Kids just hate this sort of question. They read it and re-read it and have no idea how to start. My advice is to break it up into pieces and get on their website looking for clues. The first piece of this prompt is about the student and how you learn: How does UChicago satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning? The first thing I did was google, “What type of learning environment does the University of Chicago have?” This was what I found, taken directly from their website: “At the University of Chicago, students learn not what to think, but how. In an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, students and professors debate, collaborate, and investigate while challenging assumptions—and one another. Rooted in rigorous inquiry, UChicago’s unique education transforms individuals, preparing and empowering them to make a positive impact on the world.”

Bingo. But you can’t spit this back at them as your answer – that would be too obvious, and of course, it would be plagiarism, and a terrible idea. The student needs to find an example from his or her own experience that matches this type of learning. For example, many schools have now incorporated the Harkness Table into their learning environment. Classes are taught sitting around a table with a small group, and everyone is expected to participate in the discussion. This would be the perfect example to show that this type of learning environment works best for you.

The second part of the prompt relates to the community. Again, I went to the school’s website and went directly to the About page, and it’s all there waiting for you to use. You can find out the size, the type of campus (urban, rural, etc…), the student body size, whether it’s a research university, the labs they are affiliated with, if they have a graduate school, and the many Nobel laureate, CEOs, and astronauts they have as alumni or faculty. Maybe you grew up on a farm, and you want an extremely urban experience, or possibly you are an Econ freak who is obsessed with Milton Friedman, or maybe you love history and have always been fascinated with the Chicago World’s Fair; whatever it is that makes your heart beat stronger by the idea of being a part of the UChicago community, that is what you write about in the second part of this essay.

And lastly, they want to know how UChicago fits in with your plans for the future. Dream big! They want their graduates to go on to do big things, and they should! This is not the place to write, “After graduation, I hope to get a desk job in a field I am interested in.” What are your aspirations? Remember, this is just an essay to help you get accepted. They don’t have to actually come true, but wouldn’t it be nice if they did? Again, I would go back to the school’s website to help craft my answer, and I would start with their alumni page for ideas. Be creative, be introspective, and in some way it would be nice if it paired up with your potential major.

Make sure to watch your word count; give equal measure to each section of the prompt. When you complete your essay, have a few people read it and see if it screams the University of Chicago, because if it doesn’t, you still have some work to do. Remember, schools love to hear how great they are, so tell them!

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Lisa Jardin, Author

With a B.S. in Computer Applications and Information Systems from NYU, Lisa spent ten years working for Merrill Lynch Futures in their New York, Chicago, and Tokyo offices. After raising four children, both in the U.S. and Japan, Lisa went back to school to study creative writing at Manhattanville College where she received her M.F.A. She has written for CNN, The Japan Times, Metropolis Magazine, and various other publications. She has worked with over 500 juniors and seniors at high schools around the world with their college application essays. She is the founder of Expat Essay.

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