Be Specific When Essay Asks "Why This College?"


All across America, high school seniors are wrestling with major challenges: The new school year, heavy academic loads, numerous activities and -- perhaps most oppressively (and maybe annoyingly) of all -- their college application processes and essay questions. It can be stressful enough to make any healthy teenager lose sleep.

Doing all the research necessary to create that final list of candidate schools is bad enough (forget about the time, energy and expense of visiting campuses), but the actual physical process of filling out the applications can create major frustrations. Applicants need to round up their recommendations, gather their lists of activities, make sure that each school's application requirements are satisfied, and then, after all that is done, they face the universally acclaimed worst part of applying: the essays.

The main Common Application essay is bad enough, with its 650-word limit and almost-too-many prompt choices. It's a major undertaking in itself. But there's an innocent looking prompt that pops up on colleges' supplemental essay lists that many seniors don't think about much. Blowing off this little question is a big mistake.

Every year about this time, I offer my thoughts on how to handle this important writing requirement. So, since we're now well past mid-October and quickly heading toward the Nov. 1 Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA) deadlines, I want to remind seniors (Regular Decision [RD] applicants, too) once again not to take this particular prompt lightly.

Let Me Introduce It by First Asking Some Questions

- You know why you're applying to a certain college, right?

- You wouldn't apply to a college without good reasons, right?

- There are definite aspects of the colleges you're applying to that make you want to attend, right?

- Well, then, what are those reasons, aspects, traits, qualities, etc., etc. that have inspired your applications?

You had better know what they are -- exactly -- because somewhere, lurking on those applications, usually in the Common Application supplemental essay section, is a version of this question:

What is it about [name of college] that has led you to apply?

Sounds simple enough, agreed? But it holds one of the keys that can unlock those university gates for you. So, be careful how you answer!

There are other versions of this question. Some variations include:

- “What specific courses of study at [college name] have inspired you to apply?"

- “The [college name] student body is bright and diverse. Why are you motivated to join them here?" Or, most succinctly:

- “Why [college name]?"

I have often wanted to advise my clients to respond this way: “Why Harvard? Why Not?" Such a concise, brilliant reply would result in an immediate fail for your application, no doubt. I'm willing to bet, though, that that exact response has been submitted at least once across the years, either enraging or amusing an admission officer immediately before sweeping the hilarious applicant's acceptance chances into the “Deny" pile with extreme prejudice.

I don't offer that knee-slapping advice to frazzled supplemental essay writers. However, I do have a few practical thoughts about the best way to handle this ubiquitous question. My advice can be summed up in two words: Be specific.

How to Offer Specifics

You'll have to do some digging on a school's website, but your time will be well rewarded, at least as far as your response to this prompt is concerned. The result of your digging will be a “Why [put your college name here]?" essay that will set you apart from the other unimaginative, even lazy, applicants against whom you are competing.

I've heard some other “advisors" explain their approaches to the “Why?" prompt. One well-meaning teacher instructed her students to use the college's mission statement (!) as inspiration for a response. She told her students to align their own ideals with each point of that particular school's mission statement.

Have you ever read a mission statement? They are some of the most pretentious, committee-devised examples of drivel out there. Here's part of an actual real-life college mission statement:

[College name] aims to develop independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, characterized by a zest for reasoned and civil debate, committed to understanding the diversity of the human experience, able to express ideas with clarity and grace, committed to lifelong learning, equipped with ethical and civic values, and prepared for lives of leadership and service. The College is committed to providing an intellectually rigorous undergraduate education within the context of a supportive, diverse residential community. Our curriculum integrates the traditional liberal arts with selected pre-professional studies. Our faculty are passionate about teaching, value close relationships with students, and are committed to the pedagogical and intellectual importance of research. All members of our community are committed to educating the whole person through experiences within and beyond the classroom

Holy moly! I didn't even quote the whole thing! That first sentence is 56 words long! How about: “The pedagogical and intellectual importance of research"? What the heck is that?! Talk about SAT words! Anyway, picture yourself trying to align your own ideals with each point of that particular school's mission statement! An exercise in imbecilic futility, for sure.

Well, you won't get that kind of advice from me -- so listen up!

Here's How to Handle the “Why [this college]?" Question

Step 1: Go to the college's website. Then, search for the section that addresses your particular area of academic interest. Let's say that you're interested in biology, perhaps to pursue a pre-med track. By the way, if you happen to be undecided about a major, you can always pretend to be excited about one.

Your goal is to get in. You won't be held to anything you say about a major in your application. You can always change from the organic chemistry references in your application to Undergraduate Studies after you enroll.

Step 2: Courses. Okay. You've found the college's biology section. Now, start looking for some course information. Once you've found that, pick out a couple courses that look good to you. These would be courses that pique your interest. Example of a course description: “BI-105 Biological Diversity and Ecology (Fall; Yearly; 3.00 Credits). The first of two introductory courses for students pursuing a program of emphasis in biology or in related areas such as biochemistry or environmental science. Topics covered include Mendelian genetics, evolution, ecology and the diversity of life."

With this specific information, you could write something like, “I'm particularly focused on the relationship between biological science and the environment. [Cornell's] BI-105 Biological Diversity and Ecology course is of special interest to me." Depending on the word limit for your response (many are in the 250-word range), you could add another course, or even two.

Step 3: Faculty. Now it's time to get specific about faculty. Go to the faculty listing of your college's website. There, you will find links to professors' biosketches. These are very helpful (and specific). For example, let's continue with your biology/pre-med-track “Why?" response. So, after searching for biology-related faculty, you find Dr. Thomas Chou's background blurb.

Thus, your response could continue something like this: “Dr. Thomas Chou's focus lies in understanding the behavioral adaptations and cellular modifications an organism makes in response to environmental challenges. This is the area I would like to pursue, possibly even later, in a graduate school program."

Well done! Now you have achieved specificity in both the areas of courses and faculty. You could even cite a second faculty member, if word limits allow.

Step 4: Physical resources. The final phase of your “Why?" response involves addressing that school's physical resources. Let's say that you've dug deeper into the college website's biology section and found that they have a mechanobiology lab. You could wrap up your statement with something like:

“Also, my interest in global environmental cellular reactions leads me to see [Cornell's] mechanobiology lab as a prime resource for me to study the fundamental nature of how cells sense and respond to mechanical stimuli. This would be critical in my work to seek new treatments for vascular disease during drug and toxicity screening."

All this (granted, technically dense, but very specific) verbiage can be produced by adapting text from the website's descriptions.

Summary: Can you see the difference between being specific about a college's courses, faculty and resources and how they apply to your educational goals vs. talking about a mission statement (!) or gushing about what a great city New York (or Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, etc.) is? As I mentioned, doing some deeper research about a school can portray you as a scholar rather than a tourist. The result of that portrayal could be a key to open important doors to your higher education.

Take the “Why this college?" question seriously. They're no joke.