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If you apply to Yale University, you’ll be asked, “What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?”
Similarly, Caltech wants to know, “How do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?”
And if you’re interested in attending Notre Dame, you’ll need to respond to the following: “What excites you about the University of Notre Dame that makes it stand out from other institutions?”
Okay, you get the idea:
These are just a few variations on what we like to call the “Why This College” essay.
- Most colleges and universities require applicants to answer some form of this question, and it’s one of the most important essays you’ll write.
In this article, we’ll tell you how to rock the “Why This College” essay and increase your chances of acceptance.
Why This Question?
We mentioned above that this is one of the most important essays you’ll write—and that almost every college wants you to write it.
But why? What’s the significance of this question?
In reading your response, colleges are hoping to determine:
- Whether you truly know and have interest in their school
- Whether you’ll be a good fit for the school
- Whether the school is a good fit for you
Are You Interested?
Sure, the fact that you’re filling out the application indicates some level of interest in the school.
- But many students apply to schools simply because they recognize the name, know the school has a great reputation, or even have been pushed in that direction by friends or family members.
Colleges only accept a limited number of students, and they want to admit students who have a genuine interest in and commitment to their school.
- Do you know what makes this college stand out from others?
- Do you know about the opportunities and experiences this school can offer?
- Are you aware of the school’s values, culture, and traditions?
- Have you already spent time picturing yourself here? Are you excited about this possibility?
As you write this essay, aim to demonstrate your knowledge and enthusiasm for the school in question.
Are You a Good Fit for the School?
As they read your essays, college admissions officers try to picture you on their campus.
- Will you fit in and thrive there?
- What contributions will you make to their college and community?
- Do your interests mesh well with the school’s strengths?
- Is your personality a good fit for the school’s culture and values?
Help the admissions team imagine you as someone who would happily thrive at their school, making positive contributions to campus.
Is the School a Good Fit for You?
Not only do you need to be a good fit for the school, but the school needs to be a good fit for you as well.
- What are your academic and career goals? Can this school help you achieve them?
- Will you be successful at this school? Is the rigor and approach to learning a good fit for you?
- What academic programs, research or internship opportunities, classes, extracurricular activities, and so on will you take advantage of and participate in?
Show that the school you’re applying to has the resources to help you achieve academic and career success.
How to Recognize the “Why This College” Question
Of course, this essay won’t be labeled “Why This College” on applications. You’ll have to be able to recognize it in a variety of forms.
There are two different angles colleges might use to approach this question: “Why us?” and “Why you?”
- Why us? Here, you’ll express enthusiasm for the school and its opportunities and culture. What will you get out of attending this school?
- Why you? In this case, the focus is on the contributions you’ll make to campus and the skills, background, and talents that make you a good fit.
Although these approaches are slightly different, you can include similar information in your answers to both prompt types.
For instance, let’s say you’re really excited about a particular program offered by the university.
- If the university’s asking, “Why us?” you might focus on what an amazing opportunity participating in this program would be, and why you’re so excited about it. You could explain how the program would help you achieve your future goals.
- For a “Why you?” essay, you might describe how your background, experiences, and abilities make you a perfect fit for the program. You could also discuss how your future goals make you someone who would benefit from and take advantage of this program.
Let’s take a look at what these two different approaches look like.
Examples of “Why Us?” Prompts
In some cases, the college will literally ask you, “Why [college name here]?” making this prompt very easy to identify.
Alternatively, they might ask you:
- What do you like best about our university?
- Why are you interested in our school?
- Why do you want to go to our college?
- What aspects of our college most excite you?
- “Why Brown?” – Brown University
- “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.” – Columbia University
- “What are the top five reasons you want to be a Hokie?” – Virginia Tech
- “Please submit a one page, single-spaced essay that explains why you have chosen Carnegie Mellon and your particular major(s), department(s) or program(s).” – Carnegie Mellon
Examples of “Why You?” Prompts
These prompts focus more on you, asking questions like:
- What are your interests or goals and how will you pursue them here?
- What will you contribute to our school?
- Why are you a good match/good fit for us?
- What do you want to study and how does this fit well with our programs?
- “Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why?” – Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- “How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania?” – University of Pennsylvania
- “Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC.” – University of Southern California
- “Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study?” – Georgetown University
No matter how they word it, these schools are asking the classic “Why This College” question.
How to Write an Impressive “Why This College” Essay
The key to a stellar “Why This College” essay is to give specific, precise details about what you and the university can offer to one another.
You also need to convey your enthusiasm and excitement about the college and the unique opportunities available there.
Do Your Research
First, you need to gather information about your college(s) of choice.
And we’re not talking about the generic info yielded by a two-minute Google search.
This type of research will take some time, but earning an acceptance letter from your dream school will make it worth the effort.
You’re looking for precise details about:
- Courses and programs
- Extracurricular and internship opportunities
- Events and activities
- Campus culture
- The latest news about your college and its achievements
How can you find this information?
Use a variety of resources, including:
- The school’s website and other materials
- College fairs
- Campus tours
- Conversations with current students
Let’s take a closer look at how to take advantage of these sources.
The School’s Website and Other Materials
You can find great information on the university’s website, but try not to pull info from the overview you’ll find on the front page.
Many students might use this technique, so you could end up sounding just like other applicants (which you want to avoid).
Instead, take a deeper dive.
- Look through the course catalog, go to specific professor’s websites, review the particular programs you’re interested in, and so on.
- As you do so, be sure to take notes!
- Also, record your reactions to the information you’re finding—are you especially excited about a certain course? Why?
You can find similar info in the school’s newspaper, alumni magazines, brochures, social media, and more.
Gather as much material published by the school as you can, and take your time combing through it for opportunities that you find particularly exciting.
Visiting college fairs is another effective way to gather information about schools.
In addition to getting brochures and other materials, you can talk to the college reps.
Ask them questions about their university and what makes it unique, then jot down notes so you can include these details in your essay later!
Mentioning a campus tour you’ve taken demonstrates your genuine interest in the school.
You and your family have made the effort to travel to campus and take a tour—that’s a good sign!
You can also find tons of unique details about the college by visiting campus and taking a tour. As always, be sure to take notes.
- Are there any buildings that stand out to you? Sculptures?
- Do you see students doing anything that makes you want to be part of this campus community?
- Try to sit in on some classes if possible. Write down the course name, the professor’s name, and anything intriguing that you hear or see during the lecture.
- Talk to students if you can, asking them what they like best about the school or what makes their school different from others.
- If you go on a tour, write down the name of your tour guide, along with anything surprising or funny that your tour guide says about the school.
Note your overall impressions and anything you see that you especially like, no matter how small. These seemingly insignificant details are what make your essay!
And if you can’t go on a physical tour, try to take a virtual one. Many schools offer virtual tours on their website, or you can search sites like Youtube.
As mentioned above, talking to students can give you a perspective you won’t necessarily find online.
- Is there anyone from your high school that now attends this college?
- Try contacting them through social media, or see if anyone knows their phone number.
- College students are often happy to discuss their university with prospective students.
Visiting campus is another way to find students to talk to, and some admissions websites list contact information for students you can email with questions about life at the university.
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How to Brainstorm the Essay
Once you’ve gathered enough information about your college or university, it’s time to brainstorm!
Sift through all of your research and notes to find 3-5 aspects of the school that appeal to you the most. Make sure these are specific details!
- Don’t choose broad statements like, “The historic brick buildings on campus are beautiful,” or regurgitate info from the school’s front page, like, “This school is known for its strong engineering curriculum.”
- Try to focus on what interests you and fits well with your goals and background, as well as on what makes the school stand out from others.
- Are you excited that your school is near a beach, or that it’s located in Chicago? Lots of schools are located near beaches, and there’s more than one university in Chicago. Dig deeper. What makes this school unlike any other?
Here’s the bottom line:
You need to choose 3-5 details that:
- Are specific to you (Don’t just praise this school, but explain why this quality is great for you, or how it connects to your background and future goals.)
- Are specific to the school
- Make you eager to attend this university (Your interest and enthusiasm should shine through in this essay.)
Here are a few ideas:
- Talk about how a specific program or opportunity can help you realize your career goals.
- Does the school have facilities or equipment that you can’t find at many other schools, and that you’re excited to work with? This could include a specialized laboratory, an observatory, a library with rare manuscripts or first editions, etc.
- Mention a class you find fascinating and can’t wait to take. This is especially effective if you were able to sit in on the class or have spoken to a current student who loves it.
- Is there a professor you can’t wait to learn from? Maybe his research is related to a science fair project you did in high school, or you’ve already learned a lot just from reading one of his books.
- Describe an experience you had on the campus tour, or an impactful interaction you had with students or staff.
- Do you have a unique story about how you became interested in the school? Maybe your family had time to spare on a vacation in the area, and you stopped by and fell in love. Or perhaps your high school attended a competition hosted there.
- Are you planning to continue work, research, or involvement with an organization from high school? How will you be able to do so at this university?
- What programs or activities do you plan to get involved with, and what qualities or experiences will you bring them?
- Are you the perfect match for a research or internship opportunity? Why? Maybe you’ve done relevant academic work, have already worked in this field, have been exposed to it via your parents or another relative, etc.
However, you should avoid focusing on:
- Sports. Unless you have a unique story about your passion for the sports teams, or you’re planning to be an athlete yourself, try to avoid discussing that you’re a fan of the school’s teams. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s just an overused topic!
- Generic praise. Although praise is nice, it’s not what admissions officers want to hear. They want to know how you personally connect with the school.
- College rankings. Sure, this college might be ranked #3 for happiest students. But it’s probably pretty similar to other schools ranked in the top 10. What makes it different?
- The beautiful campus. If there’s something specific about the campus that spoke to you, feel free to talk about it. But many, many students write about the gorgeous campus or say, “The moment I stepped on your campus, I knew I was home.” You want to avoid clichés, and the truth is that most college campuses are pretty.
- Your major. Talk about your major, by all means. But don’t merely focus on why you want to study this major. Focus on why you want to study it at this college.
Try to choose 3-5 details that are unique to this college, specific to you, and super exciting!
Writing the “Why This College” Essay: Do’s and Don’ts
Now that you’ve honed in on 3-5 details, it’s time to write. Be sure to follow the do’s and don’ts below.
- Be authentic. Mean what you’re saying, and write in your own voice. Believe it or not, insincerity will come through in your essay. When the admissions team reads your essay, they should feel real passion and enthusiasm for their school.
- Be specific. You’ve probably seen the word “specific,” a lot in this article, and that’s because it’s super important! Specificity shows that you’ve taken the time to do your research and envision yourself at this school, and it’ll ensure that your essay is not like any other. Mention professors, courses, clubs, and other opportunities by name.
- Mention it if you plan on attending here if admitted. If this is your first choice school and you absolutely plan on attending if admitted, say so. Colleges want to accept students who will accept them in return. But if the school isn’t your first choice, don’t lie.
- Revise and edit. Check over your spelling, grammar, and word usage. Ask a trusted friend, family member, or teacher to look over your work as well. But keep in mind that no matter how many times you revise your essay or how much advice you get, it still needs to sound like you!
- Waste space on an introduction and conclusion. You’ll likely have a limited number of words, so don’t bother with an introduction or conclusion. Just jump right into your reasons. Your first paragraph should focus on your main 1-2 reasons, while the next paragraph should go into slightly less detail about the remaining reasons you’ve selected.
- Recycle the same essay. This essay requires a specific response that is tailored to the college you’ve selected. If you use the same essay for multiple colleges, it will sound generic, boring, and forgettable. Even worse, you might forget to change the school name!
- Misspell the college’s name. This seems obvious, but many admissions officers have mentioned students misspelling the college’s name in their applications. Double and triple check to ensure all mentions of the school are spelled correctly. The same goes for names of programs, professors, and courses.
Let’s look at a few examples of stellar “Why This College” essays that worked.
These examples come from students who were accepted to Tufts University.
Depending on the word limit for the colleges you’re applying to, yours may be a bit longer.
I spent my Tufts campus visit in a “Sociology of War and Peace” class. The discussion was rich as ideas were tossed back and forth, comparing and contrasting modern warfare in different regions and cultures. The dialogue instantly excited me, but when the students I was sitting with invited me to come to lunch with them, to continue talking about the Middle Eastern conflict, I knew that Tufts was the kind of environment I was looking for: an open community that values dialogue, and a campus with a strong intellectual pulse, even outside of the classroom.
-Jesse Ryan ‘21
Here, Jesse mentions a specific course that he was able to visit during a tour of Tufts. He details the discussion he observed in the class, as well as an interaction that followed with Tufts students.
He then explains why this experience was significant to him personally.
As an artist, I believe that one’s work should reflect the world beyond it. Thus, I’m most attracted to Tufts SMFA’s combination of rigorous artistic study with a challenging liberal arts curriculum at the School of Arts and Sciences. I want to inform my art-making with in-depth exploration of sociology, justice, and international relations, creating works that comment on global issues–a prospect uniquely possible at Tufts SMFA. With numerous opportunities for combining art and community work on campus and in Boston, the SMFA program shows art isn’t only meant for the classroom; it’s meant for the world.
-Isaac Joon-hyuk Choi ‘21
Isaac’s essay starts by explaining his own personal philosophy as an artist.
Next, he reflects on how a specific program at Tufts perfectly complements this philosophy.
His response shows a deep knowledge of the program he’s interested in, and he even discusses how he will use the skills he acquires in this program in his future art-making.
I vividly remember stepping onto the roof of Tisch Library and seeing a group of kids sitting in hammocks, overlooking the Boston skyline. I briefly tuned out my tour guide’s presentation and began to eavesdrop. The students covered everything from physics to what they had for lunch that day. When they spoke about physics, they did not speak with pretension; instead they spoke with passion. Likewise, when they spoke about something as simple as lunch, they did so with witty intrigue. Tufts students are as interesting as they are interested. This description not only resonates with me, it defines me.
-Christopher Sprunt ‘21
Notice that Christopher mentions a school facility by name in his first sentence, also providing a vivid description of a Tufts memory that resonated with him.
In his final sentence, he explains why this experience was personally significant.
Christopher is not only pleased by what he’s seen and heard from Tufts students, but he also feels that his personality is a great fit.
Conclusion: Writing the “Why This College” Essay
The “Why This College” essay is important because schools want to ensure that you understand what makes their school unique and that you and the school are a great fit for each other.
Although the prompt may be phrased as either “Why you?” or “Why us?” these questions are essentially the same.
- Either way, you’ll talk about both what the college can offer you and what you can offer the college in your essay.
To really nail this essay, you’ll need to spend a significant amount of time researching the school.
- Once you’ve compiled notes and research, choose 3-5 details that you personally connect with and that are unique to the university or college.
Finally, you’re ready to write the essay! Jump right in, with no introduction or conclusion, and be authentic and enthusiastic. Revise and edit, and absolutely don’t misspell the name of the college!
Follow these tips, and your “Why This College” essay can help you stand out from the crowd—and earn that acceptance letter you’ve been dreaming of!