In my last blog post, I provided a list of strategies that students should consider adopting when writing their “Why our college?” supplemental essays. The Dos. Well, now we are going to look at the flip side and discuss those things that students do way too often with the crafting of this essay that they should absolutely avoid. The Don’ts.
Here is what you don’t want to do:
- 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 focussed on a school’s setting or geographic location and 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, and, therefore, fair game, 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, as 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 because 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 or overuse hyperbole. “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, and 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 this area that is 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 focussing 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 and discussing 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, and 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 and write an essay that was based on the unique things about that institution. It’s OK 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 and 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 and 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.
Combining the “dos” and the “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!), always 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.