The Why Paragraph: Why So Many Get it Wrong

The Why Paragraph - Why So Many Get it WrongIn my opinion, the Why Paragraph is the most straightforward (and useful) supplemental essay to write in the college application process.  However, it is also the supplement that most students seem to get wrong.  University of Chicago is well known for it’s unusual, intellectual and, often, quirky essay questions.  These are the questions over which students agonize.  They compare notes on message boards and there is even a tab on the University of Chicago Admissions site that highlights some of the best which include titles such as, “Sandwiches Like Snowflakes,” and “We Love Coffee” But, during a recent visit to the university, an admissions officer told me that the essay that most weeds prospective students out is the following:

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. (There is no strict word count, but your response should be approximately 250 words.) 

That’s just a basic “Why Paragraph” so how do students who are highly intellectual, accomplished and talented get this seemingly simple essay wrong?  This is how:

  1. They Don’t Say Anything Specific About the School

Because so many colleges ask some version of “Why Us,” many students think they can write a single essay, change the college’s name and be done, right?  Wrong.  An essay that talks in broad terms about the beautiful campus, distinguished faculty and diverse student body will do nothing to advance your candidacy.  Instead, spend 20 minutes researching the things that make that college different from the others and highlight why those things appeal to you.

  1. They Don’t Speak to Academics

While it’s fine to refer to your fanatical love of Hoosiers basketball, your life-long dream of studying in New York City or your excitement over OSU’s All-U-Can-Eat Chik Fil-A, college is primarily an academic pursuit so it’s important for you to address the school’s academics first.  What is the school’s academic mission or philosophy?  Does the curriculum have a liberal arts foundation or is it more pre-professional in it’s structure?  Is there a common core or universal set of requirements?  What majors, classes, or professors appeal to you?  Are there opportunities to do research as an undergraduate?  How about study abroad?  All of these are opportunities to highlight in your Why Essay.

  1. They Don’t Know Their Facts

Much like the poem by Alexander Pope states: “a little learning is a dangerous thing/ drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again” so, too it is true in college applications.  While a quick 10 minutes of research may give you a high-level understanding of a particular college, those all-important details may not surface during that cursory glance.  Writing that you are excited to go to Saturday afternoon football games when the school only offers basketball, want to join the ΣΑΕ fraternity when it was disbanded last year or can’t wait to take a class with a professor who doesn’t teach undergrads (or, in one case, was no longer living) is not a way to gain admission to your chosen school.  So, check your facts before you submit.

  1. They Don’t Reveal Anything About the Applicant

This is, by far, the most common mistake applicants make in writing the Why Essay.  They forget that, although the question asks them to write about the college, this is truly an essay about the applicant.  Approach this essay as you would any other.  What do you want the reader to know about YOU after reading your essay?  Why is the college a good fit for YOU?  For instance, don’t write about the 300+ clubs on campus; instead, write about the one you plan to join and why.

The Why Essay should be a gift.  By knowing how to approach it properly, it can be yours.

To learn more about how to approach the Why Paragraph, and your college application in its entirety, please review The Complete Candidate: A Comprehensive Guide to Solving the College Admissions Puzzle.