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.  

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. 

My top tip for managing college essays

College application season is upon us again, and if you’re a rising senior or the parent of a rising senior just starting to pull a final list of colleges together, you might be starting to notice that the whole process is, well, a little bit complicated.

Everyone talks about the famous “college essay,” but in reality that should be “essays,” plural. And potentially lots of them. There is of course the main Common App personal statement, but what you might not realize until you actually sit down and begin adding schools is that many colleges have institution-specific supplements that include additional essay questions.

Most of these questions require around 150-250 words, but some can be just as long as the main personal statement.

If you are applying to specialized programs in engineering, health sciences, businesses, or architecture, you will almost certainly need to write multiple essays for some schools. 

Since the Common App makes it so easy to add colleges with the click of the button, and since students are applying to increasing numbers of schools as a way to hedge against dropping acceptance rates and unpredictable financial aid packages, it’s easy to end up with a whole lot of essays to write. 

Now, if you (or your child) is the sort of hyper-organized type-A student who has known your first-choice college since sophomore year and started your applications sometimes last spring, this might not pose too much of a problem.

This post is for the rest of you.

Although it might sound like nothing more than straightforward common sense, I cannot stress how important the following is for keeping the number of essays you need to write from becoming overwhelming. When I did admissions counseling, it was the absolute first thing I had every single single student do. 

Go to the Common App and click on the supplement for every school you are planning to apply to.

Find the essay questions for each college, and copy and paste all of them into an Excel document, divided by school. 

Make sure to include the character minimum/limit for each question. For maximum clarity, put this information in a separate column.

When you have compiled all of the essay questions, go through the document and see which topics repeat in multiple schools. Although the phrasing may change slightly from school to school, there should be a significant amount of overlap. Even schools that go out of their way to ask quirky questions (ahem, UChicago) typically also include at least one relatively general option designed to give you some leeway.

Provided that you do not completely detest the topics/themes that recur most frequently across schools, think of an  experience/interest/personality trait that you can in some way connect to the most common topic, and make it your primary supplement essay. Remember that it is not necessary to answer every question to the letter: as long as the connection is reasonably clear, you’ll be fine. The prompts are mostly there to induce you to write essays that will not put admissions committee members to sleep. 

Start with the school with the longest essay, usually about 500 words. Then, pare it back for schools with similar questions but progressively shorter character counts. It’s a lot easier to get rid of words than it is to add them.

For schools whose questions do not quite fit, you may also be able to rewrite short sections of your essay to give it a slightly different slant. The point is to recycle material whenever you can, albeit in a way that doesn’t feel artificial. This will take a little practice, but most people get the hang of it after the first few schools.  

Also: almost every school with a supplement will have a “why this school?” question. Again, write the essay with highest character count first: this is your template. For each subsequent school, research the same set of features: departments, classes (find ones in your areas of interest that look particularly interesting), professors, clubs, internship opportunities, etc. Then, you can plug in with just a few alterations to account for different schools’ quirks and particularities. Just don’t forget to change the name of the school. You do not want to proclaim your undying affection for the University of North Carolina on the essay you’re submitting to Duke. 

And finally: writing college essays is like any other skill: the more you do it, the better you get. If possible, wait until you’ve done a few apps to work on those for your top choices. Your essays may continue to evolve, and you want to leave yourself some room to grow before working on the schools that matter most to you.