When applying to college, one finds that there are several documents to submit as an integral part of the application. Among them, there is always a personal statement essay where applicants talk about what they expect from their studies, why they chose this line of studies, and – perhaps – why they would like to study in this particular school. Some schools, however, ask their applicants to expand on the latter and write a “why this college” essay additionally. When you were writing a personal statement, you may have found out that your task only seems pretty straightforward, whereas, in reality, there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid. “Why this college” essays are similar in this regard.
Why do schools want applicants to answer such a question? More importantly, how do you answer it appropriately? In this guide, we will talk about what schools want to see in such essays, so that you were not confused about knew precisely what to write and what not to write. We will provide some topics and prompts for your “why this college” essay, so you can write it swiftly and avoid any writer’s block, as well as some hints to persuade the admission officers that you are indeed sincere in your commitment to your goal of getting an education in their school. To facilitate your writing even further, we will also provide an example of a winning “why this college” essay.
We will investigate and answer the following questions:
- What is the purpose of asking applicants to write “why us” essays”?
- What are the types of prompts for such essays?
- How to make your “why this college” essay stand out?
- How to research your “why this college” essay?
- How to come up with a topic for a winning “why us” essay?
- What should applicants keep in mind while writing their “why this college” essays?
THE PURPOSE OF “WHY US” ESSAYS
You can imagine how many such essays college admission officers have to read. This, in turn, allows you to imagine the amount of effort that they invest in putting together a splendid class. This is why you should apply the same effort to make sure that you only put meaningful information into your essay.
As one may guess, the purpose of “why this college” essays partially dubs the goal of personal statements. On the one hand, the admission board wants to know how well-informed you are about the school – so that they knew how well you are prepared for what comes next. On the other hand, they want to know about your expectations from their school – to know whether or not they meet your expectations and whether or not you should seek a more fitting place to realize your aspirations.
If we go into a little more detail, we can list three factors to which your reader will pay attention:
- What makes this college so appealing to you. In general, this may involve the school’s rich history, outstanding values, their mission which you feel inspired to follow, etc. In particular, you are expected to know about their specific approach to the academic process. Needless, to say, you also need to express your approval of all of the above.
- What traits make you a perfect fit for the school’s requirements and traditions. This involves your areas of interest, which may include your hobbies, and how they accord to the school’s activities. In other words, they want to know how you expect to contribute to the school – not only academically, but also in terms of the campus life.
- Whether or not this particular school is your right choice. As we have mentioned, the admission board also wants to know about your expectations and what you want to get out of your school years to see whether or not they can meet these expectations. Their specific approach to studies is involved here, and applicants need to be confident that it will allow them to succeed academically. This, however, includes not only studies per se, but also all sorts of the extracurricular activities, including those that may be beneficial for the applicants’ future careers. The admission officers would like to make sure that their school is precisely what students are looking for.
As you answer these questions, it will provide more in-depth insight and other benefits not only to your reader but also to yourself. First of all, researching for your essay will let you know more about the school and what awaits you there. Moreover, you will obviously want to sound excited as you describe it all in writing. By doing so, you will build up your optimism, which is essential to a splendid start of your studies there. Secondly, you will ensure that you are making the right choice by applying to this particular college. You will know exactly what to do as soon as you set your foot on campus. There is also a chance, however, that you will not find this school particularly exciting and wisely choose to apply to a place that fits your aspirations better.
CLASSIFICATION OF “WHY THIS COLLEGE” ESSAY PROMPTS
Given all of the above, you already understand that a “why this college” will have two focal points. They are “why us” and “why you.” Naturally, different colleges will have slightly or radically different expectations about “why this college” essays. Among other things, they will expect a particular balance between the “why us” and “why you” information in your essay. So, it is up to an applicant to nail this balance. Luckily, you don’t have to do it blindly. The admission officers are not interested in reading a stream of consciousness or an exercise in freewriting; so, they will give applicants a prompt to answer in their essays. This, in turn, will give students a sense of direction, necessary for spotting the right balance between those two focal points that we have discussed. The necessary balance may gear towards either of these points, and, as such, we can determine two types of “why this college” essay prompts: the “why us”-focused and the “why you”-focused ones.
Correspondingly, if the prompt tells that the admission board is more interested in hearing what you know about the school, then you give it to them and write your odes of praise to the school. If, on the other hand, the prompt asks more about you, then you need to underline your strengths and “sell” them to your reader.
When writing your essay, remember, that these two focuses are not mutually exclusive. Either way, you will be writing about what particularly drives your attention to this school. For example, if you want to learn about Time Travel and Parallel Universes from the celebrated Dr. Who, then your “why us” essay will pay more attention to how renowned a specialist Dr. Who is in the given field and what an honor it would be to have the opportunity to learn from him. On the other hand, “why you” essay may list actual achievements that make you the fittest candidate to learn from such a recognized specialist as Dr. Who.
With this particularity out of our way, let’s take a look at some examples of different types of “why this college” essay prompts, to get a clearer idea of which is which:
- Why (this school)?
- What about this school appeals to you?
- Why do you think that we are your right choice?
- What is the best thing about studying with us?
- Why do you want to continue your studies after high school at all?
- What makes you a fitting match for this school?
- What are your interests and why do you think that being here will aid them?
- What about our curriculum do you find most exciting?
- What would be your contribution to our college life?
- How do you see yourself in our school?
- Why did you choose to send your application here?
Naturally, every college will word their prompts differently, so it makes little sense to give any real-life examples here. All you need to do is to “decipher” their wording. Be sure that it will go down to one of your formulations.
WRITING AN OUTSTANDING “WHY THIS COLLEGE” ESSAY
Regardless of the essay prompt wording, it will always come down to a trade – what you can give to the university and what you expect in return. When we speak about writing, it is all about enumerating the advantages that the success of your application will grant applicants and the school (and sounding sincerely optimistic about it).
How do you do this? How do you comprehensively list all the shining opportunities that open not only before you but before the school in case of your successful enrollment? Importantly, how do you achieve this in such a modest-sized text (typically, about 500 words in two paragraphs)?
To answer these questions, we will have to walk you through each step applicants need to take to write a winning “why this college” essay. Surely, you have already written essays before, so you should know that your work on any essay should begin with a thorough research, and this type of essay is no exception. Then, formulate your topic in a way that will correspond to your writing aspirations – in other words, make up your mind about what exactly you would like to write in this small piece of text. Only then, move on to writing itself. Let us take a closer look at each of these steps:
STEP 1: Researching for “why this college” essay
Just the same as with any other essay, applicants need to be familiar with the subject-matter about which they are to write. In this case, it is the college to which they are applying to. So, where students can find this information? And, more importantly, if this information is already well-known, how do you make it sound genuine and exciting in your essay? As a matter of fact, the information about any given school is always available to applicants, but so you don’t need to overthink it, we will list the ways you can get this information:
- Visiting the campus. All schools are interested in attracting as many applicants as they possibly can. For this purpose, they advertise themselves. Among other ways in which they do it is offering potential applicants guided tours. Embarking on such a tour is often an exciting undertaking in itself. But if you go there, with all the fun that you may be having, you need to remember that you are on a mission to collect data about the school. So, be equipped to take notes. For that, you can use either a pen and a paper, or your smartphone. The essential information that you write down should include your tour guide’s name, a few facts about the school that caught your attention (these can be surprising, funny, or just inspiring and uplifting), and, of course, some general facts – the architecture and looks, the most important points in the school’s history, college traditions, etc. Mind that while you are on this tour, you can obtain valuable information not only from your tour guide. You may try and exchange a few words with the students or even professors about how they enjoy being there, what was their initial impression of the school and whether it persisted, was there anything about the college life that took them aback and to which they had to adjust, etc. In fact, if you already have your “why this college” essay prompt, you can simply paraphrase it and ask them that. Don’t rely on your memory, be sure to have their answers written down!
- Visiting the campus virtually. It may happen that the school you are applying to is too geographically remote from the place where you live. There may also be other objective reasons why you cannot take a guided tour of your target school. Fortunately, today’s technologies can help remote applicants out. Simply go to your school’s website and find a virtual tour around their campus. Alternatively, look for virtual tours on such online resources as youniversitytv.com, campustours.com, or even YouTube. Colleges also often ask some of their students to provide their contact data on college websites. So, here is your way to connect with students remotely and ask them whatever you have to ask. Once again, you may even paraphrase your essay prompt and ask them that.
- Interviewing an alumnus. Alumni interviews are not an uncommon practice. Interviewing an alumnus of the school to which you are applying is a perfect chance to get all the information about this school. Formulate your questions in a way which will allow getting all the information you need, including your essay prompt answer. Of course, remember to take notes!
- Attending college fairs. All high school students who wish to continue their studies at college are encouraged to attend college fairs, facilitating their choice of school. Students who have already made up their minds about the school they are applying to may feel like there is no need to attend such events. Nevertheless, attending college fairs can still prove beneficial for the applicants. Most people who attend such fairs just pick a pile of brochures and go home. This should not be your case. Even though brochures and other hand-out materials are valid research material for a “why this college” essay, do not limit yourself to that info. The people at your college’s stand at a fair are usually volunteering students who should be friendly to the fair attendants. You can use it for your benefit and ask them all the questions that we have discussed above. Once again, don’t forget to take notes!
- Looking through college’s brochures and course catalogs. As we have mentioned, schools are interested in attracting significant numbers of applicants, and this is why they advertise. Aside from the means of advertisement we have already discussed, there are the colleges’ own published materials, including brochures and course catalogs. You can find them both in online and printed form. One thing that they always include is the school’s mission statement, which reflects their philosophy of education. You can see whether (or how exactly) it corresponds to your goals and expand upon it in a “why this college” essay. By expanding we mean underlining how one or two particular classes and activities are custom-designed for you. It may be tempting to simply paraphrase their description, but you should know that it will not work. Your interest needs to be sincere and genuine, and, as such, you should take an original approach to the issue – for example, you can focus on a particular professor(s) that you find appealing professionally and academically.
- Reading the alumni magazine. Alumni magazines may seem like something too specific to fall under an applicant’s interest, but this is a misconception. When reading such a magazine, you may come across a professor’s work that you find particularly inspiring or even read about the school’s vision of its future which you share, to which you can connect, and in which you vividly see yourself. For example, you may find yourself particularly inspired by the school’s plans to build a brand new top-notch engineering school which you sincerely hope to join. Another helpful materials are the alumni testimonials where they go into detail about their aspirations which led them to this school and how true to life these aspirations turned out to be, – this is quite an effective source of inspiration for this kind of essay!
Reading the campus newspaper. For now, this is the closest thing to this school’s campus experience. This is a unique opportunity to get more insight into the campus life as it is – what troubles the students, what they are happy about, what career and extracurricular opportunities they have, and other topical issues. So, it would be a shame to miss such an opportunity.
Following the school’s social media profiles. Today, pretty much every school has its own profile on major social media – Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. There, they post about everything that happens on the campus: new construction expansions, anniversaries of particular events in school history, announcements about the school’s regular and one-time events, etc. This is another unique opportunity to get more insightful information about how the school lives, so miss out on those.
Just googling your school. Same as with any other research, just looking up the information on the Internet can prove to be helpful. Wikipedia, for example, often provides insightful articles about renowned colleges, including their history, traditions, plans, etc. You can also google something like “what is (this college) really like” and find student forums where they will most likely discuss all the relevant issues sincerely and in great detail.
STEP 2. Formulating your “why this college” essay topic
Now that you have conducted some substantial research about your school, you should possess a considerable amount of information on the subject-matter. During the research, you have surely come across some particularly relatable and inspiring points about your school. These are the points you should address in “why this college” essay.
These points may come from any of the sources used during the research – hints found online, the information you have gathered while on campus, insights from your conversations with students and those you have “overheard” from their conversations on forums and through the college newspaper, etc.
Surely, you have followed our advice and took notes about everything meaningful that you have learned. What you should do now is look through all these notes and pick up to five points that are the most exciting and relatable to the school’s philosophy, environment, and life in general. They also have to be the ones on which you can expand in a way that reveals a direct connection of these details of campus life. You will be able to use them in your essay regardless of whether the prompt demands a “why us” or a “why you” approach.
Out of these five points, pick one that you will make into the topic of your “why this college” essay. How do you pick just one? To do this, go back to the fundamental question of a “why this college” essay – what makes you personally relatable to this particular school and the things for which it stands. Having conducted significant research, you surely have a lot of genuine things to share. Obviously, they will be more specific than the general sentences like “the historical buildings of the campus are all architectural masterpieces and a sheer pleasure to look at” or “the liberal arts curriculum here is some of the most progressive in the country.” While the admission officer who reads this may find such compliments pleasant, they do not represent your connection to this college and, as such, do not achieve the purpose of a “why this college essay,” because they can be said about plenty of schools across the country. Instead, talk something characteristic of this school specifically. In other words, discuss things that only this school can offer, and that make this school stand out among others.
When you think about these individual features of your target school, you should have a vivid and colorful picture of how you will describe them in your essay. Do not get too emotional about it, though; remember that a “why this college” essay is not required to be 100% objective. Quite the contrary, it should be a personal piece of writing. Just singing odes of praise is not your goal here. Instead, focus more on the reasons why you find this school so extraordinary.
These reasons must form connection points between you and the school, and, as such, they should be personal, perhaps even intimate. For instance, if you write about academic aspects, like particular courses or professors, you can try and find a way to connect them not only to your abstract aspirations but also to your past experiences and/or accomplished activities that substantiate them.
We cannot stress enough that this cannot be general and superficial. For example, you cannot state that you want to get enrolled in this school because it is located in a city and you want to move to that city. Every town has a college or even several to which you could apply, but you chose this particular one – why? You cannot just state that the architecture of the campus buildings is inspiring. Every school seeks to make its architecture stand out; so, explain how this particular architecture inspires you to pursue your academic and other life goals. Simply good weather or any other geography-related factor also does not suit if it can equally be applied to a bunch of other places.
So, once you have made up your mind about these five (or less) specific points, it is time to formulate your possible “why this college” essay topics around them. The first thing you need to keep in mind is that they need to be easily paraphrase-able depending on whether your prompt suggests a “why us” or “why you” essay, which, as you already know, are merely different sides of the same coin. Understanding this principle and following it will help formulate your “why this college” essay topic even before getting the prompt, thus winning a little more time for writing the essay itself. In other words, you should be able to word your essay topic either in “why us” or in “why you” key, depending on the essay prompt.
For instance, a “why us” essay topic and the corresponding essay may focus on how innovative and game-changing a particular engineering project is, and how perfectly it coincides with what you would like to achieve or to what you would like to contribute. A “why you” essay topic and the corresponding essay, on the other hand, will talk about the same issues but from a different perspective. It will focus on what you would like to achieve academically and professionally and how it makes you the perfect person for a particular project that your school pursues or plans to pursue. In other words, “why us” and “why you” are essentially nothing more than different parts of the same equation.
We realize that it all may sound just a tad confusing, so here are a few examples of both types of “why this college” essay topics:
- How I expect my studies here to benefit my career plans
- The college’s unique philosophy of education in your desired major. The genuine combination of disciplines comprising this major at this college. How they correspond to your academic experiences and interests
- The school’s innovative way of connecting the disciplines and how it relates to your own philosophy of education
- The school’s policy regarding students from underprivileged backgrounds. How you can benefit from it and/or contribute to it
- A story about your acquaintance with this college. What impressed you and how did you come to realize that this is where you want to continue your education
- Your initial negative impression about the school and how it proved to be wrong. Did you come across some facts that changed your original impression during some research? Was it debunked in a conversation with someone well-informed? Did you come across an article or a report about the school’s recent activities that appealed to you?
- Particular details your conversations with this college’s students that were funny/ surprising/ inspiring that left you with an excellent impression and contributed to your decision to apply here
- Any particularly meaningful incident that you have experienced during a campus tour. Was the tour guide overwhelmingly convincing? Did you come across some surprising information?
- Did anything happen that transformed your understanding of college life in general?
- Particular aspects of school history to which you relate personally. Was the school one of the pioneers to teach women or ethnic minorities? Has it always been promoting international students exchange? Has the school administration taken an unpopular but morally right decision at some critical point in national, regional, or school’s history?
- A particular professor whom you consider your role model and can’t wait to learn from him or her. Has this professor influenced a science or any other project that you did at high school?
- Have some of this professor’s publications revolutionized your understanding of any particular problem or issue?
- A specific class that only this college offers that teaches something in what you would like to specialize in your studies and future career
- A unique facility (laboratory, observatory, etc.) that you find impressive and would like to work with it. Specific equipment that only few schools employ in their education process. An outstanding library that has some unique ancient scrolls in its possession
- How the school’s education process uniquely utilizes a specific set of skills and knowledge that you have. How different it is from the common understanding of education. How the school unites large groups of students for completing massive projects
- A project that you have started working on back in high school and wish to continue. The current stage of this project’s development. How you can use the school’s facilities to commence your work on this project. How well it fits into one of the school programs or courses
- Your social involvement in high school. How you can continue being socially involved when you get enrolled into this college, how you can contribute to the campus life
- Your hobbies and extracurricular activities which you will keep doing when at college. For example, arts, music, journalism, etc. How inspiring the environment at this campus is for this particular activity
- Background details that make you outstandingly qualified for a particular internship program. For example, your past experience of working in this or similar field, your preliminary exposure to this or similar line of work through your relatives or friends, etc.
- An international student exchange program that this school has. How qualified you are to take benefit from this program because you are fluent in the target country’s language and/or fascinated with its culture. The international aspect of your desired career
- How you are particularly interested in and well-fitting for a research project that the school is conducting. How well it ties in with a research project that you did and enjoyed doing in high school. How the professor who is in charge of this project is an inspiration to you. How you consider research as one of your top career options
- A particular activity that is currently non-existent on this school’s campus that you can organize or help to organize because you have expertise and experience coordinating such activities in high school. For example, a club dedicated to particular sports or other interests. If you choose to write on this topic, make sure that the school indeed does not already have such a club
- If the school already has a club to which you can contribute a great deal (because of your outstanding experience and expertise), explain what exactly you can bring to the table
- Paraphrase or expand upon your personal statement. This essay is your opportunity to talk more about your strong sides and talents or highlight the skills that you had to exclude from your personal statement because of word count limitations. It can be a follow-up to your personal statement. Explain how these strong sides or talents perfectly fit into the school’s academic and/or extracurricular activities
There is always a chance that your dream school will not accept your application. Regardless of their reasons to do so, it is always wise to have a plan B or even several of those. This means that all applicants are strongly advised to apply to more than one college. If your “Plan B” school also demands that you write a “why this college” essay, then, in view of the fact that they are your plan B, the topic for your essay may be one of the following:
- Focus on how getting a degree will help you achieve your career goals. Talk about how great you will be at your desired job after you graduate
- The school’s philosophy and values and their connection points with your personal philosophy and values. For example, you are a vegan and this school is famous for vegan cafeterias. You are green-conscious, and this school makes a point about being green and cooperates with local farms for this cause. The school’s active inclusion of ethnic and/or other minorities, etc.
- Basically anything that you find exciting about this school. If you have a hard time coming up with such a thing, then you probably should not apply to this school
As we have mentioned, “why this college” essays are always limited in volume. They should not be over two paragraphs long or over 500 words long. There are topics that you cannot possibly cover in such a modest word count. These are the “NO” topics for “why this college” essays:
- The school’s reputation or any general feature characteristic of many schools. Schools may differ, but they are all essentially the same. So, no general features (such as the school’s reputation or the weather in the school’s locality) are good topics for such an essay, unless these features are absolutely unique. For example, if your school is very specialized and has a small number of students (like the Webb Institute, for instance), you can talk about how you find it comfortable and inspiring to work and live in a small community
- If you are a fan of the school’s sports team, it is also not a splendid idea to write about it in your essay for two reasons. First, it is overused. Second, rooting for the school’s team does not require being at this school. You can only talk about this if you can actively contribute to the team as an athlete, mascot, cheerleader, etc.
- Paraphrasing the nice words which the school says about itself on their website or in the brochure. This is not original information, so your essay will have no value for the reader and will leave them disappointed upon reading it. If some information from those sources appealed to you, you need to explain why you relate to it
- College rankings. It is also not original information. Your reader is already aware of the college reputation. Moreover, if this is your top reason for applying here, it will make the admission officer feel like all you want to do is piggybacking on the school’s existing reputation without contributing to it, and nobody likes that. Besides, there are many schools with an excellent reputation in any line of studies, so rankings do not make any school stand out for an applicant
- Going too deep about why you chose this major. This would be in direct conflict with the very definition of a “why this college” essay. Your task is to write why you want to study at this school, not to write why you want to study this subject
- Going too poetic about your impressions of the campus. All schools struggle to look nice, and they often use the same means for this. It is not a unique feature of any school. So, writing about it in a “why this college” essay is a waste of volume
STEP 3: The writing process
Once you have picked the perfect topic for your essay, you can consider that the most challenging part of the process is over. All that is left to do is to put your excitement with the school into words. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are writing your essay:
- Stick to the point and avoid expansive introductions. We cannot stress enough that these essays are very limited in volume, so you should stay laconic and cut off everything that’s not necessary. This includes both the introduction and the conclusion. If you find it tough to write an essay without those, then write them in your draft and cut them off later. Your main body paragraphs (no more than two) should include your most exciting reasons for applying and nothing more
- Don’t overthink what your reader wants to see in your essay. Sincerity is the key to writing a genuine essay
- Be specific about everything you mention and include as much factual data as you can: names of professors, classes, clubs, etc.
- Mention that you will indeed go to this college if you get accepted. You may think that it goes without saying, but it doesn’t. It is essential for the admission board to be sure that you will indeed show up at the beginning of your first semester. That is, of course, if this is your sincere intention – if it’s not, then don’t write it.
- If you apply to more than one college, you may be tempted to write just one “why this college” essay. This is a big no-no. For one, you might just forget to change a few specifics and send the wrong essay to the wrong school. But even if you are extra careful and cautious, schools are never identical, – so, the only way to write an essay that will fit more than one school is to generalize, and we have gone into great detail explaining why you should avoid this in “why this college” essays
- If you find yourself stumbling or in some sort of a writer’s block, you can check out some general essay-writing guides – for example, WikiHow is full of those
“WHY THIS COLLEGE” ESSAY EXAMPLE
To sum everything up, we would like to provide an example of a winning “why this college” essay and explain why it works:
“Stanford has been hosting a football game in which I participated as a part of my school’s team. I am an athlete, but I have quite a few more interests than sports. As such, during my time at Stanford, I got the opportunity not only to check out and enjoy the college’s football facilities but also to exchange a few words with the students. A few words quickly turned into fervent discussions of so many topics that interest me – from Asian geography to efficient movement patterns. Not only the topics themselves have inspired and excited me, but the ardor with which the other guys were talking about them. I felt like we have known each other for years! This is exactly the kind of environment in which I would be happy to continue my studies.
I have looked into the programs and activities at Stanford, and I was glad to find out about the Stanford Entrepreneurs Club because this gives me an excellent opportunity to go on pursuing my interest on the subject-matter: currently I am an active member of a similar club at my high school. As such, I would like to take an Entrepreneurial Leadership minor alongside my Computer Science major.”
Here are the reasons why this “why this college” essay is a winning one:
- The applicant begins with mentioning that he has already begun building connections with other students, thus starting his integration into the campus life
- He states that he already feels included, thus revealing confidence in both the rightness of his choice to study at Stanford and the success of his application
- He is specific about how exactly he got to connect with students by mentioning the topics that they have discussed
- He explains what he particularly likes about Stanford and why: he participates in his high school entrepreneur’s club and feels strongly inclined to contribute to the similar club at college. He also mentions that he is specifically interested in Entrepreneurial Leadership
- He reveals awareness about the college curriculum