Just a short while to go before the Common App opens up for 2021-22, whoo we’re excited.
You don’t need to get started on your essays just yet, because first you’ll need to look at the individual college supplements for 2021-22 within the Common App to determine which ones you’re going to be writing (and which ones you can reuse for different schools!). But in the meantime, we want to introduce you to a very common kind of supplemental essay: “Why College X” essays.
As you finalize your list of schools, you can start thinking ahead to what you would tell them if they asked you why you’re interested in that school in particular. It’s a good exercise to go through, because even if you don’t write a supplemental essay on the topic as part of your application, it’s good information to convey in an admissions interview. It won’t go to waste!
Colleges have different ways of phrasing “Why are you interested in us?”
Is it asking some version of "Why are you applying here" or "Why are you a good fit for our school?" If so, it's effectively asking, "Why Us?"
Northwestern's optional essay topic is a good example. Here's the prompt from recent years:
Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.
What they're actually asking is: "How badly do you want to go here?" If you don't submit a thoughtful essay in response, you're essentially answering: "Not very much." And that's a quick way to get rejected.
If a school asks that question (and not all do!), what they are showing you is that they are very sensitive to who is genuinely interested in them, and they really want to know what specific things are drawing you to that college. For example, you might be really interested in their dance program and want to participate in their dance club. Be specific!
(The admissions folks at Northwestern are especially nice because they typically even tell you at the end of the essay prompt: "We HIGHLY recommend you complete this essay." Not all colleges are that blunt, though.)
What’s an example of a college that doesn’t ask? Here’s one. Harvard usually has a looooong list of optional essay topics, but not a single one of them is some variety of "Why Us?" (It's nice to be Harvard; they assume that you want to go there.) You can see those optional essay prompts here, and then scroll down to Writing Supplement > Additional Essay.
So our rule is: You do NOT need to write a “Why College X” essay for a school that doesn’t expressly invite that. But for the ones that do, definitely write something (and make it good).
And if the optional essay question is not a "Why College X" essay prompt, submit something only if it's a strong piece of writing AND it says something about you that isn't already demonstrated somewhere else in the application. For example, if the optional essay question is "Is there anything else you want us to know about you," don't use that as an opportunity to say to them, "Oh by the way can I mention that I received an A+." That won't add anything valuable or new to your application, and you're better off not submitting the optional essay at all.
Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.