‘Why us’ essays
These essays are designed to assess why a student wants to apply for a particular university or field of study, and how it fits with their academic, professional and personal ambitions. Let’s look at an example.
Dartmouth University Supplemental Essay Prompt 2019/20
While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest? (100 words or less)
The question challenges a student to talk about the “program, community or campus environment”. This essay prompt is also grounded in the historical traditions of Dartmouth, offering students the chance to discuss what attracts them to the university, and why its culture and its identity fit with a student’s personal aspirations.
A generic checklist of why a student would like to study at Dartmouth is no good. Instead, an applicant should focus on a specific aspect of Dartmouth that inspired them, or triggered their desire to be part of the “class of 2023”.
It could be a subject they want to major in, an extra-curricular activity that Dartmouth offers, or a famous alumnus of the university. Whatever their answer to the “why us” question, it needs to be authentic and personal.
Finally, note the word count. 100 words isn’t a lot of time and space to cover such an expansive topic. Such a short response needs to be planned, structured and edited with precision.
‘Discuss your extracurricular activities’ essays
Let’s take a look at another Ivy League institution – Princeton University. This is one of Princeton’s recent supplemental essay prompts.
Princeton University Supplemental Essay 2019/20
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (150 words)
These extracurricular questions are designed for a student to illustrate how they might contribute to campus life, and to provide further insight into any skills or achievements which demonstrate a student’s ability to excel at university.
For students who are required to write an essay around this prompt, it’s worth encouraging them to think about extracurriculars which can demonstrate the following:
- Leadership or mentoring ability.
- A sense of community
- Entrepreneurial spirit
- An interest in your favourite subjects outside the classroom.
- Time management.
Note: it’s important to read the phrasing of these questions very carefully. For example, Brown University asks students – Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.
Whilst this question would appear to be about a student’s academic achievements, it’s also an invitation to discuss extracurricular activities. And all in 250 words.
‘What will you bring to this university’ essays
These questions are more focused on how a student will contribute to the wider university community, and will often ask students to draw on their own background. For example:
Duke University Supplemental Essay, 2019/20
“Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so.” (250 words maximum)”
Prompts like this are fundamentally about how a formative moment, place or person in a student’s life has influenced who they are today, and how it will go on to inform their contribution to a chosen university.
The Duke University prompt above is quite specific, and encourages a student to think about their background or family. Other examples of this prompt are more generic. Take this example from Notre Dame.
“What is one thing you will definitely bring to college with you?”
This prompt is so much more open-ended, and a student could answer it in any number of ways. The ‘thing’ that a student brings to university could be a tangible item – their favourite novel, a photo of a friend or family member, even a stuffed toy. But what does this item mean to them, and what does it tell a university about who they are?
Alternatively, a student could interpret this question metaphorically. The ‘thing’ they bring to university could be an experience, a perspective, a hope or aspiration that drives them. Again, how has this made them the person they are today?
There’s no right or wrong way to respond to these kinds of prompt – that’s why universities ask them. The key to answering these supplemental essays is to be as imaginative and open as possible.