These are both fairly standard “Why us?” prompts, but as the following guide explains, you’ll want to be sure to think of this not simply as “Why them?” but as “Why us?”—as in you + the school—and why you’d be a great fit together.  One way we sometimes joke about this is to think about the essay as though you’re helping the school understand why your online dating profile and its online dating profile are perfect for each other, and how you’d probably make great partners.

The difference is that the first prompt focuses on academics/intellectual stuff; the second focuses on everything else (extracurriculars, etc.). 

With the first prompt, something useful to note is that it isn’t purely a “Why us?” question—it opens asking about you and how you discovered your interests. We’d recommend splitting the word count. You can use some of the beginning to get into the origins of your interests. Explore what you believe in and care about, what has shaped you. Then, link to specific elements of Penn that will allow you to continue exploring.

Always be sure to answer the question the prompt asks—the second prompt is a “Why us?” regarding Penn’s community. What specific elements intrigue you? Show the admission officers how you have reflected on how you’ve come to be the human you are, how Penn can help you become the human being you want to continue growing to be, and how you hope to impact others in Penn’s community.

Penn’s website offers many videos charting different Penn students’ experiences. Exploring them may give you a clearer sense of what elements specific to Penn excite or intrigue you.

One important caveat—if you’re also completing one of the dual-degree or specialized program prompts for Penn, the school specifies that you “please answer these [“Why us?”] questions in regard to your single-degree school choice; your interest in the coordinated dual-degree or specialized program may be addressed through the program-specific essay.”

For a complete guide to the “Why us?” essays, click here. Here’s a condensed version:

Step #1: Do your research.

Step #2: Use this chart to map out your research.

Step #3: Decide on your approach:

Approach #1: The Basic, Solid “Why us?” Essay That Includes a Bunch of Reasons

Here’s an outline for a basic, solid “Why us?” essay:

  1. Clear thesis that names the academic area(s) you want to pursue and maybe charts the path of the essay

  2. Main reason #1 and 3-4 specific details

  3. Main reason #2 and 3-4 specific details

  4. Main reason #3 and 3-4 specific details

  5. An ending that maybe discusses what you’ll give back

Approach #2: The “3-5 Unique Offerings” Strategy

Find 3-5 opportunities that are particular to the school (i.e., available at no other school or no other school you’re applying to) and connect each one back to you.

Approach #3: The “One Value” Strategy

How it works: Identify one core value that links you to the school and tell a story.

  1. Find a way in which you and the school are deeply aligned.

  2. Take your time crafting the essay.

  3. Find a way to be vulnerable.

Could I create a hybrid approach by focusing on a central theme, but still listing a few reasons?

Yup. 

Let’s look at some examples:

UPenn Supplemental Essay Example: Prompt #1

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words)

Whether proving the Pythagorean theorem or delving into a 13th century Spanish poem, I revel in patterns. I look beneath the numbers and words on the page to understand their history: millennia of mathematical genius that contributed to a formula, contact of two cultures that forever altered the structure of a language, or an economic graph that really represents a mocha fad in Philadelphia.

The presence of patterns in language has always fascinated me. Every word we speak bears the burden of ancient wars, socioeconomic disparity, and lost traditions, and continues to affect the lives of citizens today. In the Venezuelan refugee crisis, independence protests in Cataluña, and indigenous inequality in Mexico, language poses a barrier to international productivity.

Language has also posed a barrier in my own life, in my relationship with my grandmother. While at Wharton, I want to take advantage of the fact that Penn is one of the only institutions to offer classes in Gujarati. I hope to learn my family’s heritage language and gain a deeper understanding of global linguistic diversity. 

The summer before senior year, I had a window into linguistic studies at Penn while interning at the Cultural Evolution of Language Lab. I was exposed to psychology and cognitive linguistics by researching thematic relationships formed in the brain, and in a project about  bilingual code-switching, I had the opportunity to design my own artificial language. I was able to create the language patterns that had intrigued me for years. 

After studying linguistic theory and the origins of Hispanic dialects around the world, I have come to realize that my interests lie in the applications of language. That’s where Wharton comes in. By using my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese culture to analyze economic case studies in Latin America, I hope to merge my language skills with my fascination for economic policy. 

The interdisciplinary nature of the Wharton curriculum epitomizes that combination. By studying international negotiations and participating in simulations to derive economic theory, I hope to develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills necessary to understand the deep complexities of societies around the world. I plan to follow the Business Economics Track in the Business Economics & Public Policy concentration, and pursue a secondary concentration in Global Analysis. In classes like Nations, Politics and Markets and Consumers, Firms & Markets in Developing Countries, I will gain a political and cultural perspective of international economics. 

I also plan to continue my high school experiences studying Spanish by pursuing a minor in Latin American Studies from the College. I look forward to the course Diplomacy in the Americas in the Penn Model OAS Program, where I will get to combine my interests in Latin American culture, community service, and contemporary politics.

At Wharton, a linguist-geek like myself will find a home where students work together to make a change in a complicated world.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Use clear, direct structural elements. The hook, particularly the 13th century Spanish poetry reference, gets us curious about who this student is and how her brain works. It also immediately sets up a focus of the essay—patterns and language. There’s a clear thesis in the fifth paragraph that directly links the elements of discovery in the previous paragraphs with UPenn and how it will allow her to continue to enhance her exploration. Each paragraph has a clear topic sentence, so even if the reader is reading quickly or skimming, they’ll have a clear sense of where she’s heading. And it closes with a quick conclusion.

  2. Show you’ve done your research. The latter part of the body discusses specific classes and programs the school offers and how they connect to what the student wants to pursue. We get the feeling that she isn’t applying simply because the school is on a ranking list somewhere or that she just skimmed some basic information, but rather that she has taken the time to think about what UPenn offers and how that fits what she wants in an education.

  3. Connect details about the school to your values. We often call this the “so what” element of the essay—don’t just tell UPenn admission officers how great their school is (they know). Get into why those details connect to some of your core values by reflecting on what they will allow you to pursue or explore, and why those things matter to you. Bonus points if you can link details that excite you about the school to things you’ve already done, as the student above does by the Cultural Evolution of Language Lab.

  4. Show us your intellect through your exploration and curiosity. Lines like, “Every word we speak bears the burden of ancient wars, socioeconomic disparity, and lost traditions, and continues to affect the lives of citizens today,” show us that this student has spent time exploring this on a much deeper level than most people tend to.

Here’s the other essay this student wrote:

UPenn Supplemental Essay Example: Prompt #2

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classrooms, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)

Herding sheep at Washington Crossing Historic Park was my first window into the effects of climate change. Extreme summers forced the sheep to lay lethargically in an 18th century barn as their pastures wilted. Driven to make a difference in climate change awareness at my school, I joined the environmental club, EnAct, and organized a state-wide climate change conference. I tended to the school’s hens after joining the Garden Apprenticeship Program, and I organized book drives, beach sweeps, and trail cleanups while leading the Service Learning committee. 

But, I yearn to impact the community beyond one-time initiatives. 

At Penn, I want to make long-term, institutional change that will resonate for future generations. As a member of the Penn Environmental Group, I will campaign for the elimination of #6 plastics on campus and help organize GreenFest. I will learn the art of sustainable design through projects like the student-led Climate Action Plan. My experiences leading the Service Learning Committee and EnAct give me the unique perspective of environmentalism through a community lens. Collaborating with a diverse group of peers with unique interests, I will work towards making a dent in what I feel is the largest obstacle facing our generation.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

A lot of the same ideas from the first essay apply here.

  1. Use clear, direct structural elements. The hook gets us curious both about the student (you’ve been herding sheep?), and about how this connects to UPenn (we have faith she’ll get to the link, provided it doesn’t take too long).

  2. Show how you’ll engage in the future through how you’ve engaged before. The first paragraph shows some nice elements of previous community engagement—driven by some of the student’s core values—that then link to how the student plans to continue that engagement within the Penn community. This shows she’s spent time researching the school and contemplating how she and the school fit together. The connection to core values also increases the reader’s confidence that the student will actually follow through on this at Penn.

  3. Show parts of who you are through showing your values. As mentioned above, the author shows elements of identity through the values that have driven past engagement and will drive future engagement.

Here’s another pair of examples for these prompts:

UPenn Supplemental Essay Example: Prompt #1

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words)

At heart, I’m both regulatory bureaucrat and capitalistic entrepreneur. 

Coming from a small business-owning family, I’ve grown up finding ways to one-up the competition, from boosting website search ranking with unconventional SEO to negotiating with book suppliers to cut costs. After all, our rent depends on our profits. 

However, I also hold enormous respect for regulation. I vividly remember seeing my second grade classmate Nelson sprawled on the asphalt in front of the Chinese school we both attended, accidentally run over by his teacher. I later discovered that afterschool was unlicensed: no safety training, no inspections, nothing. Years later, when my mother opened her own afterschool business, I filed the licensing documents and installed government-mandated guardrails. Nelson reminds me that, though burdensome, regulation is crucial. 

The afterschool industry taught me the inseparability of business and policy, but also sparked my curiosity concerning how political economics can leverage that relationship for maximal social benefit. In my Democratic Party internship, I examined how to incentivize below-market-rate housing construction without reducing overall supply. At FBLA Nationals, I delivered a presentation on management practices to reduce oil spills, increasing profits while meeting environmental standards.

Penn strikes me as a school surprisingly similar to the afterschool industry: an environment where practical learning occurs through doing and where business and policy can be explored in tandem.

Penn’s interdisciplinary nature allows me to dive deep into politics while applying business to civics through the Wharton BEPP concentration. As State Chair of CAYPA, I’ve struggled with effectively lobbying businesses, so I’m eager to research Corporate Reputational Dynamics under Professor Abito, investigating the impact of different social activism strategies on business self-regulation. I haven’t seen such research anywhere outside Wharton. Further, Penn’s one-university system would allow me to take non-Wharton classes like Free Speech & Censorship. I’m looking forward to discussions amid the 2020 election, especially debating whether social media hate speech deserves First Amendment protections.

I’m drawn to Penn as a school which will challenge me to apply concepts to current events, as even foundational classes like ACCT102 are taught through case studies and simulations. I saw Penn’s emphasis on practical application during a dialogue with Professor van Bethem, who has already altered my stance on compliance credit trading by contextualizing in terms of environmental policy. I’m excited to merge my FBLA business management background with my CAYPA social advocacy experience through Wharton Impact Venture Associates, a practical, social-impact focused marriage of business and civics (though I believe activism regarding when not to invest is equally effective to compel social progress).

Whether I become a leader in the afterschool industry or an elected official regulating it, I know Penn will enable this Capitalist Bureaucrat to catalyze purposeful impact.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Again, use clear, direct structural elements. Notice how the first line performs a few functions here: It pulls us in—we’re curious what exactly the student means by this claim, plus it shows some of his personality—and there’s a slight wry humor to the juxtaposition. Again, this essay has clear topic sentences, a clear focus in each paragraph, and a clear conclusion, which bookends the essay succinctly and effectively.

  2. Show you’ve done your research. The latter part of the body discusses specific classes and programs that the school offers and how they connect to what the student wants to pursue. We get the feeling that the student isn’t applying simply because the school is on a ranking list somewhere or that he just skimmed some basic information, but rather has taken the time to think about what UPenn offers and how that fits what the student wants in an education.

  3. Show the development of your interest through moments that connect to core values. Each paragraph provides details that show both intellectual and emotional links to his chosen field, and that link to his core values (community involvement, integrity, etc.). And he does a nice job of increasing the degree of his interest and involvement (e.g., internship, FBLA Nationals), illustrating his dedication. Bonus points here for raising the stakes by mentioning his family’s rent in part depends on his work. 

UPenn Supplemental Essay Example: Prompt #2

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classrooms, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)

My friends who attend Wharton don’t talk primarily about the classes or clubs. They talk about the people, specifically how vastly different they are. A term one friend used was anti-me, a person with whom we share so little in common that even casual conversation becomes learning. 

That concept of an unknown anti-me excites me. If my dorm neighbor studies at SEAS, perhaps I’ll find myself at PennApps with them, learning to code for the first time. If a classmate writes for Penn Appétit, I’d love to learn about food and tour Philadelphia restaurants with them. 

I’m also excited to be someone else’s anti-self. Since Wharton clubs are open to all Penn students, I hope to convince my roommates to join Social Impact Consulting with me (after all, social responsibility transcends major).  As a family business entrepreneur, I’ll bring a client-side perspective to Consult for America. I imagine perpetual mutual learning and PPI Student Group discussions that spill over into late night talks in the Quad. Maybe I’ll even spread my love for R&B music by dragging my friends to a Spring Fling concert.

I hope I’ll be a fun anti-self to chat with.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

This essay adds some nice dimension and depth alongside the first essay.

In particular, the “anti-me” idea offers a good window into the student and shows he’s ready for college, as colleges generally see themselves as places that serve to challenge our preconceived notions and cherished ideas. This is something that many people find uncomfortable, as it’s generally more pleasant to feel as though the ways we conceive of ourselves and the world are correct. But learning to ask uncomfortable questions and to have calm but complex dialogue is key to intellectual and emotional maturity. This essay shows a student who seems ready to continue taking steps down that path.

Specialized/dual-degree program prompts:

These programs are highly competitive (even more so than admission to UPenn itself). Notice that almost all of them have a word count limit of 650—the same length as your personal statement. They’re expecting you to get into some solid depth and detail regarding how and why you want to pursue this path. Read the prompt carefully, and be sure to respond to all elements of it.

A sample essay for one of the programs (Huntsman) appears below. Though the focus of each prompt is different, the approach is largely the same for many of them—how you came to have the interests you do (see “Why Major”), then shift into how the program at UPenn specifically fits you and your interests (“Why us?” elements again, while avoiding overlap with the first two prompts above) and how you’ll be able to use your education to address specific issues or concerns in the field. 

The sample below focuses mostly on what personal connections and insights have drawn the student to this area.

UPenn Supplemental Essay Example: Huntsman Prompt