How to write a “Why this college?” essay

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.

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.

Example: Researching courses
Ariana, a high school senior from New York, is applying to Duke. She isn’t sure what she wants to do as a career, but she’s interested in medicine and linguistics. She has considered career paths like speech-language pathology, linguistic research, or neuroscience research. In her personal essay, Ariana discussed her Puerto Rican heritage and growing up in a bilingual household.

To answer the “Why Duke?” supplemental essay question, Ariana looks at Duke’s registrar website, which offers a version of the course catalog online, and searches for courses in linguistics. There are plenty of courses that seem perfect for Ariana: “Spanish in the US,” “Neuroscience and Human Language,” and “Bilingualism” are all great fits with her interests.

Ariana can then look more deeply into the courses that appeal to her. She finds that the professor who teaches “Neuroscience and Human Language” also teaches a course called “Language, Music, and Dementia,” which seems perfect for a student interested in both language and neuroscience. It’s also a unique course—unlike “Intro to Linguistics” or “Linguistics 101,” most colleges don’t offer a course with that specific focus, even if they offer linguistics as a major.

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.

Example: Planning the “Why this college?”
  • Academic interests:
    • Combining linguistics and medicine/healthcare
    • Interesting courses: “Neuroscience and Human Language”; “Language, Music, and Dementia”; “Spanish in the US”
  • From visit to Duke:
    • Campus atmosphere: I overheard students discussing their academic interests throughout the day, even at the dining hall. The student body seems passionate and focused on academics.
    • Conversation with a student during the tour: Discussed my interest in Spanish/bilingualism with a student who happened to be majoring in Spanish.
  • Other:
    • Clubs/activities: Latin American Students Organization and Mi Gente
    • VLearn Program: Duke offers students $70 per semester for lunch with a faculty member

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.

Example: Connecting academic interest to a course

I have always been interested in language and how it intersects with neuroscience and medicine. Duke’s “Language, Music, and Dementia” class seems tailor-made for me: it’s the exact type of course I’d like to take and would prepare me for a future career in research or medicine, my two academic passions.

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.

Example: Overly general reasons
US News and World Report ranks Duke at #9 for national universities. That’s great, but there’s no real way for Ariana to explain why that makes Duke appealing to her personally. Why is that ranking relevant to her? Why apply to the ninth-ranked school instead of the first?

She’d run into a similar problem if she discussed the fact that Duke offers both biology and linguistics. There are hundreds of colleges in the US that can claim that, so it isn’t a very good explanation for why she’s applying to Duke.

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 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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Meredith Testa

Meredith has helped high school students gain admission to their dream schools for the past 7 years. She is based in New York and enjoys teaching dance in her spare time.

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1 comment

Meredith Testa
Meredith Testa (Scribbr Team)
September 24, 2021 at 6:18 PM

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