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 specific areas, or maybe you’re the sort of intensely focused, self-directed studier who would excel in a more open system.

Next, look 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.