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Writing a Great “Why This College?” Essay – A Practical Guide

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If you are going through the college application process, more than likely you are encountering supplemental essay questions asking you to elaborate on why you want to attend that institution. The question takes many forms. Why are you a good fit? What will you bring to our campus? What is it about our school that makes you want to attend? But, ultimately, it’s really the same question just asked in a different way: “why this college?”

In my line of work as a college advisor, I read a lot of these essays, and I can say that I see many weak attempts at answering this question. Students seem to fall into the same “traps” every time. So, in this article, I’m going to cover the do’s and don’ts of writing a great response to the “Why our college?” question. Follow my advice, and it should lead you to an essay that will stand out to admissions offices.

Getting Started: Do Your Homework

“Why do you want to go to this college?” I ask.

“I dunno.”

You’d be surprised at how often I engage in this little snippet of conversation. Often young people settle on a college choice without much thought. Maybe it’s close by. Maybe it’s famous. Or perhaps mom and dad have pushed the college. Maybe it’s where your friend attends, or where your boyfriend wants to go.

But this essay forces you to really think about why you want to go—and to present your reasons in an essay.

So the first thing you must do before you start writing is to know the answer to the question: “Why this college?”

One of the ways to do this is to sort of reverse-engineer your choice. You need a list of criteria that drives your college choice. So if you find yourself at a lost to come up with solid, rational reasons, perhaps have a look at this article about how to choose a college based on such criteria. ]LINK]

Once you have this solid list in hand, then you can begin to craft your response to the “why this college” essay.

Construct a template for the “why this college” essay

If you have carefully thought through the basic criteria for all the colleges to which you will be applying, and if you have carefully selected colleges that fit those general criteria, then you can begin to build a generic framework for answering this question.

What follows is a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for answering the “why this college” essay prompt.

The College Essay DOs:

DO take clues from how the question is asked

Since these questions all fall into the same category of “why do you want to go to our school?”, it’s easy to simply just answer it with that particular question in mind. But you should read the question carefully, because each college will have a slightly different angle on it. You want to be sure that you are answering all aspects of the question. Sometimes, colleges will give you clues to what they are looking for in how they phrase the question, and this can help you develop ideas on how to answer it.

DO explain why you want to spend the next 4 years of your life there being involved in intellectual and academic pursuits.

While this tip may sound like a no-brainer, you’d be amazed at how many students forget to mention the academic reasons that attract them to the school. Instead, they focus on all kinds of other things: awesome sports teams, a beautiful quad, or a killer climbing wall. But aren’t you going to college to get an education, first and foremost?

Think about and research the educational opportunities that are offered at the school. Why are they an academic fit with who you are, how you learn, what you have done, and what you are interested in pursuing? Think about the general curriculum of the degree, the structure of your intended major, and other academic resources that attract you (e.g., specific research facilities, academic centers, specialized libraries, and/or study abroad). You don’t have to know what you want to major in to include this in your essay. In fact, if you are undecided, it’s okay to talk about that, but then consider: what does that school have to offer you to help you explore and decide?

DO discuss how and why you fit at the school.

Schools want students on their campus who are going to be happy and successful. Just as every student is different, so is every college, and admissions offices want to be sure that you understand what their school is all about before you land on their campus. After all, if you get there and you don’t fit, you’re not going to be happy.

What do I mean by “fit?” For example, say you are applying to a school with a student body that is known to be significantly involved in community service, and this is something that you yourself have been a part of while in high school. Talk about that. What if you are looking for a school with a lot of spirit because that’s something that you didn’t have in your own high school experience? You can discuss that. Whatever aspect of a school are attractive to you, be sure to back them up with personal reasons.

DO give examples of how you will get involved at college and have an impact on campus. 

Colleges are all about building an academic community. with the key word being “community.” That means that they don’t just want students who are going to go to class, go home, and not contribute to the life of the campus. Colleges and universities are just pieces of real estate: it takes people to animate them and give them the vibrancy that probably attracts you.

College admissions people are looking for givers. They are looking for individuals who will enliven the campus. So, tell them how you plan to get involved.

Think about the activities you enjoy. How will you continue those activities on campus? Show the admissions committee that you envision yourself in that same activity once you get to college. For example, if you enjoy making ceramics, give them a vision of how you—as a political science major—will spend time in the pottery workshop firing your work in the university kiln.

Also think about the activities you’d like to try. Explain why this new activity interests you, and present a detailed vision of how you’ll get involved. For example, perhaps you live in Florida but your chosen college is in a snowy locale. Give an image of yourself rollicking in the drifts and engaging in winter sports wearing a puffy parka. Show the admissions folks that you are excited by the possibilities of your new “home.”

DO be specific.

 I cannot stress this enough. Above, I suggested topics that you should try to cover in your essay. With each of these you must get specific, specific, specific. And did I mention that you have to get specific? So, discuss some classes that intrigue you. Find a professor who focuses on your area of interest and mention her work. Talk about particular clubs and activities where you could see yourself contributing. Name the academic center or the name of the swimming pool. Highlight things that impress you about the campus and make you want to go there. Touch on interactions that you make with students, staff, or alumni of the school. Name names. Let the college know that you are really interested in attending their particular institution by showing them that you know about and are interested in specific things.

As I said before, you need to do your homework, and tailor your essay to each college. While the structure of the “why this college” essay may be the same from college to college, the substance of the essay must be highly specific to each college on your list.

DO do your research.

 Before you ever start typing your response to this essay question, know what you are talking about. Spend some time on the college’s website so that you truly understand what the school has to offer you and why you really should want to go there. Check out what the college prides itself on. Look at the course offerings. Be clear on how the curriculum works. Educate yourself on the extra-curricular opportunities. The only way you can get specific (see bullet point above!) is to do your research.

The College Essay DON’Ts:

DON’T focus on superficial aspects of the school

Oh, how many essays have I read that have talked about how great the food looked in a college’s cafeteria! C’mon. Is that really a reason that you want to go to a certain school? Even if it is, that shows a shallowness of thought that you probably don’t want to reveal to the college of your choice. You must gear your essay to discuss more meaningful aspects. Common pitfalls when it comes to these more “superficial” topics are:

School Setting and/or Geographic Location

Students spend a good chunk of their essay focused on a school’s setting or geographic location. They simply talk about the location without either making it about the school or about themselves. (“And University of XYZ is located right in the heart of ABCity, which I love so much!”) While the setting is, of course, an integral part of the school, when the student makes this the crux of their reason for attending, it sounds like the student just wants to get to that location.

Regardless of the school itself, it’s perfectly fine to talk about the location and have that be a reason. But as with any with any other aspect of your essay, you need to make your discussion personal and relevant to you. (“I love the fact that University of XYZ is located in the heart of ABCity because I’m a musician myself who loves listening to all types of music from show tunes to jazz. I would really enjoy getting a chance to go to the many different types of musical performances that I’ll find there.”)

College Reputation

A college’s reputation is NOT a good reason to say you want to go there. That says nothing about you nor why you are a fit for it. On the other hand, if you can back it up with specific examples of why that reputation was earned, and its relevance to you, then go for it. For example, you could say, “I’m excited about the prospect of studying engineering at U of XYZ, which has attracted top notch faculty, such as Prof. Prizewinner who teaches engineering in my area of interest.”

DON’T just compliment the school

“U of XYZ is by far the best place on earth! It has the most intelligent and motivated students anywhere! Your study abroad programs are like no other!” Most colleges are proud of their institutions, and they should be. But, let’s face it, none of them are a utopia. Unfortunately, you sound completely fake when you make sweeping, superlative statements about the school without also being able to support your claim. While you absolutely should be enthusiastic and think very highly of the schools you are applying to, and you should tell them so, a better approach is to compliment the school in the context of yourself.

For example, if you want to study abroad, and the college has a strong offering in that area, that can be one of the main reasons that you are attracted to it. Then discuss a particular program they have that might appeal, And, explain why it excites you and why you feel it’s so top notch. Remember, specificity is always best.

DON’T waste words telling them what they already know

 Often, when students do get specific about particular courses, programs or activities that they are interested in at a given school, they spend the majority of their writing focusing on describing and explaining it. Well, guess what? The school already knows what that class, program, or activity is all about because it’s their class, program, or activity! Don’t waste your precious words. Spend your prose making it personal. Discuss how those courses, programs, or activities fit with who you are and what you want to accomplish.

DON’T write a “Plug and Play” essay

A “Plug and Play” essay is one where you submit the exact same essay to each school that asks the question. Then you only change up a couple of small details, one of which is the college’s name. If you are applying to several schools, the “Why Our School?” question is one that you will probably have to answer multiple times during your application season, so the appeal of doing a “plug and play” is obvious. I do not, however, recommend this approach. Experienced admissions readers know a mostly generic “plug and play” essay when they see one. And it does not cast a favorable light on the student. It leaves the impression that the student didn’t have enough interest in the college to take the time to understand the school, or to write an essay that was based on the unique things about that institution. It’s okay to reuse the same themes about yourself from one essay to the next so that you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. But you absolutely should tailor the essay to the individual school that you are writing about. Also to be genuine about the reasons that you are interested in that particular institution.

DON’T go too broad when you only have a few words.

 The length requirements for the “why our college” essay cover a range. Some ask for just a few characters, while others have no restrictions. The most common maximum length requirements, however, seem to be in the 150-300 word range. I’ve recommended a lot of things that you should consider covering when you write this essay, but how do you do that when you only have a little bit of space to do it in? In a word: focus. Don’t try to do it all. Instead, pick one or two things that appeal to you about the school. Then drill down on just those things. Better to go deep than wide so that you can really make the argument, at least on one level, why you and that institution are the right fit.

Conclusion

Combining the dos and don’ts of writing the “why our college” essay will help you to strategically approach developing a truly strong piece of writing. While trying to incorporate all of these strategies into your writing may seem a little scary (and, of course, we are always here to help!), remember that the goal of any piece of writing that you do for a college application is to allow the admissions office to understand more about you, who you are, and what makes you tick.

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