How to write those pesky “why this college” essays

Ah, Christmas break… A whole week to sleep late, hang out with your friends, and stuff yourself with leftovers. Unless, of course, you’re a senior trying desperately to finish your college applications. Even if your main essay is done, you might still have a bunch of supplements waiting to be done. And if that’s the case, then chances are some of those supplements include the perennial “why this college?” question.

In some cases, you may not be able to answer entirely truthfully (I needed another safety school, my parents are making me apply), but even assuming that you actually want to attend most of the schools you’re applying to, this question can be hard to get started on.

If that describes your situation, this post is for you.

The first thing to understand is that “why do you want to attend x university” is not a trick question. Admissions officers are not looking to be flattered, or to be told how prestigious their institution is. They genuinely want to see what appeals to you about the school, and whether your interests and needs are aligned with what it has to offer. They also want to know whether you’ve visited, explored the website, read the course catalogue, etc. (Don’t worry if you live too far to visit, or couldn’t afford to – as long as you’ve shown sufficient interest, it won’t matter.) Just how seriously are you taking your application to their school?

This is not just about judging applicants, by the way; it’s also about managing yield. As soon as colleges send out their acceptance letters, the balance of power shifts, and colleges must anxiously try to woo students away from their competitors. The percentage of admitted students, known as the yield rate, affects their rankings. So it’s in their interest to try to identify the students most likely to attend. A student who seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a school will therefore have an edge over comparable applicants with lukewarm or general statements. Your goal, in part, is to persuade the admissions committee that there is a real chance you will attend school x if admitted.

But if you’re not sure how to go about actually generating an essay, here’s a roadmap.

The key to writing a successful “why this school essay” is to be as specific as possible.

In general, you want to avoid clichés such as “rigorous courses” or “renowned faculty” or “stunning campus.” Pretty much every school has the first two, and when a school has third, they’re used to applicants mentioning it – a lot. Instead, focus on explaining how the school is a good match for you in particular, and vice-versa.

A good way to check whether you’ve accomplished this is to plug in another school’s name and see whether the essay still fits. If it does, chances are you’ve written something way too generic.

That isn’t to say you can’t come up with a general template that you adjust for each school, but the essays should not be interchangeable.

So start by thinking about the subjects you’re most likely to major in or, if you’re not sure, think about which classes you enjoyed most in high school. Was there a topic or unit you particularly enjoyed (e.g. genetics in Biology, the Civil War in History)?

Was there a paper or a project you were particularly proud of? Is there any field you’ve had a little bit of exposure to but couldn’t study at the high school level (e.g. archaeology, sociology)?

Do any of your academic interests carry over into your extracurriculars (e.g. computer science and robotics club)?

Go on the website of each school, find the relevant departments (the main page will usually contain a link to “academics” or “departments and programs”), and look through the undergraduate classes.

Are there any courses that sticks out as interesting or unusual? Anything that makes you think, “Wow, that sounds really interesting?” Make a note of those classes, and write a few sentences explaining why they’re so appealing to you.

Are you interested in doing an internship, working in a lab, or studying abroad? See what the options are for those things.

If you’re applying to school in a city, look into what sorts of opportunities there are for local businesses. Don’t just say you want to be in an exciting/dynamic/diverse urban environment that will expose you to different kinds of people. Talk about what companies might like to intern with, and how the school in question can help you gain practical experience in a field.

Remember that at some schools, research can be difficult for undergraduates to get involved in; the best opportunities tend to be reserved for graduate students. If a school makes it easy for undergraduates, especially freshman, to conduct research from the start, that’s something to talk about.

What about the structure of the curriculum? Are there distribution requirements, or is there an open curriculum? Maybe you like the fact that a university cares about ensuring that its students gain competence in a variety of areas, or maybe you’re the sort of intensely focused, self-directed studier who would excel in a more open system.

Next, looks at housing and extracurricular activities.

Is there anything unique or unusually appealing about the housing system? (One former student of mine wrote, for example, about a school’s system of pairing freshman roommates that he thought was “brilliant.”) Is there a residential college system? Special-interest housing?

Look at clubs. What activities have you enjoyed the most in high school and want to continue participating in during college? Or maybe you’d be the most enthusiastic member of the school’s quidditch team.

Finally, choose one memorable/interesting/quirky (but not too weird) thing that sticks out about the school for you. It can be very small – maybe you were just impressed by how open and welcoming all the students you met on your visit were – but it should be unique to that school.

If focus on these things, you should have no problem churning out 250-300 words pretty quickly.  

Why you shouldn’t always trust college essay books (just say no to community service trip essays)

If you’re a senior still in the throes of writing your college essay, or if you’re a younger student/parent of a younger student trying to get a jumpstart on the college admissions process, you may be in possession of book entitled something like 100 College Essays that Worked, or 50 Successful Harvard Essays.

In general, I have no particular bone to pick with such compilations. I think they often provide a helpful glimpse at a variety of topics, styles, and structures that successful applicants have used in their essays.

Just as importantly, they offer clear reassurance that students need not demonstrate they have imbibed a thesaurus in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams.

So yes, for a student who isn’t sure how to get started, these books provide a highly useful service.

However. From time to time, when I happen to be browsing the test-prep section of a bookstore, I pick up college essay books just to keep abreast of the latest trends. Many of the essays in my favorite such book, 100 Successful College Application Essays, date from the mid-80’s, but as they say, times change… In this case, not necessarily for the better.

The most egregiously awful advice I’ve come across, in America’s Best Colleges for B Students, is that students should structure their essays in standard English class five-paragraph format.

That is so wrongheaded in so many ways, but we can start with the fact that the essay is called a personal statement for a reason. You are not supporting a thesis; you are discussing something or someone important to you as a person. Provided the essay reads well, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the College Board has also produced a college essay guide (which contains almost no examples of actual college essays – go figure that one out) that gives similar advice. While there is, in an extremely broad sense, a case to be made for certain approaches to reading and writing emphasized by Common Core, there are also instances in which such an approach would constitute an absolute, incontrovertible disaster.

This is one of them.

Following this type of advice could push a borderline applicant without a knowledgeable adult monitoring the process into the “reject” pile at a moderate reach where he or she might have otherwise had an actual shot. So if the College Board is actually trying to improve the college prospects of disadvantaged applicants — those least likely to have a knowledgeable adult monitoring, or even aware of, the application process — they have an awfully funny way of showing it. 

Most books, however, at least emphasize that a personal essay is, well, personal, and that the rules of English class don’t apply.

And to be sure, plenty of the essays these books include are perfectly serviceable. Most are well-written; a handful are genuinely moving.

One problem, however, is that it is impossible to really tell from a standalone essay how much of a role that essay actually played in a student’s admission.

In the absence of a transcript, test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, information about “hooks”, and actual adcom notes, the only thing that can be gleaned with certainty is that an essay was not so poor as to result in a student’s being rejected.  

Furthermore, there is one section some of these books that is consistently, even dangerously misleading. That is…. the infamous “community service trip to a third world country” essay.

For the record, the worst offenders I’ve found so far are the Fiske College Essay Guide (Malawi/Africa) and 50 Successful Stanford Essays (the Dominican Republic).

At this point, I feel obligated to proffer my annual warning about this genre of essay: if you’re thinking of writing something along these lines, don’t.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just find another topic and let this one quietly fade into oblivion.

Any essay you write about your community service trip to an impoverished third-world country, during which you discovered how privileged you really are and realized that the poor people there are really better off than the materialistic people in the United States because they’re happy with their subsistence lifestyle, is bound to come off as (at best) naive and condescending.      

It doesn’t matter how shocked you were by the poverty, or how charmingly rustic you found the locals, or by how grateful people seemed for your attempts to help.

Committees slog through tons of these essays every year; you don’t need to add another one to the pile. Pretty much every admissions officer you ever ask will tell you to avoid this topic like the plague.

That’s not to say all community service essays are bad; it is, however, to say that the topic is so overdone, and the possibilities for cliché so ripe, that you should proceed with a healthy dose of caution.

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, both of the guides listed above provide pitch-(im)perfect examples of this type of writing. (Just flip to the “Community Service” section.)

To be honest, I’m really surprised they were included at all; using them up as examples is at best irresponsible and at worst actively misleading. All I can say is that the Stanford applicant must have been stellar in every respect otherwise.

If you’re looking for some good examples of essays that worked, I’d recommend the sample essays Johns Hopkins posts on its admissions website.

They’re not cliché, but they’re not too far out there either. Most of the writers come off as smart and curious and interesting and thoughtful – people you’d like to get to know.

Wouldn’t you like the person who reads your essay to think that about you too?

The hidden costs of “full-tuition” scholarships

The New York Times Education Life section has published a very important article about some of the hidden costs of college. It focuses on the fees that schools tack on for everything from orientation to “student excellence,” and that families paying for college may not even be aware of until they get the bill.

Apparently, many of these charges used to be covered by tuition but in recent years have been increasingly shifted to the “fees” category, where they can no longer be covered by scholarship money.

The part of the article that struck me the most, however, was the section on the fees borne by recipients of full-tuition scholarships.

I admit that until a few months ago, when I started digging into the intricacies of National Merit Scholarships as a result of some readers’ comments, I was relatively ignorant of many of the issues surrounding financial/merit aid.

And until I read the article, I unconsciously assumed (as, as I suspect, many people do) that “full-tuition” scholarships generally covered the bulk of a student’s costs.

But as it turns out, that’s not how it actually works. A “full-tuition” scholarship covers exactly that: tuition. It does not (necessarily) cover fees, which may be much, much higher. As a result, families may end up on the hook for thousands of dollars.

The article recounts the cautionary tale of Valerie Innis, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:

When [Innis] won a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, she thought she was going to college free — until she received an ominous email sophomore year. “Check your balance,” it said, and when Ms. Innis looked at her account, she discovered an outstanding bill of $16,000.

The University of Massachusetts has been doing some fancy bookkeeping for decades to insulate itself from cuts to the state education budget. In-state tuition last year was just $1,714, while fees cost more than seven times that much: $12,457. That’s largely because of its hefty curriculum fee, created in 1989. While the university had to turn tuition over to the state, it could keep all fee revenue — an arrangement that ended this summer under a new state law that allows it to retain tuition revenue. Curriculum fees are gone, as is the full-tuition scholarship, now replaced with one valued at $1,714.

So if you or your child will be relying on tuition-based scholarships to cover the cost of college, do your due diligence. This is not information that colleges are likely to volunteer on their own. Don’t be seduced by the prestige of a “full-tuition” scholarship and assume that tuition-free = cost free (or almost cost-free). Read the fine print, and ask the financial aid office pointed questions. It might help you avert a very unpleasant surprise a few years down the line. 

A quick way to tell if your college essay works

A few years back, a student with whom I had done a handful of SAT tutoring sessions asked me to help him with his college essay. 

He was applying to a number of very selective schools, and while he was a solid, highly motivated candidate with excellent grades and recommendations, his scores were strong but not amazing. He did have a hook, but he was by no means a shoo-in. And since he wanted to go to medical school eventually, financial aid was also a consideration. The essay could be a real tip factor for him.

Understandably, he wanted it to be great.

Luckily, he had a clear — and very good — idea for a topic from the start, and we spent several weeks going back and forth with drafts, comments, etc. The usual. We hit the usual bumps and organizational issues, but all in all, it was pretty straightforward. When my student got stuck, I’d get him to just talk it out, and then let him take that material and mold it into something more coherent.

After a few weeks, my student ended up with what I considered a very good piece. He was, however, still nervous, not to mention still reeling slightly from what seemed to him like the inordinate amount of time necessary to hammer out barely 500 words.

“R.,” I said, “believe it or not, your essay was easy compared to some of what I’ve gone through. You started with a good, original topic that was genuinely representative of your interests; you stuck to that topic; and you developed it in a very interesting and effective way. You’ll get it in before the deadline, no one had a nervous breakdown, and your parents didn’t sneak in and try to change it without your knowing. (Yes, that actually happened to me once — sitting down a middle-aged man and explaining why rewriting one’s child’s essay and submitting it without her knowledge is a bad idea is not an experience I ever wish to repeat.) By my standards, it practically wrote itself.”

Still, he wasn’t entirely convinced that it was good enough.

“Ok, fine,” I said. “Don’t rely on me. Show it to some people and see what they say. I want you to get feedback from other sources.”

He checked, and came back beaming.

“My friends said it sounded exactly like me,” he announced. And with that, the essay was pronounced a success. 

I was reminded of that conversation earlier today, when I talked to a friend whose son is just starting the application process. When I mentioned the story of my former student and his friends’ reaction to his essay, she immediately perked up. “You know,” she said, “I never really thought about it that way. You should really post that on your blog.”

So here it is: if you have a draft of an essay and are not sure whether it’s working, don’t just give it to your parents, or your English teacher, or your guidance counselor, or some random person on College Confidential who agreed to look it over for you.

Give it to your friends and ask them to tell you honestly whether it sounds like you. Your friends are the ones who listen to you day in and day out, and they’re the ones best able to judge whether your writing sounds like the person they know — without getting overly concerned about whether you’ve written what they imagine admissions officers want to hear. No, you don’t want to include anything that would raise red flags, but that should be a separate consideration from whether your essay sounds like you wrote it. 

Presumably, your friends like you for a reason. If you can convey some of the qualities that make people want to spend time with you in your essay, there’s a decent chance the admissions officer reading it will find you appealing as a human being as well. That person will have a list of your grades and scores and extracurriculars right there; your essay is there to show something about the person behind those statistics. 

Think about it this way: admissions officers are people. They have thousands — literally, thousands — of applications to get through in a fairly short period of time, and things can get pretty tedious after a while. Most college essays tend to sound pretty alike. (Trust, me I’ve read enough of them to know).

I think it’s pretty safe to say that most readers want nothing more than to come across an essay that distracts them from the drudgery of what they’re doing; that genuinely entertains them for a few minutes; that makes them stop skimming and start really reading.

That is something almost impossible to accomplish unless you write something that sounds like you telling a story (albeit a coherent, grammatically correct, polished-but-not-too-obviously-polished story). Sure, you can try to fake it, but doing so effectively usually involves a thoroughly unnecessary amount of time and effort. If the person reading your essay comes away feeling that they know you a little, that you’re someone they’d like to have a conversation with — that you’re the funny/caring/goofy/sympathetic/generally cool person your friends like to hang out with — that’ll probably be enough to at least get you a closer look. 

When guidance counselors give bad advice

A few years ago, I was contacted by the mother of a former student who wanted me to tutor her younger son, a rising junior, for the ACT. I’d been pulled in to work with his older brother very late, after he’d already taken the test a ridiculous number of times (five, if I recall correctly), and by the time I got to him, he was convinced that he would fail yet again and never wanted to look at another ACT in his life.

This time, his mother was determined to avoid that kind of last-minute craziness. Her younger son was a very hard worker and a straight-A student, but she knew had hadn’t learned any grammar in school and would need to be taught from the ground up. She was going to give him a loooong runway.

I was therefore more than a little taken aback when she told me that she had gone ahead and signed him up for the September ACT. When I had recovered enough speech to make my thoughts known, I managed to suggest to her that that was perhaps not the best idea at that point, given that he hadn’t even started tutoring yet.

Her response: her son’s guidance counselor had recommended signing up for the first ACT of the year, just to establish a baseline score.

Luckily, I talked my student’s mother into signing him up for a practice test at a local testing center instead, and persuaded her that he should hold off on the real thing until the following spring. 

But I had trouble wrapping my head around the fact that a guidance counselor in such a highly rated district could give such misguided advice. How many students had followed it and ended up with a set of official scores far below what they were capable of achieving? 

From a strictly practical standpoint, it is not a good idea to treat an actual test like a practice run. While most colleges participate in score choice, there are a number of schools that require you to submit scores from every test date. Even if a school superscores (considers only the highest scores from each test date), adcoms will still see your scores from each test you’ve taken, and admissions officers may be subtly influenced by a set of lower numbers or by an exceptionally high number of sittings. Colleges tend not to ask for information unless they intend to take it into account. 

Furthermore, students who improve by unusually large amounts from one test to the next run the chance of having their scores flagged for review. This doesn’t occur often, but it does happen. Even if the gains are made absolutely honestly, students can still face score delays (a problem if the test in question was taken close to an application deadline) and the stress of being suspected of cheating. 

There’s also the psychological factor, which shouldn’t be underestimated. Taking the test for real and doing poorly is a downer. And taking the test over and over again, and failing to improve, can create a psychological stumbling block that can be difficult to overcome, and that can make improvement more difficult than it could otherwise have been. That was the case for my student’s older brother, as it was for my very first ACT student, who took the test a whopping seven times before I started working with her.

That’s point number one.

Point number two involves guidance counselors and college lists.

A few months ago, a friend of mine happened to find herself at a social event chatting with a woman who had worked as a guidance counselor in another tip-top suburban district for several decades. My friend’s son, a solid-B student with an interest in Computer Science, was starting to look at colleges, and my friend asked the woman whether she might be able to recommend a few schools.

She recommended exactly one school: Roger Williams, a notorious party school with an 80% acceptance rate. By coincidence, my friend had just spoken to another parent who had recently toured Roger Williams and had received what could diplomatically be called not a favorable impression.

So my friend asked whether the woman had any other suggestions. She humphed and said that she would need her go-to computer program to come up with even one additional option.

Twenty years of experience. In a district that sends students almost exclusively to selective schools. And she couldn’t come up with more than one option — and a poor one at that — for a student who wasn’t headed for the Ivy League but who was still smart and serious. 

Yes, the woman might have been peeved at being asked professional questions in a social setting, but just out of curiosity, I googled her district and managed to find the matriculation statistics for the high school where she worked.

What I encountered was one of the smallest group of colleges I’ve seen a high school send students to. Normally, there are a handful of colleges that enroll many students from a particular high school, then lots and lots of schools enrolling only one or two students. In this case, it was the opposite. There was a very short list of schools enrolling six or fewer students over a four year period, and a much longer list of ones enrolling between about 7 and 20 students. The fact that the vast majority of these schools were restricted to a fairly narrow geographical range near the district itself suggests that the guidance counselors were steering students toward the small group of schools that they were personally most familiar with.

Learning that reminded me of just why people hire private college counselors. They might be a luxury, but if that story was in any way representative of the state of college counseling, they perform a real service. 

On one hand, I understand that guidance counselors, particularly in large public schools, are perennially overworked and responsible for as many as several hundred students. They probably don’t have the time to keep up with which schools are up-and-coming, or to learn about of schools outside their geographical area in any depth.

Much like SAT tutors who focus on the Math section because they just feel more comfortable teaching it, these tutors tend to recommend the same set of schools over and over again simply because they’ve sent a lot of students to those schools in the past.

The result, however, is that students may miss out on learning about schools that are good matches for them — including ones that might offer significant financial aid — but that fall outside the scope of their counselors’ knowledge.

So my advice is to give your guidance counselor a chance when it comes to suggesting colleges, but also be aware that he or she may not necessarily be the best resource.

There are a whole lot of schools between the Ivy League and Podunk Community college, and you shouldn’t limit your options prematurely. Poke around on College Confidential, do a search for the best programs in your areas of interest, and sit down with the Fiske Guide or Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Just don’t assume that the schools you’ve been told about are the only ones you should be considering.