How to Research and Write a "Why This College?" Essay
As part of the college application process, many colleges ask applicants to include a supplemental essay explaining why they are interested in their school specifically. There’s one absolute must for writing a great answer to this question: do your research.
Admissions officers are looking for applicants to prove that they are knowledgeable and interested in their school in particular. General answers like “I like the location” or “It’s the right size and offers my major” won’t earn you much praise. Admissions officers are far more impressed by students who can take very specific information—the names of certain classes, for example—and connect it to their personal academic interests.
The process of writing a “Why this college?” essay should look something like this:
- Thoroughly research the college
- Connect what you’ve learned through your research to yourself
- Outline and write the essay
How to research a college
The first step in the process is by far the most important. Research should be concrete and very specific—the College Board’s “At a Glance” pages or the “About” section of the college website won’t have the information you need. Instead, look deeply into the college website to find information that isn’t so obvious.
The information you come up with should only be applicable to one college—if you could replace the name of one school with another and have the essay still make sense, you’re not being specific enough.
Visit the campus
Most students visit colleges they’re considering before they apply, and those visits can be a great source of information. Not only will you learn information on the tour, but you’ll also connect with a current student—the tour guide. Current students can answer questions about campus life, and mentioning your interactions with students in your essay can help strengthen it.
On your tour, keep an eye out for any information, big or small, about what makes the school unique. Ask your tour guide about what on-campus social events they enjoy or what unusual traditions they’ve taken part in.
If you’re an international student or otherwise unable to travel to the campus, check if there are other opportunities to find out more about the campus, such as virtual tours.
Look for courses and professors that interest you
If you have a major in mind, there will almost certainly be a list of requirements for that major somewhere on the website. Many schools also make their course catalog available on their website, which can be an excellent resource for prospective students.
You should also check the names of professors teaching in the department. Professors’ email addresses will usually be listed on these pages, and you can email them with any specific questions about the program that the admissions office can’t answer.
This process can work even if you aren’t sure what you’d like to major in. Look for classes in any fields that pique your interest. Find programs you might be interested in—such as study abroad or internship programs—and dig for detailed information about them.
Researching other activities
In addition to finding information on the academics of your chosen school, you should also research other aspects of the college. Non-academic motivations probably won’t make up the bulk of your essay, but they can be a great addition.
Student organizations are good to mention, and it’s great to connect with students who participate in organizations you’re interested in prior to writing your essay.
If you’re a student athlete, you will likely meet with the coach for your sport before you apply. Feel free to mention that—and what you discussed with them—in your essay.
You can also mention other unique traditions or quirks of the school that appeal to you. For example, Muhlenberg College prides itself on painting all of the doors on campus red as a sign of welcome; mentioning that in your essay could show that you’re invested in the friendly, communal culture of that school.
Plan and write the essay
Once you’ve completed your research, you’re ready to start the writing process. All the general rules of essay writing still apply—you’ll want, for example, to organize your thoughts with an outline before getting started—but keep in mind that many schools want this essay to be short compared to the personal essay.
In your early notes, be sure to include all the possible reasons the school appeals to you. Write down any information you gathered from your research, campus visit, or conversations with faculty or current students, along with anything else that strikes you as relevant. For example, here’s what Ariana’s list of her reasons for applying to Duke might look like.
Once your list of campus positives is finished, you can move on to writing an outline in which you organize your thoughts. In the outline, be sure to connect your research to yourself. You can do that by detailing a relevant experience, explaining an academic interest, or connecting the research to your personal life.
Once you’ve outlined your essay, you can write a draft. The word count for these essays is usually lower. Admissions officers don’t spend much time on each application, so be sure not to exceed the word count.
It’s okay for your answer to be short; successful answers to this question at Tufts, for example, range from just 100 words to 250 words.
Mistakes to avoid in a “Why this college?” essay
For a strong essay, avoid being too general or too emotional, and try not to repeat the same points you’ve already made in other parts of your application.
Speaking in generalities
The most common cause of a bad “Why this college?” essay is the use of generalities. You may have initially been interested in a school because of its size, ranking, reputation, or location, or the availability of your desired majors, but those aren’t specific enough reasons to include in your essay.
Overusing emotive language
It’s great if you “felt at home” on your college visit, but what does that really mean? You can call a college your “dream school,” but that doesn’t really explain what about it appeals to you.
While it’s fine to discuss the emotional reasons you like a specific college, your essay must include specific, concrete reasons why you want to attend.
Rewriting your personal essay or resume
Admissions officers already have your personal essay and resume right in front of them; you don’t need to reiterate what’s in those, especially if it isn’t relevant to the reasons you’ve given.
Rewriting your accomplishments over and over throughout the application can be annoyingly redundant or, worse, come off as boastful.
Frequently asked questions about college application essays
- What do colleges want in a “Why this college?” essay?
Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.
- How do I research a college?
Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.
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