I know there have been a ton of "why essay" topics, but I haven't found an answer to this particular question:
I've heard it said on this board that writing a "why X" essay is highly advisable for some schools, Penn and Michigan included. But I'm struggling to write compelling ones because even though I want to attend these schools, I feel like all my reasons are generic-sounding. What is the value of doing one of the other optional essay topics? For example, one of Michigan's options is something along the lines of "Tell us about a time you succeeded/failed as a member of a team." Would it be a bad idea to write on that topic instead of the "Why Michigan?" I don't think I'm a stellar enough candidate to be excessively worried about YP (but even if you were very worried about YP -- could writing any optional essay go toward expressing your interest in a school, or is that end exclusively served by writing on the "why x" topic?).
(Applications Advice, Letters of Recommendation . . . )
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I'm just applying now so I don't know if I'm the best person to answer your question, but for my "Why" essays I wrote about things that genuinely interested me about the school. For me, it was some specific clinics they had and also the student culture. Actually, for all the schools that I wrote a "Why X" essay, I dedicated a whole paragraph specifically to the aspects of student life that really excited me and would make me happy to attend the school (atmosphere/vibe of students, social activities available, other activities in the area where the school is). I thought the "Why" essays were pretty good exercises for me to see if I would actually want to go to the school and what I would most enjoy if I went there. Both my numbers are above the 75th for most of the schools I'm applying to, so I wanted to discuss the qualities that are unique to the school and that I would want to participate in.
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I start by looking through the bios of the professors and associate professors and see if there's anything that catches my eye (headed a government agency, worked on an area of federal legislation that I'm interested in, did some research that led to reform in some area of law, etc.) and then see if that person is teaching a class that I want to take. If so, I write all of that. I feel like it's about being as honest as you can about why you want to go there. If you can't find anything, maybe it's not for you. That was how I decided not to apply to one of my schools for undergraduate.