Most schools ask their applicants to expand on why they’re interested in applying to X school in particular. That’s what we call a “Why us?” essay.

But this question is like a “Why us?” essay … with a twist. 

That’s because this prompt flips the “Why us?” question format on its head. At first glance, it seems to be asking “why you?” By that, we mean that it’s asking you to elaborate on what makes you a good fit for Johns Hopkins (not what makes Johns Hopkins a good fit for you). It’s asking you to reflect on a community (or multiple communities) that you’re a part of and then link that to the university.

Before you start writing, we recommend checking out this complete guide on how to write the “Why us?” essay. Pay close attention to the “Why Cornell” and “Why Penn” examples, which are our favorites. Think about how you can incorporate those communities you initially brainstormed into the first part of your essay. That will give your reader a sense of where you’re coming from and how it relates to the interests you want to pursue at Johns Hopkins.

As you write, try to avoid these common mistakes: 

Mistake #1: Writing about the school’s size, location, reputation, weather, or ranking.

Mistake #2: Simply using emotional language to demonstrate fit.

Mistake #3: Screwing up the mascot, stadium, team colors or names of any important people or places on campus.

Mistake #4: Parroting the brochures or website language.

Mistake #5: Describing traditions the school is well-known for.

Mistake #6: Thinking of this as only a “Why them” essay

Here’s a nice example essay (note that it was written for last year’s prompt, but it would still work well for this year’s).

Example 1:

Decode “jpwoly”

Two years ago, I began an all-girls Cybersecurity team, competing in the national Girls Go Cyberstart competition. It seems obvious that a group of people with varied backgrounds and experiences could generate better ideas on keeping personal information safe, yet cybersecurity is one of the least diverse STEM fields – in 2017, it was 11% female. Sometimes when the community you want doesn’t exist, it means creating your own.

During the competition, we four girls spent a week completing hundreds of challenges in cryptography, web analysis, Linux, python, steganography, and more. We quickly realized that though we lacked experience in Cybersecurity, our differing interests and abilities in math or coding were our greatest strength. We delegated many challenges, myself taking cryptography and becoming the resident expert on SQL injections. At the end of Day 1, we were ranked 20th in Colorado, determined to work our way up. We spent far too many hours in our computer science classroom, hogging computers and insisting we just wanted to finish one more challenge.

By week’s end, we’d won our state competition and placed ninth nationally. We used the cash prize to form a cybersecurity club, focusing on getting more girls involved. I’m excited that we’re building a community of girls interested in STEM and cybersecurity – this past year, we had 50 girls competing in Girls Go. 

The original team of four collaborated not only with each other during the competition, but also by encouraging interaction among our peers to grow the program. This kind of collaboration is something that excites me about Johns Hopkins—collaboration that fosters new ideas and solutions to problems, especially through interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m fascinated by biomedical research, and would love the opportunity to do undergraduate research, specifically on cancer. I’d like to work in the Sidney Kimmel Center in lung cancer research, with Shyam Sundar Biswal, as he is doing fascinating research about susceptibility to environmental lung diseases. I’ve done some work with dysplasia and how it is affected by carcinogens, and would like to learn more in this area. Outside of science, I’m also interested in the Peabody school’s dance program. The focus the program places on how dance and science interact allows me to explore two different aspects of my life and how they work together, as well as interact with two different groups of people.  

By the way, “jpwoly” decodes to “cipher”.

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Tips + Analysis:

  1. Connect to your values. Through the story of the author’s cybersecurity club, we get a sense that diversity and inclusion in STEM deeply matter to her. Notice that she doesn’t just state the problem; she uses a statistic to give it context and urgency: “in 2017, it was 11% female.” Then she follows up with this gem to show how she feels about taking action: “Sometimes when the community you want doesn’t exist, it means creating your own.” Big(weld) applause.

  2. Maybe get a little geeky. “Cryptography, web analysis, Linux, python, steganography, SQL injections.” These are not terms the average Joanne throws around. They denote some intimate knowledge of coding and programming, allowing this student to demonstrate her command of the subject matter. Note how she uses this language in just a sentence or two. There’s a fine line between showing your expertise and seeming braggy, so do this sparingly, if at all. 

  3. Connect collaboration back to JHU. This student uses the latter third of her essay to basically do a mini “Why Johns Hopkins.” Since the prompt asks “how X has shaped what you want to get out of your college experience at Hopkins,” make sure to let them know! And since JHU doesn’t ask explicitly for a “Why us?” essay like many schools do, this strategy may give you the opportunity to show that you and Johns Hopkins are a great fit, and how deeply you “get” this particular school. 

Let’s take a look at another example this was actually written for another school, but the lessons below it still apply):

Example 2: 

The Indian subcontinent has millions of celebrations and traditions among different groups of people. So, after moving to America, my parents found it difficult to adjust to the loneliness and lack of culture that characterized their daily lives. Wanting to ensure that their children remembered their culture and homeland, my parents celebrated the holidays we missed. They would cook bhaji and batata vada, invite people over, take us to community gatherings, and share their memories of India and their childhood. When we celebrated Holi, I’d throw colored powder at my friends; for Diwali, we’d light lamps and use sparklers; for Ganesh Chaturthi, we’d go to the temple in Livermore and make modaks. 

At Caltech, I am excited to bring a piece of home to school and share these rich traditions with my friends—while encouraging them to share theirs as well. By introducing my Caltech friends to my homeland’s celebrations and rituals, I hope to expand their worldview while educating them on Indian culture. By joining OASIS, I intend to drag my friends to the festivals on campus, not only to encourage them to embrace Indian culture but also to have fun. We’ll celebrate Holi with rainbows of colors brightening the campus and symbolizing hope, or even Dandiya, as the forceful sound of the dandiya sticks hitting each other resonate through the buildings. I’d call the second Tuesday of the month Tandoori Tuesday, with students bringing different dishes, like chicken and broccoli marinated with yogurt, masala, and lemon. The dishes are supposed to be baked in a tandoori clay oven, but for our purposes, a toaster will suffice. I’ll share pani puri and pav bhaji with students of varying backgrounds and ethnicities, while “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” blasts from the stereo. I would be especially psyched to start a club focused on watching Bollywood movies every month while encouraging members to memorize the choreography of the songs. 

To me, diversity is less about being different and more about sharing these differences with those around you. That is what I hope to bring to Caltech: not just my Indian culture, but the small differences that make me unique. By sharing my personality, and the culture my parents painstakingly taught me, I will contribute to the diversity of campus life. 

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Tips + Analysis:

  1. Engage all the senses. Notice how, especially in the first paragraph, the author uses visceral details to hook the reader. We get descriptions of community holidays, cooking traditions, and activities that the author associates with her Indian heritage. Before she explains how her connection to this culture will enable her to thrive in college, she does a great job of putting us in a position to understand the value it’s brought to her life. Using vivid descriptions that engage all five senses can make your reader more invested in your story and the identities you hold dear. Try our Essence Objects Exercise for inspiration. 

  2. Connect to your future at JHU. After you’ve created a distinct sense of what community or part of your identity you want to talk about, it’s important to connect that to the resources at Johns Hopkins. For instance, in this essay the author talks about joining OASIS, making traditional Indian dishes for her friends, and starting her own Bollywood dance club. Writing a second paragraph like this is critical because it helps your reader understand how your outside interests, influences, and values would manifest themselves in the JHU community. Show how you intersect with the opportunities the school offers and how you might expand on them. Remember, this is a “Why us?” essay in disguise, so you need to spend some time researching the school and seeing what it offers  that interests you before you jump into writing.

  3. Again, emphasize your values. This essay asks you to grapple with very important and influential parts of your life. No matter what you choose to write about, it should be meaningful to you because it’s something that should have shaped the person you are and who you want to become. Because the topic is so personal, your values should shine through clearly in every sentence you write. In this essay, the author makes it abundantly clear that she values family, tradition, interpersonal connection, and creativity through the details she chooses to talk about. Our Values Exercise brainstorming activity can help you identify on your core values. After you’ve written your first draft, go back through and see if you can locate your values in what you’ve written. If not, think about how you can clarify them for readers. Doing so will give them a better sense of who you are as a whole and what you might uniquely add to their campus as a prospective student.

Special thanks to Nicole for contributing to this post.