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:
Guide to Essay Writing
One of the most important skills you will learn and develop during your university years is writing, in particular essay writing. It is important to realise that this is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, and that therefore you should apply yourselves from the very beginning, as you will be writing essays for which you will be graded from the early weeks to the very end of your degree programme. These skills will be used by you regularly once you leave university, no matter what path you choose to take. Essay writing involves presenting an argument and communicating. It can be easily imagined that this covers a vast variety of scenarios in which you need to be clear and persuasive: arguing that you should be given the job you are applying for, selling the outline of a film script you have written, presenting products at various forums, writing articles for publication, persuading your bank manager to extend your loan, preparing reports, beginning and sustaining your career in journalism, and writing lectures and class plans for your future students. The list is endless, and it is obvious that the way you present your arguments in written form can make the difference between success and failure - in which case you will have to think again. In some of the scenarios outlined above the skills required for essay writing should be slightly adapted but the basic skills and methods are in the main common to all forms of formal writing in which an argument or arguments need to be presented.
The focus here is primarily on writing essays concerning literature. You may have many great ideas and be a very intuitive and fine reader of literature, but no-one will ever know if you cannot express your ideas properly and your communicative skills are not developed. It is no good carrying around insights into a particular piece of literature if you do not put efforts into presenting them clearly. Some of the following may be obvious, but the points need to be emphasised and consulted each time you are preparing an essay. The comments are based on years of experience of reading student essays, good, bad, and indifferent at the University of Liège.
An essay should not be merely a list. Too many in the past have been a list of notes, or a series of sub-headings followed by a list of dashes (-) or stars (*) accompanied by one or two words and/or quotations from the literary text with no explanation of what they are doing there. Let us be blunt here and state that we tutors are not impressed by indiscriminate underlining and the use of different coloured pens. Sub-headings written in magenta, underlined in ochre, followed by a list of quotations in vermilion are pointless. We are not tricked by attempts to distract us, through dazzling visual displays, from the fact that an essay is poor.
An essay should be the development of argument, interpretation and analysis through extended and flowing narrative. To do this you need to work at the level of the sentence, of course, but also, very importantly, you need to work at the level of the paragraph. The paragraph is a coherent passage of logically connected sentences usually concentrating on no more than one or two ideas relevant to your argument. Do not use very short and unconnected staccato sentences. It takes experience and practice to develop a sense of when a new paragraph is needed and when it has been finished. Examine the introduction to this booklet and this guide to get some sense of how paragraphs, or 'idea units' as they have also been called, can be developed and constructed, and how their 'natural' beginnings and ends appear. The first sentence of the paragraph should generally be a 'strong' one, used to signal or indicate the idea to be discussed within the paragraph. Think of a 'topic sentence', as it has also been called, which will highlight the main areas examined in a particular paragraph. Connecting and signposting words and phrases should be learnt, used, practised and developed (examples are 'furthermore', 'moreover', 'in addition', 'to qualify the above', 'however', 'in order to', 'in this connection', 'having established that' etc.). The argument should develop through the language you use and therefore in a short essay sub-headings are unnecessary.
Several stages are involved in essay preparation, choosing which points are to be considered, deciding how you will deal with them, and the actual writing. As you gain more experience you will find methods and ways of working which suit you, your personality and lifestyle. Generally, however, the process will involve the following. You should examine carefully the statements made in the essay question, making sure you understand each word and what is being asked, as misreading and misunderstanding at this stage can be fatal. Essay questions can be very general, very specific and sometimes deliberately provocative, and an understanding of them is essential. Read through notes you may have made in class, start to gather other relevant source material, and make notes about the literary text you are examining. Ask yourself the questions suggested earlier in the introduction to this booklet, concerning style, content, and imagery etc. Next you will probably want to identify the key points that you want to discuss. There may be many points you find generally interesting, but ask yourself if they are relevant to the essay in question. To do this it can be useful to try to think of a title for your essay. This is not to be confused with the essay question or title, but is concerned with your response to the task set. What title would best give the reader an overview of your approach and analysis, and highlight the main points you examine and the conclusions you reach? (Suggestions concerning conclusions will be given later). You should not assume that an essay has to include and cover all the possible points an interpretation may offer up. A short, well organised and structured essay focusing on some of the main points is far better than an over-long and unwieldy attempt to say a little about everything. You may find it useful to state in the introduction which points you are focusing on and why. Keep your reader informed of the development of your argument. Let her or him know which direction is being taken and the reasons why. Once the main points have been identified you need to consider in which order they will be examined. Students often do not make the most of the good ideas they have because they get lost if the argument does not develop coherently. Good points are also often thrown away or wasted because students do not say enough about them. Make sure the relevance of each point to the main argument is clearly stated and demonstrated. You should dwell and linger on the points: often this requires no more than two or three extra sentences, particularly if your writing is concise and focused.
A good essay takes time to prepare and write, so start to think about it and do the groundwork well ahead of the essay deadline (even in timed conditions, such as exams, it is important to take the time to organise and structure the essay before starting to write). You will probably find that you need to work out your ideas on paper before writing the essay, and are encouraged to prepare an outline of the essay: a point by point series of key words, phrases and ideas. This will help you to organise the structure and to recognise what is relevant and irrelevant to the essay as a whole. Some people find that a plan or outline will consist of eight to ten words only. Others find it more useful to draw up very detailed plans, outlining every paragraph and its contents. Again you will discover which method works for you as you go along. Some students find it easier to think and plan the essay point by point before beginning to write, whilst others find that after some initial preparation, reading, organisation and thinking they can only develop their ideas through writing. Both these approaches take time, if the essays are to be done well. It should be stressed here that the first plan does not have to be binding and may change as the work begins and develops. The main point here is that essays involve a certain amount of planning and preparation even before the actual writing begins. Having emphasised that essays are hard work and take time it should also be stressed that it can be very stimulating and rewarding to work through a number of ideas in depth and detail. Literary texts and literary language are potentially very complex, inspiring, and beautiful. The ideas and images often demand careful thought and attention.
Computers are essential in terms of using the time you spend on an essay efficiently and productively. As stated earlier, good essay writing demands time spent on every stage of the process: reading and research, making an outline, ordering and structuring your ideas, writing and changing various drafts, and final editing and presentation. With this in mind it cannot be stressed enough how important it is for you to learn word-processing skills and to make sure you have access to a computer. Use the university resources. Admittedly the space available is limited at times but this is no excuse not to learn the skills, if you do not already possess them, and to find out where there are available computer terminals. Of course if you use university resources it is even more important to start your essay early in order to avoid the last minute rush as most students, not only from this department, search for terminals in a panic on the Friday before a Monday deadline. It is appreciated that students are very busy and do have a lot of work, but it is a mistake to claim, as some students have been heard, that they are too busy to learn word-processing skills. Ultimately word-processing will save you a lot of time. It is far easier to add and delete material, and to restructure and reorganise essays by moving material around, on a computer than if you are writing by hand. Software has become really user-friendly; 'Word', for instance, will tell you what to do in explicit English or French, and typing skills can be learned whilst typing.
Your essay will be the representation of an argument on a given subject or subjects. It will include only points which are relevant to the subject, so be careful to get rid of material that is not directly relevant. Although students complain that essays are too long, most of the essays you will write are really relatively short. Part of the skill of writing is to write concisely and economically, without wasting material or 'padding' the work with irrelevant diversions and repetition. Once the points have been chosen they should be presented logically and coherently, so do not leap about from point to point. Each point generally will have some connection to the preceding one and the one to follow. If you do leave one area of the essay to move into another, but intend later to go back to the point you have left and show, for example, how the points may be connected or related, then it can be useful to say so by 'signposting', e.g. 'this point will be picked up later', 'this point will be returned to later, after taking into consideration ...'. After each draft of the essay check that each point is presented in a logical and coherent order. Read each draft carefully and critically. Is there a significant idea you have not included in the essay? Do you need to expand some of the points you have chosen to write about? Are some of the points, after due consideration, not really relevant? Have you been too long-winded or repetitive? If so, cut out and/or reduce some of the text. Does your argument need to be clearer, and do the links between some of the main points need more emphasis? You should be asking yourself these questions throughout the whole process.
A particularly distressing weakness in the past, but hopefully not the future, has been the absence of serious discussion of imagery and literary language. Some students have merely stated that the author uses imagery, illustrated this with an example, and then moved on to the next point on the list. If you discuss images, metaphors and other literary devices, then say how and why they are being used in the piece of fiction, and maybe if you think the imagery works or not. If you do not say how and why an image is being used then don't mention it. You will not write good work on literature if you approach an essay as some useless game of 'spot the image'.
Throughout your years at the University of Liège you will be writing essays on literature which will inevitably include numerous quotations, either from the literature you are working on or from secondary sources, be they books or articles on historical context, literary criticism or other relevant areas. These quotations can obviously add much to the texture and quality of your work, but they are often handled very badly by students. Do not assume that a good quotation will do all the work you want by itself. Poor essays are often merely a patchwork of quotations stitched together by the briefest of comments, and it is a mistake to leave quotations hanging in mid-air, as it were, without comment or explanation. Quotations need to be framed. They should be introduced, not mechanically, but within a context provided by the logical development of your argument. (See Example 1 at the end of this guide). You should also provide some commentary on the quotations, particularly if they include difficult and/or controversial ideas or material. This is often likely to be the case as there is really little point in including 'bland' quotations in your essay. You may want to gloss, explain, qualify or modify the quoted words, or you may have included quotations whose assumptions or arguments you strongly disagree with. The latter case can be useful, if handled well. Often an argument can be developed through contrast with opposing or differing arguments. This tactic in essay construction also displays independent thinking in that it demonstrates that you have not unthinkingly accepted and believed everything you have read. One final point on quotations: do not plagiarise. Using other people's work without saying so is a serious crime. Tutors have read widely on the subjects you will be writing on and are very likely to recognise when you are plagiarising. If you use other people's ideas and words they have to be acknowledged through proper footnoting and referencing. (See Example 2 at the end of this guide).
Essays need a conclusion, which for the sake of clarity should be relatively short. It is generally best not to include new ideas or new material in your concluding comments, particularly since many people think that a conclusion should be a summary of the prior arguments. You may, however, point to alternative conclusions or arguments, or briefly suggest areas of interest that have not been dealt with directly by the essay. People often get the wrong idea about conclusions and believe that this is the place to state firm convictions, and that a conclusion has to make a stand and come down on the side of one argument or another. This can be the case but it is not necessarily so. If an essay title comes in the form of a question, for example 'Is James Joyce seeking to distance himself from traditional forms of Irish culture?', and you cannot decide, do not think that this is a problem. It is as much a sign of intelligence to state that you cannot decide as it is to sift through the evidence and decide one way or the other. Think about why you cannot decide. Perhaps the evidence is conflicting. Perhaps the literary text and its use of imagery is ambiguous, or even contradictory; as is often the case. If you cannot decide, then say so, outlining why you cannot decide. Alternatively, you may partly agree or partly disagree with the statements or questions raised by the title, or by questions raised directly in responding to the title. If so, say so. A forced conclusion to an essay can be as bad as the essay having no concluding remarks at all.
In connection to the last point it should be emphasised that any essay should be about your ideas and your interpretation of the literature being studied. Of course your ideas may, and indeed should, develop through discussions with friends, fellow students, tutors and through the consultation of books and articles, but it is your ideas which should form the basis of the essay. Whilst you will use material that is not your own, it is the way that you use, add to, adapt and modify this material that makes the argument your own and original. Your own voice should be heard. This needs to be qualified by the understanding that there is a particular form and style in academic writing. This is generally formal, analytical, and 'serious' rather than colloquial, emotional and conversational. Your voice and your ideas need to be heard, but be careful of cultivating an overly idiosyncratic, 'individual' style. Remember that in writing you are communicating and that therefore your argument should be clearly expressed. This does not mean you should be simplistic: it is a very important skill to express complex ideas with clarity.
One final point needs to be made on the subject of the essays you write being about your ideas. Some of you may find this an extraordinary statement but it is a bad idea to tailor and construct your essay around what you believe your tutor or the head of the course thinks about the text, and what you think she or he wants to hear. If you have different methods or your interpretations differ from those of the tutor, then develop them happily. Remember that essay writing is all about presenting an argument and using evidence from the text and elsewhere to back up your statements, and if you do this well you will be given credit for it whether or not the tutor agrees with the overall argument. It is not particularly interesting for tutors to read in essays only what they have said in class, particularly if this is reproduced in a flat, unconvincing, and unconvinced manner. Of course you may agree and be persuaded by arguments and interpretations outlined in class but if you do not believe the arguments you reproduce in the essay it will be obvious and the tutor will wonder why you bothered to include them. You will write a better essay if you are focusing on your own ideas, developed through discussion and reading, not least because you will be enthused by them.
Eventually your ideas will be thought through, outlines planned and re-planned, main points developed, written down on paper, then rewritten, and finally given to your tutor. Nevertheless your work on the essay has not yet finished. Once the essay has been graded and returned it is very important that you do not merely look at the grade you have received before putting it at the bottom of your files. Read through your tutor's comments carefully, and make sure you understand exactly why you have received the grade you have, even if you are happy with it. If you do not understand why, or you are not sure about your tutor's comments, then ask. If it is not possible to ask during class or you would prefer to talk privately go to your tutor during office hours, or make an appointment if these clash with other classes. Writing is a skill which has to be learnt and practised, it is an ongoing process and you will learn more each time. Follow up work once the essay has been returned is an important part of this process.
Example 1: Using Quotations
The extract below, from a paper on Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, shows how quotations can be used. Because the paper quotes from the novel extensively, page numbers are found within the main body of the text, in parentheses, after complete bibliographical details have been provided in a footnote to the first quotation. Quotations from secondary sources are referenced by footnotes. Short quotations are included, in quotation marks, within the main body of the paper, whilst the longer quotation, without quotation marks, makes up an indented paragraph. Note that even when the writing by the author of the paper is combined with quotations from the novel and secondary sources the sentences are still grammatically correct and coherent.
Jean Brodie is convinced of the rightness of her own power, and uses it in a frightening manner: 'Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life'.1 This is Miss Brodie's adoption of the Jesuit formula, but, whereas they claim the child for God, she moulds the child for her own ends. 'You are mine,' she says, '... of my stamp and cut ...' (129). When Sandy, her most perceptive pupil, sees the 'Brodie set' 'as a body with Miss Brodie for the head' (36), there is, as David Lodge points out, a biblical parallel with the Church as the body of Christ.2 God is Miss Jean Brodie's rival, and this is demonstrated in a literal way when one of her girls, Eunice, grows religious and is preparing herself for confirmation. She becomes increasingly independent of Miss Brodie's influence and decides to go on the Modern side in the Senior school although Jean Brodie makes clear her own preference for the Classical. Eunice refuses to continue her role as the group's jester, or to go with them to the ballet. Cunningly, her tutor tries to regain control by playing on her religious convictions:
All that term she tried to inspire Eunice to become at least a pioneer missionary in some deadly and dangerous zone of the earth, for it was intolerable to Miss Brodie that any of her girls should grow up not largely dedicated to some vocation. 'You will end up as a Girl Guide leader in a suburb like Corstorphine', she said warningly to Eunice, who was in fact secretly attracted to this idea and who lived in Corstorphine. (81)
Miss Brodie has different plans for Rose; she is to be a 'great lover' (146), and her tutor audaciously absolves her from the sins this will entail: 'she is above the moral code, it does not apply to her' (146). This dismissal of possible retribution distorts the girls' judgement of Miss Brodie's actions.
The above passage is taken from Ruth Whittaker, The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1982), pp.106-7.
Example 2: Laying out a bibliography
The bibliography will usually include the relevant sources consulted in producing your essay, even if you have not referred to or quoted from them directly. The order is alphabetical and determined by the authors' names. Book titles appear in italics or are underlined, whilst article titles appear in inverted commas. When referring to books you should include the author's name, place of publication, the publisher, and the date when the book was published. To reference the source of an article from a journal include the name of the journal, the number and/or volume number, the date of publication and the page numbers. There are several styles for laying out a bibliography, but the same elements appear in each, and you must be consistent. Consult the handbooks to be found in the libraries for further details.
This is a model used by many British universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete, Television and the Public Sphere (London: Sage Publishers, 1995)
Dubois, Ellen, 'Antipodean Feminism', New Left Review, no.206, July/August 1994, 127-33
Fussel, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)
Gledhill, Christine, 'Melodrama', in The Cinema Book, ed. Pam Cook (London: BFI, 1985), pp.73-84
Lodge, David, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44
Pettifer, James, The Greeks (London: Penguin, 1993)
This is the model recommended by the Modern Languages Association (MLA) and is used by most American universities and publishers.
Dahlgren, Pete. Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage Publishers, 1995.
Dubois, Ellen. "Antipodean Feminism." New Left Review 206 (July/August 1994): 127-33
Fussel, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gledhill, Christine. "Melodrama" in The Cinema Book. Ed. Pam Cook. London: BFI, 1985. 73-84
Lodge, David. "The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in David Lodge The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. 119-44
Pettifer, James. The Greeks. London: Penguin, 1993.
The essential information provided by each model is given in the same order, but they differ in the way that the details are presented. Whichever model you choose or are instructed to use ensure that you stay consistent to it.
Consult reference works for further advice. These books are on the open shelves:
· John Clanchy and Brigid Ballard, How to Write Essays (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1992)
· Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (New York: MLA, 1995)
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (London: Macmillan, 1961), p.7. All further references are to this edition and given in the text.
David Lodge, 'The Uses and Abuses of Omniscience: Method and Meaning in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie', in David Lodge, The Novelist at the Crossroads and Other Essays on Fiction and Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), pp.119-44.