Part 1: How NOT to Write Your Essay
It's Early Action time, and many of you are writing your "Why us" college application statements. After reading many bad ones and a few good ones, I’ve put together this list of DOs and DON’Ts.
Let's start with the DON'Ts:
DON'T: Write about the school's size, location, reputation or the weather.
Why? Because that's what half of America is writing about. Take a hint from Emory University, whose “Why us” essay used to read:
"Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a particularly good match for you?"
Why do you think they say don't write about those things? Because they're tired of reading about those things.
In fact, here's what to do after you've written your first draft: Go back through your essay and underline anything that sounds like it could have appeared in another student's essay. Then delete it.
In your "Why us" essay you're making a case, and the case is this: "You [the school] and I [the student] are a perfect match." But...
DON'T: Simply use emotional language to make your case.
"I really really want to go to Northwestern because I just have this feeling that it's the place for me" does not a good case make. It doesn't show how you are a.) qualified or b.) a good match for the school. And for that matter, neither does the statement, "I can see myself rooting for the Wildcats at MetLife Stadium on Sundays."
Which reminds me:
DON'T: Screw up the mascot, stadium, team colors or names of any important people or places on campus.
Why? It's the quickest way to show you're a crappy researcher. In the example above, the Wildcats play neither at MetLife Stadium nor on Sundays. (And, based on their home record these days, neither do the Giants. But I digress.)
Also, know that the "I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]" is a cliche of the "Why us" essay, but some students can't resist. Fine. If you're going to use it, though, at least get the team names and colors right. I've heard more than one admissions officer say that a screw-up like this can immediately disqualify an application. I'm not saying it definitely will, or that this is true for all admissions officers--some probably don't care--but don't give them a reason to put you in the "no" pile. Do your research. (And the USC colors are not red and yellow, incidentally, but "USC Cardinal" and "USC Gold.")
DON'T: Think of this as a "Why Them" essay.
In other words, don't tout the school's bus system. "I know we have a good bus system, I take it every day!" says Erica Sanders, Director of Recruitment at University of Michigan. And don't parrot the brochures or website language--it could be that your reader actually wrote the words you’re copying and pasting.
Again, look at Emory’s (new) "Why Us" prompt, which reads:
"Undergraduates at Emory and Oxford Colleges are offered countless opportunities to engage with the student body, the faculty, and your academic program of choice--from hands-on research opportunities to student organizations to volunteering. What are some of the programs and/or activities you would plan to get involved with on either campus, and what unique qualities will you bring to them?"
Tip: Even if the school doesn’t ask for that last part, include it.
“So what should I put in my essay?” you ask, “And how do I know where to research?” I'm glad you asked.