Anyone who’s applying to a selective college in the U.S. will likely be asked a seemingly simple question: Why do you want to attend this school?
It may be phrased succinctly — “Why Brown?” to name one highly selective school — or as part of a more complicated question: “Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application?” or: “How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying.”
Whether concise or wordy, these prompts are really asking the same thing.
Students are often surprised that they are asked to defend their choice of college; shouldn’t the effort they’ve put into (researching, applying, and paying a fee) be enough?
In the first place, colleges want to admit students who will enroll. Their yield rates (the percentages of accepted students who choose to attend) are crucial factors in a their publicity campaigns and perceived prestige; they're also used in rankings. One way that colleges look desirable to prospective students is, in short, to be desirable to accepted applicants.
Generally speaking, the more selective a school, the greater the number of factors it’ll consider to determine whom to admit.
Colleges want to know how much you want them, a factor they call demonstrated interest. Other parts of an application — grades, test scores, activities, recommendations — being roughly equal, decisions at selective colleges are often made because a student does a good job of conveying the desire to be there.
The “Why School X?” question speaks to the idea of fit. Colleges want students who will come back after their first year, and eventually graduate (preferably within six years). Schools use these rates of first-year retention and graduation (when they’re favorable) in marketing materials. Plus, college rankings often take them into account, as well.
So, the “Why?” question is important!
In my experience, however, most students answer this question last, as something of an afterthought — perhaps with the notion that the response is (or should be) self-evident. I’d bet that most applicants spend a fraction of the time answering this question that they spend on their other essays. But the answer to this question needs to be just as compelling as anything else you write.
Here are some examples of what to do and what not to do, followed up by a discussion of what made the good ones good and what would help make the not-so-good ones better.
Other Students Explain “Why?”
Here are some (totally unedited) student responses to the ever-important question: “Why?”
Student 1: Boston University
I want to study at a reputed university, with a stimulating environment as I have always lived in major cities where I can go to cafes, to hear music, to museums and sports events as part of my everyday life. Boston University has become one of the best in the US; it has top professors and is located in the middle of a historic city, and accessible to everything. It has a strong international relations program which would be perfect for me since I have attended a diverse international school. I noticed all these things when I visited. Given Boston University’s notable reputation and history, I would be excited by the opportunity to attend such a strong and knowledgeable institution . . .
Student 2: Northwestern University
The most unique trait of Northwestern University is its focus on undergraduate research. I am very interested in biology and chemistry; I just love working in laboratories. In the “Gymnasium”, the Swiss pre-university school, we were often confronted with a problem that we had to solve in groups. Such problems could be as easy as distinguishing water from ethanol, or as complex as building a hydrogen fuel cell. To find a solution we were given time in our laboratory and could ask for practically anything we needed . . .
A further very good quality of Northwestern University is its rather high rank and great reputation. I seek a good education and definitely appreciate it, if the university I attend is renowned. If I went to a second-rank college I would be better off studying in Switzerland . . .
A last point is the location: It’s just great; right next to the lake, in the nice and cosy town of Evanston. You have the advantages of a small town, such as lots of greenery and a quiet environment, and yet Chicago is very close and accessible . . .
Student 3: Northwestern University
(This is a different student, applying six years after Student 2.)
Because I intend to pursue a career in photojournalism, I see the Medill School of Journalism as the Holy Grail of education. Offering the impressive intellectual and technical resources of a prestigious research university, Northwestern would provide me the confidence of knowing that I would be getting the most forward-focused education in journalism.. . . The quarter system and Medill’s internship requirements create an ideal confluence for exactly that experience . . .
Northwestern has a gorgeous location. When I visited the campus, I was smitten with Evanston’s cozy feel. Although I initially pictured myself in the heart of a city, Evanston eclipsed this vision. The small town environment is comforting without being limiting, offering plenty of cafés, restaurants, and shops to explore . . . Meanwhile, Northwestern’s scenic lakeside location is the perfect retreat for studying or relaxing . . .
Brimming with enthusiasm, Northwestern has infectious school spirit. Because I assume leaving home after eighteen years will be difficult, I count on school pride to bring me a sense of community and belonging. From the famed painted rock to the fountain spewing purple water, the robust loyalty to the university captures my heart . . . In short, Northwestern is my dream school because it embodies everything I value: journalism, incomparable internship opportunities, dance, and an inspiring atmosphere . . .
Student 4: New York University
(You may find this essay posted on Parke Muth's blog)
I’m done being a New Yorker born and raised in sheltered suburbia — I’m ready to get slapped in the face by the unforgiving hand of NYC and to become a true Noo Yawk-ah. While not an accurate representation of what all NYU students think, the NYU Secrets Facebook page constantly posts the thoughts of NYU students resenting the bittersweet independence of such a large, non-traditional school, but at the same time falling in love with the knowledgeable and nurturing faculty and classes.
I’m done dancing around on the outskirts of the arena — I’m ready to plop myself right into the frenzied mist of action. No walls insulate NYU from the sprawling labyrinth of NYC, which is ideal for a unique and exciting college experience . . .
Breaking Them Down
Would Student 1 get into BU?
Her response could have been used for nearly any large or mid-sized urban university. Do I, an admissions officer, believe that this student has chosen my unique university with care? No. Do I learn anything from this response that I don’t already know from elsewhere in the student’s application? No.
And why not?
Student 1 speaks in generalities: Boston University is prestigious, located in a historic city, provides access to concerts and museums, and has an international relations major. She lists facts that the admission staff already knows — facts that are not even unique to BU. The personal things she writes, about living in cities and attending “a diverse international school,” would be featured on her Common Application.
Boston University receives some 50,000 undergraduate applications every year. If you read hundreds like this every cycle, would you be compelled to admit any of the students who wrote them?
What about Students 2, 3, and 4?
Though they’ve been edited for length here, their essays are much more detailed and convincing than Student 1’s response. They all got into the schools they applied to, but let’s examine their responses closely to find out why.
Notice that the two Northwestern applicants, six years apart and from different countries, not only described the college’s physical setting but talked about the same things — the lake, coffee shops, and coziness.
Student 1 talked only about her own life and not what drew her to the school. In other words, she didn’t do a great job of demonstrating interest.
While it’s a good idea to mention the location and vibe of a campus, applicants should be aware that thousands of other students, year after year, have done the same thing. It’s a paradox: Colleges attempt to distinguish themselves through their locations — mountainous backdrops, subway stops, — but talking too much about this stuff can lead you astray. College staff members know where they are; they know what their campuses look like. Spending valuable space describing a school’s location leaves you with less room to talk about how good a fit you’d be.
Despite colleges’ intense self-promotion, parroting facts back at admissions officers in your essay can waste valuable application real estate — especially when you’re working with a low word limit. Students 2 and 3 both mention rank and prestige, but they’re sure to tie these to their own application and plans. Student 1, on the other hand, uses phrases so generic they’re basically meaningless.
Colleges asking the “Why us?” question know they are good schools, and they know their rankings. You don’t need to remind them of these facts.
In fact, I suspect colleges that cap applicants’ responses to 100 words are doing so in order to keep students from discussing things that don’t connect with them personally. “Why us?” essays, especially the shortest ones, need you to focus on heart, not head.
Perhaps you’ve worked as a barista — then you should say you’re happy that School X has three coffee shops on campus so you can land a part-time job easily. If you’re a painter from the desert, say how thrilled you are by the prospect of living near a lake and learning the subtleties of using blues and greens rather than browns and oranges. These are more personal, and ultimately more effective, than reciting statistics from brochures. That’s what I mean by heart.
Answering the “Why?” Question Yourself
Here are some things to avoid, followed by some things I encourage you to do.
Don’t mention a college’s reputation or rank.
In my opinion — unless you’ve got a very strategic reason for doing so — this will only occupy valuable space.
Don’t mention the college’s founder.
It may seem like a good idea to talk about the importance of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, but it’s probably not. Admissions officers at the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania don’t need to be reminded of who started their institutions!
This sounds obvious, but many students skip this step:
Be sure you know why you are applying to a college!
If the best you can muster is its reputation or ranking, then you haven’t looked closely enough to find a good match for your needs and interests. Believe it or not, a student who is happy at one top-tier institution may be totally unhappy at another. Doing research before answering this question is crucial. Visit the school, talk to current students, go to prospective-student programs, and dig into websites.
Keep a journal as you do research.
Each entry should have two columns: head and heart. One column should lay out something factual about the school, while the other should connect this quality with your personal application.
Start with the “head.”
This includes facilities, scenery, the strength of a particular department, location, size, and course offerings. But don’t stop there.
Connect it to “heart.”
Ask yourself why these objective qualities are meaningful to you. How will you use these elements of the campus or its community to your advantage if you’re admitted? How will you contribute to each if you’re admitted?
Think in terms of high school.
Is this college like or different from your high school? Why are these similarities or differences important to you? Maybe — like Students 2, 3, and 4 — you want your college experience to be a big change. On the other hand, you can say that you're looking forward to attending a small liberal arts college because you spent your formative years in an elementary school with only six other students in your class.
A Final Word: Because
I hope these suggestions are helpful as you search for colleges and write applications. Considering why you want to attend a school isn’t just important in helping colleges determine the ultimate admissions decision, it’s also important for you — after all, you’re deciding where to spend the next four years of your life! Just don’t save the “Why us?” question for 11:30 p.m. the night before the application is due, and you’ll be fine!
Find further guidance about getting into college from Noodle Experts like Amy Garrou. You can also use Noodle to discover which colleges are best for you.
Always dreamed of studying in the Big Apple at New York University? You better be able to put those dreams in words and explain why NYU is the choice for you.
New York University’s application asks students interested in studying at their university for an additional writing supplement. Specifically, the prompt questions why applicants wish to pursue their study at NYU. Here’s the exact prompt:
We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand - Why NYU? (400 word maximum)
Don’t be intimidated by the essay prompt. The essay prompt is long with a lot of details and questions, and you only have 400 words to address all those points. Breathe. The essay prompt provides you with these questions and details to help you brainstorm your answer. Many of them overlap and will help you get to the core of why NYU is the best place for you to pursue your interests and studies.
Let’s break them down.
- NYU Campus: New York University offers 3 degree-granting campuses around the world. Applicants can choose to apply specifically to one of them, or rank them by preference. The 3 locations are in New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
If there is a specific campus you’re applying to, why? What made you decide to choose one over the other two locations? If you prioritized one over the others, what was the motivation behind that?
- NYU School or College: On the New York campus, NYU houses 10 schools and colleges, giving prospective students a broad range undergraduate studies they can focus on. Even if you’re undecided on what major you’d like to study, you must choose a specific school or college to apply to. Here are the options:
- College of Arts and Sciences
- Gallatin School of Individualized Study
- Liberal Studies Core Program
- Meyers College of Nursing
- School of Professional Studies
- Silver School of Social Work
- Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
- Stern School of Business
- Tandon School of Engineering
- Tisch School of Arts
Choosing which school you want to apply to is akin to choosing which field of study you want to pursue. What experiences do you have that led you to choose your specific school? Why are you interested in your chosen field of study?
- Focused or Undecided: Are you applying with a specific major or a specific field of study? Or are you undecided? You can choose to expand further on why your interests in a major by linking in your extracurriculars and academics.
- NYU’s Global Network: If you are undecided and unsure what you want to study, why is NYU the place to go to help you discover your interests? This will give you the opportunity to dive into what you know about NYU’s student body and campus culture. And, how that aligns with the environment you want to be in.
So, how do you tie all these points together in 400 words? Find a focus. Look at the rest of your application, and think what else are you missing from your application that you really want to emphasize. If you’ve already talked about your interest in your chosen major for your personal statement, then maybe there’s something else you want to share. Whatever that focus is you want to highlight, how does it link to NYU? That’s the connection you want to show in this supplemental essay. Here are some examples:
1. Essay Example 1: Studying Sociology at NYU
Nyudotedu, New York University ‘19
“I can think of no better place to study such phenomena than in New York City and at NYU. There are good reasons why the Sociology program at NYU was ranked one of the best by sociology.com. Not only does NYU offer a solid academic foundation, it also provides a place to conduct fieldwork that not many schools can match - namely, New York City. The department also invites speakers that cover diverse topics to show how sociology is applied to different fields of study. I think the seminars offered at NYU will help me see sociology from many different perspectives. Among the seminars offered at NYU last year, I would have definitely attended “Should We Worry about inequality?” and “Cultural Durability and Social Change.” If given the chance to attend NYU, I would take advantage of such seminars and workshops to add to my classroom knowledge.”
NYU essay excerpt 1 breakdown:
In this excerpt of nyudotedu’s NYU supplemental essay, you can see how she demonstrates her interest in sociology, her knowledge of NYU’s sociology curriculum, and her intellectual curiosity. Her focus here is to further explain her chosen major and why she wants to study computer science at NYU. She not only points to NYU”s curriculum for why she wants to study sociology at NYU, but also to the school’s location—New York City. She makes it clear that there is value for her to be in both NYU and NYC to pursue her studies.
Additionally, she gives specific examples of the type of seminars she’d join, thereby showing her continued interest outside of the classroom and knowledge of what NYU offers. She doesn’t go into detail about the courses, because she doesn’t have to. The admissions officers may know and can find out what those courses entail, and judging by the course titles, it’s another subtle opportunity for them to know she is as a student and person.
Unlock nyudotedu’s NYU profile to read her full application essays and advice!
2. Essay Example 2: Diversity at NYU
Ngozirebecca, New York University ‘19
“I’ve been in love with you for quite some time now. As a young girl, I would admire you from afar, merely a schoolgirl’s crush, staring open-mouthed at your tall, glittering building and vibrant violet banners. As I grew older, my puppy love grew to look past the superficial and I fell hard. I saw the diversity of your student body, a melting pot of talent and intellect, and the care with which you taught them. When I saw you offered cross-school minors, I realized how dedicated you were to comprehensive education, and when I learned the sheer number of student groups available for participation, I realized that you embraced every one of your student’s passions, no one was a “freak,” no one was alone. As I approach graduation and prepare to head out into the world on my own, I finally understand: We fit on another.”
NYU essay excerpt 2 breakdown:
In this excerpt of Ngozirebecca’s “Why NYU” essay, she points out the reasons why NYU is a good fit for her, whilst being completely transparent with her growth and thought process. She demonstrates a sense of maturity in her essay, as she explains how her love and perspective of NYU has changed as she grew up. She’s able to show off her creative writing style, and share what NYU’s academics and student body can offer her. And, most importantly, what she can offer in return.
Unlock Ngozirebecca’s NYU profile to read her full application essays and advice!
3. Essay Example 3: “NYU is creative and determined”
ShaneNYUStern, New York University ‘19
““Are you going to eat all that?” asked another swimmer in the dining hall. “Yup, one bite at a time,” I told him. That’s how I approach things: consistently with determination and creativity. I have been swimming competitively since I was nine. For the past three years, I wake up at 3:50am and swim nine times a week. I am consistent. I am determined and fierce competitor. This past year, I found an outlet for my creativity. I competed as a member of Virginia DECA and won a state award, advancing to the international level and placing in the top 4-percent. NYU is creative and determined. It consistently produces alumni who are amount the best in their field. I hope someday to be one of them.”
NYU essay excerpt 3 breakdown:
ShaneNYUStern to share more about himself and his characteristics in his supplemental essay. In this essay excerpt, he highlights his extracurricular achievements, varsity swimmer and DECA winner, what he learned from them, and how that ties in to his interest in studying at NYU.
Unlock ShaneNYUStern’s NYU profile to read his full application essays and advice!
Hope this was helpful for those of you finishing your NYU applications! Interested in reading these students’ full personal statements in addition to their full responses to the Why NYU supplemental prompt? Unlock all of them in one go with our Why NYU Package!
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About The Author
Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.