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The “Why this college?” essay is a great chance for colleges to learn about you — but you should learn about them, first.
If you’re applying to even just a few colleges, you’re bound to come across a common essay question: Why is this college a good choice for you? Unless it’s your dream school and you’ve been fantasizing about attending since you were a small child, it can be a tough question to answer. Or at least, a tough question to answer in a meaningful way that will stand out to college admissions officers.
Here are three things you need to know in order to do well on the “Why this college?” admissions essay.
1. Understand why they’re asking it.
Understanding why colleges ask this question can help you put together a more compelling response. According to April Bell, the director of college planning with The College Board, the “Why this college?” essay is not just a pointless technicality.
“The admissions officer is seeking to learn more about how serious the student is about attending their school,” said Bell, who also used to be a college adviser and teacher.
If your answer is general enough that it could work for another school’s essay or your reasons for attending that school are easily transferable to plenty of other schools (such as tuition is relatively cheap), then the admissions officer may suspect you’re not serious about their school. Remember, they don’t want to admit someone they don’t think will show up in the fall.
There’s another reason colleges, especially competitive ones, require this admissions essay.
“The admission folks are clamoring to find out if a candidate is an exceptionally good fit for their institution,” said Sally Rubenstone, senior adviser at College Confidential and former admissions counselor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
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By you explaining why the college is a good fit for you, the college can determine if you’re a good fit for it. For example, if you explain you want to attend that college because its accounting program will help further your specific career goals, then the college can assess if that program can benefit you and if you can benefit the program. A lot can be determined from this one essay.
2. Do some research.
You can’t just dive into the “Why this college?” essay blind, according to Bell.
“To answer the question well, do your research both about your area of interest and the specific offerings on that campus,” Bell said.
If you’re going to show you’re serious about the college and are a good fit, then you need to know about the program you plan to enter. Without mentioning specifics, your essay will either sound emotionally driven (“Attending this college just feels right”) or like it can fit any other school’s essay.
In Rubenstone’s College Confidential article “Tips for Answering ‘Why THIS College?’ Essay Questions,” she recommends students flip through the college’s catalogs for course offerings and discuss your findings in the essay.
“Obviously, these offerings should be pretty unusual,” Rubenstone wrote. “Admission committees won’t be impressed if you say, ‘I want to go to Princeton because I found that I can take classes in Shakespeare and organic chemistry.'”
Mentioning specific course offerings (ones only that college offers) can really show the college that you’re interested in its specific program. But it will require reading through all the course descriptions and responding in a genuine way.
3. Be specific.
Rubenstone thinks that way too often, students are too vague and generic when answering the “Why this college?” essay question.
“Admission folks don’t want to see these generic replies or other similar ones, like ‘From the moment I stepped on your campus, I knew it was the place for me.'” Rubenstone said. “The best responses to ‘Why this college?’ questions tend to be very specific, perhaps referencing a conversation with an enthusiastic sophomore during a campus visit or explaining how a chemistry professor’s current research meshes with the applicant’s science fair project.”
If you can’t find something specific about the college that will fulfill your goals, then perhaps it’s not the right school for you to earn your bachelor’s degree at after all.
“Such essays do, or at least should, make students think about the college in question and what indeed it offers to them,” Rubenstone said. “Inevitably, there must be some applicants who sit down to tackle their ‘Why this college?’ assignment only to realize that the college is actually a pretty lousy choice.”
When you do tackle the “Why this college?” admissions essay, don’t just copy and paste a generic essay to each college. Do the necessary research and analysis to convince the college (and yourself) that you’re a good fit there. Otherwise, it can hurt your chances of getting accepted.
Jon Fortenbury is an Austin-based freelance writer and human being. He’s been published by the likes of the Huffington Post and AOL.com. He blogs semi-regularly at jonfortenbury.com.
accounting programs, college admissions, College Board, Jon Fortenbury, the application, COLLEGE CHOICE
Question: I have to write several essays explaining why I have chosen particular colleges on my list. I haven’t been able to visit any of these schools or attend fairs or meet college reps, and I can’t think of anything to say that would sound genuine and show that I clearly have a believable reason for my attraction. Even after thinking long and hard, I haven’t been able to come up with any decent reason for wanting to go to specific colleges. I don’t want my essays to sound as if they came straight from the website or brochure. I really hate writing these essays and need some suggestions on how to approach them.
I hate those “Why This College?” assignments, too. I’ve seen students write the same essay for totally disparate schools, plugging in new adjectives, as needed, almost as if they were doing a “Mad Lib.” For instance, “I’ve always wanted to attend a LARGE UNIVERSITY” quickly turns into, “I’ve always wanted to attend a SMALL COLLEGE.” Or “I prefer a COLD climate” is transformed into “I prefer a WARM climate.”
In a perfect world, I think colleges should make this essay optional. The prompt should say something like this: If you have a truly compelling reason for selecting our institution, please explain. However 99% of our applicants should not respond to this question, and if you write a bunch of B.S., it will be held against you 🙂
Of course, it’s hard enough to compose these essays when you do know why you’re interested in your target schools, and harder still if your reasons for applying are as vague as yours are.
Here are some suggestions of ways to personalize the process of writing these nasty things. Hopefully, at the same time this little exercise will force you to look more closely at the choices you’ve made and see if they’re really the right ones for you.
1) Check out the comments about your target colleges on College Confidential. Feel free to quote CC members in your “Why This College Essay.” For instance, “Penn caught my eye when I spotted a comment on the College Confidential discussion forum by a member who called himself, ‘Ilovebagels.’ I love bagels, too (but that’s probably not a wise reason to choose a college!) and also I was interested when he said, ‘I’ve found Penn to be a remarkably centrist institution. Which as a right-of-center person, I felt put it ahead of the other Ivies with their legions of hippies.’ This made me think that Penn might be a good fit for me, so I started to dig deeper …”
2) Make e-mail contact with a “real” student. Many admission Web sites have links that allow you to connect with a current student. You can also do this though a friend or acquaintance who attends your target schools, by using college Web site directories to find students who share common interests (e.g., the president of the outing club or captain of the squash team), or by writing to the admission office and asking if they might be able to refer you to a Classics major or pre-med student or anyone who shares your interests, your home state or country, etc. Then, after corresponding with this student penpal, you can cite his or her words of wisdom in your essay.
3) Comb through college catalogs–either hard copies, if you have them, or online–to find classes/programs/activities that seem special and appealing then discuss your findings in your essays. Obviously, these offerings should be pretty unusual. Admission committees won’t be impressed if you say, “I want to go to Princeton because I found that I can take classes in Shakespeare and organic chemistry.” If you peruse entire catalogs and can’t find something that excites you, you really should be rethinking your college choices.
Finally, check out this thread on “Why This College Essays” on CC if you haven’t already to get some additional tips on those ornery essays. There is some great advice there from “Shrinkrap.”
I’m not sure why you haven’t been able to go on visits, attend fairs, meet with college reps, etc. Perhaps it’s geography and/or finances. But, if at all possible, in the months ahead, I do urge you to take a closer look at the schools that interest you, if possible, and even some that don’t, just so you’ll have options to compare.
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