Your "Why [This College]?" Essay

This post today is specifically for high school juniors who will be applying to college later this year. You should be asking yourself, “Why does this or that college truly attract me and why do I want to go there?”

The reason you need to know the answer to this is because you will almost certainly encounter a Common Application supplemental essay that essentially asks the very same question of you. These questions may require a limited-length response (150-200 or so words) or may not have any limit. They are all seeking your attitude regarding why you want to spend your undergraduate college career at their institution.

The prompts may look simple on the page, but never underestimate the value of a well thought out, cogent response. Granted, if you are applying to a high number of colleges — I’m working with a senior who is applying to 20 (!) — you will quickly tire of seeing these prompts.

The good news is that you can learn how to “decode” these prompts, put them into a couple different categories, and then recycle your text for other schools’ prompts, with a few minor customizations. For example, there’s the simple and straightforward “Why do you want to attend Juniata College”


Then there is what I call the “Ask not …” (a JFK inaugural speech allusion) question: “What qualities can you contribute to the student body at Lycoming?” This is your chance to turn your profile into an effective marketing piece.

How about the “Diversity” prompt? Here’s an actual prompt from Trinity College: “We live in an urban-global age with over half of the planet’s inhabitants living in cities. Trinity College is an urban liberal arts college deeply engaged with the local community and committed to making an impact across the world. How do you aspire to use your education to impact local and global communities?”

The key to decoding this prompt is noting certain phrases, such as “urban-global age,” “planet’s inhabitants,” “impact across the world,” and “impact local and global communities.” From where I sit, this prompt has the issue of diversity written all over it. Your best approach would be to emphasize your exposure to, experience with, and embracing of all manner of ethnic variations. Colleges today are putting more and more emphasis on “colorizing” their student bodies, which means that you may not get in based on your academics alone. You must be able to explain your positive experiences with a wide range of local and global urban community residents.

Other examples of “Why [this college]?” prompts:

– Why do you think Earlham is a good fit for you?

– How did you learn about Colorado College and why do you wish to attend?

– Why Lafayette?

– How did your interest in Oberlin develop and what aspects of our college community most excite you?

– One thing Walla Walla is famous for is sweet onions – they’re not only tasty, but also multi-layered. What’s a layer of your life not highlighted in your application that would add to Whitman’s community?

– Why F&M?

– Macalester is a community that includes people from many different backgrounds. Please write an essay about how your background, experiences, or outlook might add to the Mac community, academically and personally.

– Why Bates?


And so on. I hope you’re getting the idea here.

Now, for the general “Why Bates?” (or whatever school) prompt, how can you best respond to that? First of all, I can advise you about what not to do.

– Don’t gush about anything that easily can be found in any of the school’s marketing materials (glossy brochures, Web videos, virtual tours, etc.). This shows that you really haven’t looked deeply enough into the school’s offerings.

– Don’t drool over the great, wonderful, exciting city where the school is located. Granted, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. are huge urban locations that offer everything from world-class arts to five-star restaurants. However, you’re not applying to be accepted by a city (or restaurant); you’re applying to be accepted by a college that’s located in one of these cities. The great, wonderful, and exciting aspects of the city are of no interest to the admissions folks at your prospective college. They want to know about your connection with the deeper aspects of what their school offers.

So, assuming that you avoid the “don’ts” that I just mentioned, how, exactly, do you find those deeper things?

Answer: Drill down through the college’s Web site.

I advise my clients to touch on several key areas related to their specific area of interest (a.k.a. “major,” assuming that they already know in which academic area they wish to study). These areas include specific references to faculty, specific mentions of physical resources, and specific callouts of courses.

Do you see any common thread among those? “Specific,” you say. Yes! Advance to the head of the class!


Specificity in responding to the “Why [this college]?” prompt is your key to success. Try to imagine how many mind-numbing responses admissions officers get every year that blabber on about “The Big Apple,” the “beautiful campus,” “the diverse student body,” and even the “great” football team. You’ll be lucky to get a 10-second read if you write like that.

You must  go to the college’s Web site and find the particular department’s pages for the academic area in which you are interested and start to review faculty profiles. Most will have connections to certain courses they teach. These are the specific references I’m talking about: names of faculty and names of courses they teach. Find two or three of each, depending on your word limit, and mention them.

As for physical resources, say, for example, that you’re interested in a pre-med curriculum. Organic chemistry likely will be one of your core courses. Check out both the biology and chemistry departments’ pages to see if they mention anything special about a new laboratory or science facility. These would be perfect for mentioning. The same applies for other academic areas — mathematics: do they have a new computer lab?; physical education: how about human physiology facilities?; political science: local, regional, or national internship possibilities?; music: maybe a new arts building or a new grant for rehearsal building pianos? And so on.

These are the kinds of specific elements rarely mentioned in a statement about why an applicant wants to attend a certain college. If you follow this approach, you will come off as being much better informed than many other applicants and, if you have already visited and/or interviewed, you will have added a very strong component to the sincerity aspect of your application.

“What if I don’t have a specific major in mind? How can I be specific then?” you may be asking. Well, you can still be specific. Surely, there may be at least a couple areas you’ve been thinking about following. If so, follow my guidelines and dig out some aspects about each of those and couch them inside a “I need to find where my true passion lies” perspective. If, however, you have absolutely no idea what you want to take up in college, first ask yourself this question: “Why do I want to go to college?” Then, if you can come up with a convincing answer to that, use your best persuasive approach to choose an area or two in which you might (maybe) be interested. Who knows? Your speculative projection just might convince yourself, in addition to the admissions staff. Just be .. what? … yes … specific!

Okay, juniors. Start thinking about why you want to go to the colleges to which you will apply this fall. Also, save yourself some valuable time by starting to dig out those specifics I mentioned. You’ll not only be quite convincing, but you’ll also be very happy that you did your homework early.


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