Did you think you were all done pouring out your blood, sweat, and tears in written form for your personal statement, only to be faced with the “why this college” supplemental essay? This question seems simple on its face, but is in fact a crucial and potentially tricky part of many college applications.
What exactly is the “why us” essay trying to understand about you? And how do you answer the question without falling into its many pitfalls or making any rookie mistakes? In this article, I’ll explain why colleges want you to be able to explain why you are applying. I'll also talk about how to generate and brainstorm topics for this question, and how to make yourself sound sincere and committed. Finally, I’ll throw in some “why this school” essay dos and don’ts.
Table of Contents
Why Do Colleges Want You to Write a "Why Us" Essay?
The Two Different Kinds of “Why This College” Essay Prompts
How to Write a Perfect “Why This College” Essay
Step 1: Research
Step 2: Brainstorming Topics
Step 3: Nailing the Execution
Example of a Great "Why This College" Essay
The Bottom Line
Why Do Colleges Want You To Write a “Why Us” Essay?
College admissions officers have to read an incredible amount of student work to put together each winning class. So trust me when I say that everything they ask you to write is meaningful and important.
The purpose of this essay goes two ways. On the one hand, seeing how you answer this question gives admissions officers a sense of whether you know and value their school. On the other hand, having to verbalize why you are applying is a chance for you to ponder what you want to get out of your college experience, and whether your target schools fit your goals and aspirations.
What Colleges Get Out of Reading Your "Why This College" Essay
Colleges want to check three things.
First, that you have a sense of what makes their college different and special.
- Do you know something about the school’s mission, history, and values?
- Have you thought about their specific approach to learning?
- Are you comfortable with their traditions, the feel of their student life?
Second, that you will be a good fit for the institution.
- Where do your interests lie? Do they correspond to this school’s strengths?
- Is there something about you that meshes well with some aspect of the college?
- How will you contribute to college life? How will you make your mark on campus?
And third, that this institution will, in turn, be a good fit for you.
- What do you want to get out of college? Will this college be able to provide that? Will this school contribute to your future success?
- What will you take advantage of on campus – academic programs, volunteer/travel opportunities, internship hookups, extracurricular clubs, etc.?
- Will you succeed academically? Is this school at the right rigor and pace for your ideal learning?
What You Get Out of Writing Your "Why This College" Essay
Luckily, in the process of articulating these answers, you will also benefit in several ways.
Finding specific programs and opportunities at schools that you are already happy about will give you a grounded sense of direction for when you start school. At the same time, by describing what is great about schools that are low on your list, you'll boost your enthusiasm rather than feeling these colleges are lackluster fallbacks.
Ensuring You're Making the Right Choice
At the same time, writing the "why us" essay can be a moment of clarity. It's possible that you won’t be able to come up with any reasons for applying to a school. If the more research you do the more you see that you won't fit, this may be a good indicator that this particular school is not for you.
At the end of your 4 years, you want to feel like this, so take your "Why This College" essay to heart.
The Two Different Kinds of “Why This College” Essay Prompts
The "why this college" essay is best thought of as a back and forth between you and the college. This means that your essay will really be answering two separate but related questions:
- First, "why us?" This is where you'll explain what makes the school special in your eyes, what attracted you to it, and what you will get out of the experience of going there.
- Second, "why you?" This is where you'll talk about why you’ll fit right in on campus, what qualities/skills/talents/abilities you’ll contribute to campus life, and how your future will be impacted by the school and its opportunities.
Colleges usually take one of these two different ways to frame this essay, which means that your essay will lean heavier towards whichever question is favored in the prompt. So if the prompt is all about "why us?", you'll focus more on waxing rhapsodic about the school. If the prompt instead is mostly configured as "why you?", you'll dwell at length on your fit and potential.
It's good to remember that these two prompts are simply two sides of the same coin. Your reasons for wanting to apply to a particular school can be made to fit either of these questions.
For instance, say you really want the chance to learn from the world-famous Professor X. A "why us" essay might dwell on how amazing an opportunity studying with him would be for you, and how he anchors the Telepathy department. Meanwhile, a "why you" essay would point out that your own extracurricular and academic telepathy credentials and future career goals make you an ideal student to learn from Professor X, a renowned master of the field.
Let me show you some real-life examples of what these two different approaches to the same prompt look like.
I hear the Rings of Power Department is really strong at that school too. Check out the Gandalf seminar on repelling Balrogs - super easy A.
(Image: T-Jacques via Wikimedia Commons)
“Why Us” PromptsYou can recognize this version of the prompt from wording like:
- Why [this college]?
- Why are you interested in our school?
- Why is this college a good choice for you?
- What is it that you like the best about our university?
- Why do you want to go to our college?
- University of Michigan: Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
- Tufts University: Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, “Why Tufts?”
Wellesley College: When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (PS: “Why” matters to us.)
- Brown University: Why Brown?
Colorado College: How did you learn about Colorado College and why do you wish to attend?
- Oberlin College: How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?
- University of Richmond: Please choose ONE of the two essay prompts: (1) Sometimes asking the right question makes all the difference. If you were a college admission counselor, what essay question would you ask? Please craft and answer your own essay prompt – in your response, reflect on what your chosen question reveals about you.; OR (2) Tell us about Spiders.
Tell me all about... me.
“Why You?” PromptsThis type of prompt turns the tables slightly, asking something along the lines of:
- Why are you a good match or fit for us?
- What are you interests and how will you pursue them here?
- What do you want to study and how will that correspond to our program?
- What or how will you contribute?
- Why you at our college?
- Why are you applying to our school?
- Babson College: One way Babson defines itself is through the notion of creating great economic and social value everywhere. How do you define yourself and what is it about Babson that excites you?
- New York University: Whether you are undecided or you have a definitive plan of study in mind, what are your academic interests and how do you plan to explore them at NYU?
- Bowdoin College: Bowdoin students and alumni often cite world-class faculty and opportunities for intellectual engagement, the College’s commitment to the Common Good, and the special quality of life on the coast of Maine as important aspects of the Bowdoin experience. Reflecting on your own interests and experiences, please comment on one of the following: 1.) Intellectual engagement, 2.) The Common Good, or 3.) Connection to place.
- Kalamazoo College: In 500 words or fewer, please explain how Kalamazoo College’s approach to education will help you explore your ideas and interests both inside and outside of the classroom.
- Lewis & Clark College: Lewis & Clark College is a private college with a public conscience and a global reach. We celebrate our strengths in collaborative scholarship, international engagement, environmental understanding and entrepreneurial thinking. As we evaluate applications, we look for students who understand what we offer and are eager to contribute to our community. In one paragraph, please tell us why you are interested in attending Lewis & Clark and how you will impact our campus.
- Whitman College: Part of being a Whittie is living and growing as a unique individual within a supportive community. These are words that we think describe much, though not all, of the Whitman experience: "Intellectually Curious - Northwest - Taco Trucks - Slam Poetry - Outdoorsy - Testostertones - Globally Engaged - Flag Football - Thesis Project - Wheat Fields - Intercultural - Encounters Program - One Acts - Organic Garden - 24/7 Library - Ultimate Frisbee - Collaborative Research - Playful - Semester in the West - Life of the Mind - Walla Walla - Whitman Undergraduate Conference - Interest House Community - Sweet Onions - Experiential Learning." Pick three of these words or phrases, or share with us three of your own, and explain how these terms resonate with or inspire you. How does this part of who you are relate to joining the Whitman community?
Sure, Ultimate Frisbee is cool, Whitman College. But when I get to campus, I'm starting a quidditch league.
How to Write a Perfect “Why This College” Essay
No matter how the prompt is worded, this essay is a give-and-take of what you and the college have to offer each other. Your job is to zoom in quickly to your main points, and to use precision and detail to sound sincere, excited, and authentic.
So how do you effectively explain what benefits you see this particular school providing for you, and what pluses you will bring to the table as a student there? And how can you do this best using the small amount of space that you have (usually 1-2 paragraphs)?
Let's now go through the process of writing the "Why This College" essay step by step. First, I'll talk about the prep work you'll need to do. Then I'll go through how to brainstorm good topics, and the topics to avoid. I'll give you some tips on transforming your ideas and research into an actual essay. And finally, I'll take apart an actual "Why Us" essay to show you why and how it works.
Step 1: Research
Before you can write about a school, you need to know specific things about what makes it stand out and appeal to you and your interests. So where do you look for these? And how do you find the detail that will speak to you?
In-Person Campus Visits
If you’re going on college tours, you’ve got the perfect opportunity to gather info. Bring a notepad with you, and write down:
- your tour guide’s name
- 1-2 funny, surprising, or enthusiastic things they say about the school
- any unusual features of the campus, like buildings, sculptures, layout, history, or traditions
Also, try to connect with students or faculty while you’re there. If you visit a class, write down which class and the professor’s name. See if you can briefly chat up a student (in the class you visit, around campus, or in the cafeteria) and ask what they like most about the school, or what has most surprised them about being there. Write down the answer! Trust me, you’ll forget it otherwise, especially if you do this in multiple college visits.
Virtual Campus Visits
If you can’t get to the campus of your target school in real life, the next best thing is an online tour either from the school’s own website, or from places like youniversitytv, campustours, or youtube (search "[school name] + tour").
You can also connect with students without visiting campus in person. Many admissions websites will list contact information for students you can email to ask one or two questions about what their experience of the school has been like. Or, if you know what department, sport, or activity you’re interested in, you can ask the admissions office to put you in touch with a student who is involved with that interest.
Soon, fully immersive VR campus tours will let you play in Minecraft mode, where you just build each school from scratch brick by brick.
Your Alumni Interview
If you have an interview, ask your interviewer questions about their experience at the school, and also about what going to that school has done for them since they graduated. As always, take notes.
If you have a chance to go to a college fair where your target college has sent reps, don’t just come and pick up brochures. Engage the reps in conversation and ask them questions about what they think makes the school unique, so you can jot down notes about any interesting details they tell you.
The College’s Own Materials
Colleges publish lots and lots of different kinds of things, any of which is useful for research. Here are some suggestions, all of which you should be able to find online.
Brochures and course catalogs. Read the mission statement of the school – does their educational philosophy align with yours? Read through college catalogs. Are there any programs, classes, departments, or activities that seem tailor-made for you in some way?
Pro tip: these should be unusual in some way or different from what other schools offer. For example, being fascinated with the English department isn’t going to cut it unless you can discuss its unusual focus, 1-2 exceptional professors, or the different way they structure the major that appeals to you specifically.
The alumni magazine. Are any professors highlighted? Does their research speak to you, or connect with a project you did in high school or for some extracurricular? Sometimes alumni magazines will highlight a college’s new focus or new expansion. Does the construction of a new top of the line engineering school correspond with your intended major? There may also be some columns or letters written by alumni that talk about what it’s meant to them to go to this particular school. What stands out about their experiences?
The campus newspaper. Students write about the hot issues of the day, which means that the articles will be about the best and worst things on campus. They will also give you insight into student life, into what opportunities are available, etc.
The college’s social media. Your target school is most likely on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media. Follow them to see what they are posting about. Exciting new campus development? Some professors in the news? Interesting events, clubs, or activities?
Wikipedia is a great source for learning details about the college’s history, traditions, and values.
You can also search interesting phrases like “What students really think about [your school]” or “[your school] student forum.” This will let you find for detail-heavy points of view, comments about specific programs or courses, and insight into student life.
Step 2: Brainstorming Topics
So what should you do now that you've done a bunch of research? Use it to develop connection points between you and your target school. These connections will be the skeleton of your essay.
Find the Gems in Your Research
You now have on hand all kinds of information, from your own personal experiences on campus, to your conversations with people affiliated with your target school, to what you learned from campus publications, to tidbits gleaned from the web.
Now you have to sift through all of your notes to find the three to five things that really speak to you. Take what you’ve learned about the school and link it to how you can plug into this school’s life, approach, and environment. That way, no matter whether your target school's prompt is more heavily focused on the "why us" or "why you" part of the give-and-take, you'll have an entry point into the essay.
What should these three to five things be? What should you keep in mind when you're looking for the gem that will become your topic? Here are some words of wisdom from Calvin Wise, the Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Johns Hopkins University:
Focus on what makes us unique and why that interests you. Do your research, and articulate a multi-dimensional connection to the specific college or university. We do not want broad statements (the brick pathways and historic buildings are beautiful) or a rehash of the information on our website (College X offers a strong liberal arts curriculum). All institutions have similarities. We want you to talk about our differences.
Time to find that diamond, amethyst, opal, tourmaline, or amber in the rough.
Check Your Gems for Color and Clarity
In other words, make sure that each of your three to five found things is something that your target school has that other schools don’t.
This something should be seen from your own perspective. The point isn't to generically praise the school, but instead to go into detail about why it’s so great for you that they have this thing.
This something you find should be meaningful to the school and specific to you. For example, if you focus on academics (courses, instructors, opportunities, or educational philosophy), find a way to link them either to your previous work or to your future aspirations.
This something should not be shallow and non-specific. Want to live in a city? Every city has more than one college in it. Find a way to explain why this specific college in this specific city calls to you. Like pretty architecture? Many schools are beautiful, so dwell on why this particular place feels unlike any other. Like good weather, beach, skiing, some other geographical thing? There are many schools located near these places, and they know that people enjoy sunbathing. Either build a deeper connection or skip these as reasons.
Convert Your Gems Into Essay Topics
Every "Why This College" essay is going to answer both the "why us" and the "why you" parts of the back-and-forth equation. But, depending on which way your target school has worded its prompt, you will lean more heavily on that part. This is why I’m going to split this brainstorming up in two, to go with the “why us” and “why you” types of questions.
Of course, since they are both sides of the same coin, you can always easily flip each of these ideas around in order to have it work well for the other type of prompt. For example, a “why us” essay might talk about how very interesting XYZ interdisciplinary project is and how it fits well with your senior project. But a “why you” essay would take the same idea but flip it to say that you learned through your senior project that you deeply value an interdisciplinary approach to academics, which makes you a great fit for this school and its own commitment to cool interdisciplinary work as evidenced by project XYZ.
Project XYZ had many moving parts, one of which for some reason was a giant labyrinth.
Possible “Why Us” Topics
- How a particular program of study/internship requirement/volunteer connection will help further your specific career goals.
- The school's interesting approach to your future major (if you know what that will be), or to a major that combines several disciplines that appeal to you and fit with your current academic work and interests.
- How the school handles financial aid and the infrastructure setup for low-income students, and what that means for you in terms of opening doors.
- A story about how you became interested in the school (if you learned about it in an interesting way). Did it host a high school contest you took part it? Feature a visual or performing art that you enjoyed and that you also do?
- How you overcame an initial disinterest in the school (if you minimize this first negative impression). Did you do more research? Interact with someone on campus? Learn about the school’s commitment to the community in some way? Learn about interesting research being done there?
- A positive interaction you had with current students, faculty, or staff, as long as this is more than just "Everyone I met was really nice."
- An experience you had on the campus tour. Super passionate tour guide? Interesting information that surprised you? Did something happen to transform your idea about the school or campus life (in a good way)?
- Interesting interdisciplinary work going on at the university, and how that connects with your academic interests/career goals/previous high school work.
- The history of the school, but only if it’s meaningful to you in some way. Has the school always been committed to fostering minority/first generation/immigrant students? Was it founded by someone you admire? Did it take an unpopular, but, to you, morally correct stance at some crucial moment in history?
- An amazing professor that you can’t wait to learn from. Is there a chemistry professor whose current research meshes with a science fair project you did? A professor who’s a renowned scholar on your favorite author/genre? A professor whose book on economics finally made you understand the most recent financial crisis?
- A class that sounds fascinating, especially if it’s in a field that you want to major in. Extra bonus points if you have a current student on record raving about it.
- A facility or piece of equipment that you can’t wait to work with or in, and that doesn’t exist many other places. A specialty library that has rare medieval manuscripts? An observatory? A fleet of boats?
- A required curriculum that appeals to you because it provides a solid grounding in the classics, it shakes up the traditional canon, connects all the students on campus in one intellectual project, or is taught in a unique way.
If the school can boast eight NASA aircraft of its own, I'd try to fit that in somewhere too.
Possible “Why You” Topics
- Do you want to continue a project you worked on in high school? Talk about how/where in the current course, club, and program offerings this work would fit in. Why will you be a good addition to the team?
- Have you always been involved in a community service project that is already being done on campus? Write about integrating life on campus with events in the surrounding community.
- Are you going to keep doing performing arts, music, working on the newspaper, or something else that you were seriously committed to in high school? Discuss how excited you are to join that existing organization.
- Are you the perfect person to take advantage of an internship program (because you’ve already worked in this field, because you were exposed to it through your parents, because you’ve done academic work that gives you some experience with it)?
- Are you the ideal candidate for a study abroad opportunity (because you speak the language of the country, because it’s a place where you’ve worked or studied before, because your career goals are international in some respect)
- Are you a standout match for an undergraduate research project (because you will major in this field, because you’ve always wanted to work with this professor, because you want to pursue research as a career option)?
- Is there something you were deeply involved with that doesn’t currently exist on campus? Offer to start a club for that thing. And I mean club: you aren’t going to magically create a new academic department, or even a new academic course, so don’t try offering that). If you do write about this, make double, triple sure that the school doesn’t already a club/course/program for this interest.
- 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?
- Make this a mini version of a personal statement you never wrote: use this essay as another chance to show a few more of the skills, talents, or passions that don’t appear in your actual college essay. What’s the runner-up interest that you didn’t write about? What opportunity, program, or offering at the school lines up with?
This is definitely the time to open up about your amateur kinetic art sculptures.
Possible Topics For a College That’s Not Your First Choice
- If you're writing about a school that you’re not completely psyched about, one way to sidestep the issue is to focus on what getting this degree will do for you in the future. How do you see yourself changing existing systems, helping others, or otherwise succeeding?
- Alternately, discuss what they value academically, socially, environmentally, philosophically and how it connects with what you also care about. A vegan, organic, and cruelty-free cafeteria? A relationship with a local farm or garden? De-emphasized fraternity involvement? Strong commitment to environmental issues? Lots of opportunities to contribute to the community surrounding the school? Active tolerance and inclusion for various minority groups?
- Try to find at least one or two things that you’re excited about for all the schools on your list. If you can’t think of a single reason why this would be a good place for you to go, maybe you shouldn’t be applying there.
Topics to Avoid
- Don’t write about the school's size, location, reputation, or the weather, unless it is the only one of its kind. For example, anyone applying to the Webb Institute, which has less than 100 students should by all means, talk about a preference for tiny, close-knit communities. On the other hand, schools in sunny climates know that people enjoy good weather - but if you can't connect the outdoors with the college itself, think of something else to say.
- Don’t talk about your sports fandom. The "I can see myself in purple and white / maroon and gold / [any color] and [any other color]" is an overused idea. After all, you could cheer for the team without going to the school. So unless you are an athlete or an aspiring mascot performer, or have a truly one of a kind story to tell about your link to the team, try a different tack.
- Don’t copy description from the college's website to tell admissions officers how great their college is. They don’t want to hear praise; they want to hear how you connect with their school. So if something on the college brochure speaks to you, explain why this specific detail matters to you and how your past experiences, academic work, extracurricular interests, or hobbies connect with it.
- Don’t use college rankings as a reason for why you want to go to a school. Of course prestige matters, but schools that are ranked right next to each other on the list are at about the same level of prestige. What makes you choose one over the other?
- If you decide to write about a future major, don’t just talk about what you want to study and why. Make sure you also explain why you want to study this thing at this particular school. What do they do differently that other colleges don’t?
- Don’t wax poetic about the school’s pretty campus. “From the moment I stepped on your campus, I knew it was the place for me” is another cliché – and another way to say basically nothing about why you actually want to go to this particular school. Lots of schools are pretty, and many are pretty in the exact same way.
Pop quiz: this pretty Gothic building is on what college campus? Yup, that's right - could be anywhere.
Step 3: Nailing the Execution
When you've put together the ideas that will make up your answer to the "why us" question, it's time to build them into a memorable essay. Here are some tips for doing that successfully:
Jump right in. The essay is short, so there's no need for an introduction or conclusion. Spend the first paragraph delving into your best one or two reasons for applying. Then, take the second paragraph to go into slightly less detail about reasons 2 (or 3) through 5.
To thine own self be true. Write in your own voice and be sincere about what you’re saying. Believe me, the reader can tell when you mean it and when you’re just blathering.
Details, details, details. Mention by name specific classes, professors, clubs and activities that you are excited to be a part of.
If you plan on attending if admitted, say so. Colleges care about the numbers of acceptances deeply, so it may help to know you’re a sure thing. But don’t write this if you don’t mean it!
Don’t cut and paste the same essay for every school. Either al least once you’ll forget to change the school name or some telling detail, or else your vague and cookie-cutter reasoning will sound bland and forgettable.
You can also check out our more general step-by-step essay-writing advice.
Cookie cutters: great for dough, terrible for college applications.
Example of a Great “Why This College” Essay
At this point, it'll be helpful to take a look at a “why us” essay that works and figure out what the author did to create a meaningful answer to this challenging question.
Here is a "Why Tufts" Essay from James Gregoire '19 for Tufts University.
It was on my official visit with the cross country team that I realized Tufts was the perfect school for me. Our topics of conversation ranged from Asian geography to efficient movement patterns, and everyone spoke enthusiastically about what they were involved in on campus. I really related with the guys I met, and I think they represent the passion that Tufts' students have. I can pursue my dream of being a successful entrepreneur by joining the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society, pursuing an Entrepreneurial Leadership minor, and taking part in an up-and-coming computer science program.
Why Does This Essay Work?
Interaction with current students. James writes about hanging out with the cross country team and sounds excited about meeting them.
“I’m a great fit.” He uses the conversation with the cross country guys to talk about his own good fit here (“I really related with the guys I met”).
Why the school is special. James also uses the conversation as a way to show that he enjoys the variety of opportunities Tufts offers (their fun conversation covers Asian geography, movement patterns, other things they “were involved with on campus”).
Taking advantage of this specialness. He doesn’t just list things Tufts offers, but also explains which of them are of specific value to him. He’s interested in being an entrepreneur, so the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society and the Entrepreneurial Leadership courses appeal to him.
Awareness of what the school is up to. Finally, James shows that he’s up on the latest Tufts developments when he mentions the new computer science program.
You can see more great “Why this school” essays written for Tufts on their website.
The Bottom Line
- The “why this college essay” is looking for three things:
- To make sure you understand what makes their college different and special
- To make sure you will be a good fit in their college
- To make that this college will be a good fit for you
- The prompt may be phrased in one of two ways, “why us?” or “why you?”, but these are sides of the same coin and will be addressed in your essay regardless of the prompt style.
- Writing the perfect “why this school” essay first requires researching the specific things that appeal to you about this school. You can find this information by:
- Visiting campuses in person or virtually to interact with current students and faculty
- Asking questions from your college interviewer or from reps at college fairs
- The college’s own materials like their brochures and website, their alumni magazine, campus newspaper, or their social media
- Other sites on the internet
- To find a topic to write about, find the three to five things that really speak to you about the school and then link each of them yourself, your interests, your goals, and your strengths.
- Avoid writing about clichés that could be true for any school, like architecture, geography, weather, or sports fandom. Instead, focus on the details that differentiate your target school from all the others.
Are you also working on your personal statement? If you're using the Common App, check out completely breakdown of the Common App prompts and our guide to picking the best prompt for you.
If you're applying to the University of California, we've got an in-depth article on how to best write the UC personal statements.
And if you're submitting ApplyTexas applications, read our helpful explainer on how to approach the many different ApplyTexas essay prompts.
In the middle of the rest of the college application process? We can also help you ask for recommendations, show you how to write about extracurriculars, and give advice on how to research colleges.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
I (Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy) love it when articles and conference presentations offer a few take-away gems. But why not just create a presentation with *only* the gems, I thought? So I reached out to some of my favorite counselors and asked for their best essay tips and—voila!—this document came into existence. I’m grateful to the following folks for making important contributions to this article: Evelyn Alexander, Casey Rowley, Piotr Dabrowski, Chris Reeves, Susan Dabbar, Noah Kagan, Devon Sawyer, Josh Stephens, Lisa Kateri Gilbode, Randolf Arguelles.
Problem 1: How can I build rapport with my students more quickly?
1-Minute Solution: On your intake form, ask students to name a band or musician they're listening to lately. Then, when they come in for their one-on-one session, have that artist playing on Pandora.
Pro-Tip: Get Pandora One for just $3.99/mo to avoid getting interrupted by annoying ads.
Another idea: Ask a more interesting question than “How are you?” when you’re first checking in with a student. For example, “What are you celebrating today?” or “What mixed emotions are you experiencing at this moment?”
For more ideas, check out this list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions.
Problem 2: How can I keep students engaged during a three-day essay boot camp (and even get kids to talk about my sessions long after the fact)?
1-Minute Solution: Invest in great snacks. “Chocolate is a must,” says Chris Reeves, “and a Costco or Sam's Club membership can be key. Last year,” he adds, “I found Hot Fries to be pretty epic with the guys.”
Pro Tip: Ask attendees if they have allergies. If so, research the best snacks that won't kill anyone.
Another idea: Myers-Briggs (MBTI) mini-session
During multi-day essay workshops, I (Ethan) like to break things up after lunch on the second day with a mini Myers-Briggs assessment. How? First, I’ll introduce MBTI—what it is, how it was developed. Then I’ll give students a brief Myers-Briggs assessment by going through the preferences and having them self-select as they look at this chart. (I do this with lots of jokes and personal examples.) Next I’ll have them go to www.16personalities.com, take a brief assessment, and see what resonates. We spend 10 minutes or so on this, as it’s a great energizer, then we dive back into the essay work.
Problem 3: What are some ways to beat writer’s block?
1-Minute Solution: 4 ways to break free:
1. Move: Put on your headphones, blast your favorite tunes and talk a walk. Rake some leaves. Shake it loose with movement. Remember physics? Momentum will create new energy.
2. Play: Toss a ball with a friend. Color in one of those cool adult coloring books, grab a hunk of clay and mold something. Get dirty and tactile.
3. Motivate: As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her TED talk, you’ve got to sit down at the keyboard and invite the muse to show up. In short, don’t wait for your moment of inspiration; create it. Or give your perfectionism a rest and give yourself permission to “get a B+”.
4. Freewrite: Don’t necessarily start at the beginning and try not to overthink things. Do think randomly. Begin with a raw, non-linear, brain-dump. Or try writing morning pages. If writing or typing slows you down, use a dictation app like Dragon.
Problem 4: I just want to record a quick video (for example, to show a student where to click on a particular website) but I don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a camera, etc.
1-Minute Solution: Use Jing to record a quick video of your screen, then share it via Screencast.com. Jing is here. Or record directly from your Mac using QuickTime (no download needed)! To record from Mac: Open your Applications folder to find QuickTime (or use Spotlight). Once it's open, go to File > New Screen Recording and then click the Record button. You can choose between recording a portion of your screen or the entire screen. QuickTime tutorial is here.
Problem 5: Sometimes I just want to explain something quickly but I'm afraid it will take me too long to type it out and I'd rather not schedule a whole session with a student to explain a small thing. What should I do?
1-Minute Solution: See above! Record notes via video and then share it via Google Drive.
Problem 6: I have a student who seems to forget everything we talk about in our sessions. What can I do?
1-Minute Solution: Refer that student to another counselor! (Kidding.) Try Skype Call Recorder. Record the session in dual screen and then drag the file into a Google Drive folder with that student’s name on it, so that student can go back and remember what you discussed. You can record sessions remotely or in person.
Heads-up: This will start to take up a lot of space, so you’ll want to be diligent about dragging those files onto a separate hard drive and deleting them from your computer.
Bonus tip: One back-up drive isn’t enough. You need a back-up drive for your back-up drive that doesn’t live in the same place as your first back-up (i.e. your home/office). Keep a second back-up of your files elsewhere—perhaps on the Cloud. I recommend getting two of these. They’re inexpensive and haven’t failed me. I also back everything up on Google Drive.
Problem 7: I’m worried about liability with my students. We get pretty personal and I’m not 100% certain what might happen, but I just want to cover myself.
1-Minute Solution: Record your sessions. How? As mentioned above, record remote sessions via Skype Call Recorder or in-person sessions with the Quicktime method.
Problem 8: Sending drafts back and forth via microsoft word seems to take too long. (OR) I’m tired of typing in all caps.
1-Minute Solution: Are you using Google docs (aka Google Drive) yet? Maybe. But are you really using it? Here are three things you may not be doing:
- Restoring an earlier version of a document.
- Changing your status from “Editing” to “Suggesting” in the upper right corner.
- Typing with your voice. (Really, Google docs does that? Yup.)
Click here for seven more Google docs hacks that teachers (and counselors!) should know, including How to Create and Organize a Table of Contents.
Problem 9: How can I help keep students from missing sessions or coming without homework finished?
1-Minute Solution: Set up text reminders with AppToto.
Problem 10: How can I help my students avoid cliché language?
Idea #1: When you re-reading an essay draft, highlight all the clichés. Take as long as you need to replace them with expressions of your own phrasing. Even if your phrasing doesn't seem as "clever" or "eloquent," the essay will instantly become stronger and more genuine.
Idea #2: Imagine that your nemesis—your worst enemy, your ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, your grade-school bully—is reading your essay. Highlight the parts that they would pick up on as being unconvincing, confusing, not credible, melodramatic, or disingenuous. Then strengthen it accordingly by making it more honest, more clear, more realistic, and more grounded.
Problem 11: How do I let students know that they are driving this process and I am the navigator?
1-Minute Solution: Lisa Kateri Gilbode gives each student a set of pilot wings. “They become sort of like their superhero capes,” she says, “And when we meet they wear their wings and it reminds them that they are in the lead.” Get sets of 10 pilot wings on Amazon for $18.88.
Problem 12: How can I be sure I'm listening more than talking in my one-on-one sessions with students?
1-Minute Solution: Along with their pilot wings, Lisa’s Gilbode’s students get a cricket clicker and because they are in the lead they get to click it when I do more of the talking and less listening. Get 12 clickers on Amazon for $7.71.
Problem 13: How can I help parents feel they have contributed during the essay-writing process but still keep healthy boundaries?
1-Minute Solution: At the start of the process, have parents complete a set of parent homework questions, which offers them a chance to feel heard and, in some cases, dump all of their hopes and fears. Then ask: Anything else? Then say (to those parents who want to be CC'd on drafts): “Sorry, we don’t do that, as we worry about too many cooks in the kitchen” (OR) “we like to make sure the student is really in the driver’s seat.” Then say, “I’d love to give the student a chance to work on the essays for a while with me, and we’ll check back in for feedback once the essays are in a good place and the student is ready.” Note that this questionnaire can be just 10 good questions long.
Pro Tip: I (Ethan) give parents the Values Exercise and have them complete it, then say, “Once finished, please list the top three values that you’d like to impart to your son/daughter, with a brief explanation.” Why do this? It 1) can help parents feel more connected to the process, 2) offers parents a sense of what exercises their student will be doing, 3) sometimes sparks neat conversations within the family.
Problem 14: I’m an independent counselor and I want more people to know about me and the great work I do with my students!
1-Minute Solution: Check out Sujan Patel’s “100 Days of Growth” PDF. For the first 26 pages, click here. To purchase the rest for $27 (and it’s worth much, much more), click here.
Problem 15: I’m an independent counselor and I really have no idea if my marketing is working or not!
1-Minute Solution: Do you have as many clients as you want? Great, you’re done! If not, use Dorie Clark’s Recognized Expert Evaluation Toolkit, which has great ideas for creating content, establishing social proof, and building your network, plus it has a self-assessment to help you rate how you’re doing.
Problem 16: How do I get my students to show and not tell?
1-Minute Solution: Have your students write down a list of adjectives that they want the colleges to know about themselves. Then tell the students they are not allowed to use those adjectives in their personal statements. Instead, make them tell stories that will force the reader to conclude that the students have those qualities. This takes practice, but great writing is rewriting.
Problem 17: How do my students know if their personal statement is personal enough?
1-Minute Solution: (Speaking to a student) Get together with a group of friends after you've written your first drafts of personal statements. Don't put the authors' names on the drafts. Mix them up and pass them around. Your friends should be able to tell which draft you wrote. If they can’t, your personal statement may not be personal enough.
Problem 18: I want to show my students good examples of personal statements, but I don't want to show them college application personal statements because I’m concerned they might just copy the structure and content of the examples. Where can I tell them to look for good examples of non-college app personal statements?
1-Minute Solution: Check out NPR’s This I Believe.
Pro-Tip: Some teens like the piece by pro skateboarder Tony Hawk.
Problem 19: How can I get my procrastinating student(s) to focus for just 25 minutes on an essay draft?
1-Minute Solution: Have them download the Tomato One app, which is a simple timer that counts down from 25 minutes. It dings, then gives a five-minute break, then counts down another 25 minutes. Note that this has been responsible for all of my most productive days.
Problem 20: How can I liven up a boring/CLICHÉ essay topic?
1-Minute Solution: Play the UC (Uncommon Connections) Game. All will be explained on that page.
Problem 21: How can I improve an essay in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Look at this Values Exercise and ask these three questions:
- Which values are coming through really clearly in the essay?
- Which values are kind of coming through but could be coming through more clearly?
- Which values aren’t there yet but could be?
For more: Watch the Great College Essay Test.
Problem 22: How do I get students to come up with interesting topics for the “intellectual vitality” supplemental essay (for Stanford, and other schools)?
1-Minute Solution: Check out this Google spreadsheet with every TED talk ever. Have students search for topics that interest them (e.g. neuroscience, climate change) and then binge watch some TED talks.
Problem 23: Tired of pestering a student who won’t respond to deadlines and is constantly making excuses?
1-Minute Solution: Outsource the pestering by hiring a personal coach via Coach.me. For as little as $65/mo, the student gets unlimited emails and in-app communication. This has positively changed the game for a couple of my students—and either you can suggest it to parents and let them pay the cost or work it into your fee, as I do (it’s worth it!). I recommend Kendra.
Problem 24: The majority of my students are overseas and work with me online. How do I create a welcoming environment when we are not working in person?
1-Minute Solution: On the intake form, ask where their happy place is. Where does the student feel most empowered, comfortable and/or creative? Then use green-screen technology to create that space in my location. How? Use Zoom Meeting Pro which has built-in chromakey technology ($14.95/mo for a single host). You can also use WeVideo, which is a bit more finicky, but some students overseas don't have the power to support Zoom.
Here are some how-to videos:
Problem 25: What do I do when a student is incredibly anxious about essays/college admissions/testing, etc?
A. Check-in at the beginning of the meeting. Often we have a small window to meet with students and when they come in we’re not really sure where they are mentally before diving into a conversation about their future, which often involves heavy self-reflection/decision making. It can be incredibly helpful to “check-in” with a student for literally 30 seconds to see where they are mentally.
B. Stop Breathe Think is an app and website with short meditation and mindfulness resources. On their homepage you can complete a few questions and add your mood/feelings and it will give you suggestions on everything from gratitude, to short meditations, breathing and journaling. I’ll ask a student to do one of these exercises between now and the next time we meet and then I’ll follow up with their experience.
C. Listen to the most relaxing song ever. Or click here for a guided meditation I created using that song as background.
Problem 26: How can I improve every essay workshop I give… in just one minute?
1-Minute Solution: Spend one minute answering these three questions:
- What do I want them to know?
- What do I want them to feel?
- What do I want them to do?
And that’s just what I did for this article… I wanted you to know a wide range of tools, tips and tricks. I wanted you to feel informed, energized and inspired. I wanted you to return to your work with more ease, purpose and joy.
So go do that now.
Here are a few more contributions shared at the IECA Conference in May, 2017:
- Spread comfy pillows on the floor of your office!
- Ask students to pick three (and only three!) people to receive feedback from.
- Write three drafts and ALWAYS start fresh each time.
- Turn on the voice memo feature on your phone and just let the student talk. Then give them the audio and say, “Go write that down.”
- For students who feel they can’t write *anything*, have them write for one minute, then count the words they wrote and ask, “Could we do a few more in the next minute?” Build little wins.
- Have the student list their superhero characteristics. (Student is the superhero.)
- My favorite: Use the visual mind-mapping tool called coggle.it , which helps students create an outline in just a few minutes.