How to Write the "Why This College?" Essay Without Being Dull
October 04, 2021
"Why our college?" Ignore this question at your peril!
Anyone who’s applying to selective colleges in the U.S. will likely be asked to write an answer to the following question: “Why do you want to attend our college?"
This question may be asked succintly—“Why Brown?"—or as part of a prompt asking you to comment on your plans at that college: “Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short: “Why Tufts?" Others focus on academic fit: “How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying." Response lengths vary from 100 words, to 250 – 300 words, to as high as 650 words.
So why the “Why" question? Students are often surprised that they are asked to defend their choice of college; shouldn’t making the choice of College X, filling out its application, and paying the application fee, be enough?
It depends. The more selective the college, the more factors colleges use to determine whom to admit. And colleges want to admit students who will attend. Their “yield" (the percentage of students accepted who choose to attend) is a crucial factor in a university’s prestige, publicity, and even in rankings. Colleges want to look desirable. It’s better to have 70 percent of your accepted students choose you than 20 percent.
Colleges want to know how much you want them. They ask this question to gauge “demonstrated interest," a factor many use in admission. Other parts of the application—grades, test scores, activities, recommendations—being roughly equal, decisions at selective colleges are often made because a student conveys that she really wants to be there.
The “Why us?" question speaks to “fit," which all colleges seek to achieve. They want students who will come back after their first year, and who will stay and earn their bachelor’s degree. These factors—first-year retention rate and graduation rate—are also used in rankings and publicity.
So the “Why our college?" question is important! But most students answer this question last, as an afterthought, spending a fraction of the time on it that they spend on their main essay. Students, please don’t overlook the “Why us?" question! It needs to be just as compelling as anything else you write. Here are some examples of what to do and what not to do. Student 1: In no more than 250 words, please tell us why BU is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission. “I want to study at a reputed university, with a stimulating environment as I have always lived in major cities where I can go to cafes, to hear music, to museums and sports events as part of my everyday life. Boston University has become one of the best in the US; it has top professors and is located in the middle of a historic city, and accessible to everything. It has a strong international relations program which would be perfect for me since I have attended a diverse international school. I noticed all these things when I visited. Given Boston University’s notable reputation and history, I would be excited by the opportunity to attend such a strong and knowledgeable institution, through which I will be furnished with the expertise, tools, and ability to pursue my ambitions."
Student 2: What are the unique qualities of Northwestern - and of the specific undergraduate school(s) to which you are applying - that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified? [No word limit given] “The most unique trait of Northwestern University is its focus on undergraduate research. I am very interested in biology and chemistry; I just love working in laboratories. In the “Gymnasium", the Swiss pre-university school, we were often confronted with a problem that we had to solve in groups. Such problems could be as easy as distinguishing water from ethanol, or as complex as building a hydrogen fuel cell. To find a solution we were given time in our laboratory and could ask for practically anything we needed. . .
“A further very good quality of Northwestern University is its rather high rank and great reputation. I seek a good education and definitely appreciate it, if the university I attend is renowned. If I just went to a second-rank college I would be better off studying in Switzerland . . .
“A further, but less important, quality is that everything you possibly could need is on campus. From libraries over multiple coffee shops to an on-campus bank, you hardly have to leave campus any more!
“A last point is the location: It’s just great; right next to the lake, in the nice and cosy town of Evanston. You have the advantages of a small town, such as lots of greenery and a quiet environment, and yet Chicago is very close and accessible. Just having a campus is a great difference to Switzerland, where you just go to the university in the morning, sit in the lectures and leave after that. There is not actually any social life among the students [at Swiss universities], and I definitely prefer it the other way."
Student 3: [A reply to the same Northwestern question, written by a different student at a different school six years later]. “Because I intend to pursue a career in photojournalism, I see the Medill School of Journalism as the Holy Grail of education. Offering the impressive intellectual and technical resources of a prestigious research university, Northwestern would provide me the confidence of knowing that I would be getting the most forward-focused education in journalism. . . I know the value of getting hands-on experience in a newsroom. The quarter system and Medill’s internship requirements create an ideal confluence for exactly that experience. Being half Lebanese and fluent in French, my prospects are global at Medill where opportunities in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East are particularly attractive to me . . .
“ . . . Northwestern has a gorgeous location. When I visited the campus, I was smitten with Evanston’s cozy feel. Although I initially pictured myself in the heart of a city, Evanston eclipsed this vision. The small town environment is comforting without being limiting, offering plenty of cafés, restaurants, and shops to explore. Just a bus ride from the Chicago, Evanston would also allow me to take advantage of opportunities in the Windy City. I have a passion for dance and few places could rival such a vibrant hub of performing arts as Chicago, home of Visceral Dance Studio, where I dream of taking lessons. The studio hosts many classes by my dance idols, including Ian Eastwood and “Chachi," which would allow me to stay connected to the dance buzz. Meanwhile, Northwestern’s scenic lakeside location is the perfect retreat for studying or relaxing.
“Brimming with enthusiasm, Northwestern has infectious school spirit. Because I assume leaving home after eighteen years will be difficult, I count on school pride to bring me a sense of community and belonging. From the famed painted rock to the fountain spewing purple water, the robust loyalty to the university captures my heart. Having missed out on pep rallies and spirit week at my relatively rigid French school, I long to attend my first football game at Northwestern, decked out in purple. In short, Northwestern is my dream school because it embodies everything I value: journalism, incomparable internship opportunities, dance, and an inspiring atmosphere."
Student 4: NYU is global, urban, inspired, smart, connected and bold. What can NYU offer you, and what can you offer NYU? [400 words] “I’m done being a New Yorker born and raised in sheltered suburbia--I’m ready to get slapped in the face by the unforgiving hand of NYC and to become a true Noo Yawk-ah. . . .
“I’m done dancing around on the outskirts of the arena--I’m ready to plop myself right into the frenzied mist of action. No walls insulate NYU from the sprawling labyrinth of NYC, which is ideal for a unique and exciting college experience. The bustling crowds of the city are reflected in the undergraduate body of over twenty-thousand students--the beauty of it all being NYU has smaller sized classes. This encourages the bundled mass of NYU students to interact and exchange knowledge, feelings, and ideas with faculty and fellow classmates.
“I’m done adhering to the safe, structured expectations of a bland, rich school district--I’m ready to think the unthinkable and love the unlovable in a flavorful environment. Is there any better platform to share my writing and have my work criticized, sharpened, and enriched other than with the incredible professors and classes pooled from the twenty-plus-thousand inspired NYU students? NYU’s creative writing program offering workshops for writing and poetry allows me to pursue my passion for fiction, spoken word, and poetry writing in the midst of a rainbow of students.
“I’m done carefully taking baby steps forward--I’m ready to dare, risk, and dream as I stumble through life. I’ll bring the naivety and optimism of a small town girl into the bubble-bursting clutches of the big city, and thousands of other students will be stumbling along with me as we evolve into strange creatures called ‘adults.’ My compassion for others and love of socializing will aid me in establishing friendships and a sense of community with everyone I meet. At NYU, I would work to help struggling students transition to NYU at orientations, welcome meetings, clubs, wherever I’m allowed to participate in--I’d become a tour guide and hopefully inspire prospective students just how my tour guide inspired me.
“I’m done admiring NYU from a distance--I’m ready to join the ranks of fellow toughened, hardened, enlightened, daring, worldly, and innovative NYU students." Accessed at [Parke Muth's blog] (http://onlyconnectparke.blogspot.com/2015/04/essay-test-why-us-why-you.html).
Would you admit Student 1? Student 1’s response could have been used for any large or mid-sized urban university with a liberal-arts program. Do I, the admission officer, believe that this student has chosen my university, Boston University, with care? No. He could send the same essay to NYU without changing a word. Do I learn anything from this response that I don’t already know from elsewhere in the student’s application? No.
And why not? Because Student 1 spoke in generalities. He told me that Boston University was prestigious, it is in a historic city, it provides access to concerts and museums, and it has an international relations major. In other words, the student listed facts that the admission staff (and indeed, anyone who works at BU or who knows BU) already knows. It listed facts that are not even unique to BU. The only personal things the student told me were that he had always lived in cities and that he attended “a diverse international school." I would know the latter, and probably the former, from the information on his Common App.
Boston University receives close to 50,000 undergraduate applications. Can you imagine being an admission officer, reading applications from a small subset of those 50,000 (1,000 applications in a season), and you read 600 with a version of this response? Would you be compelled to admit any of them? Do you believe they want to be at BU more than anywhere else?
What about Students 2, 3, and 4? Their essays are all longer, and in varying degrees more convincing than Student 1’s response. To the admission officers who read them, their responses were compelling enough to tip the balance to an offer. Ultimately, these answers worked. But let’s examine them closely.
- Notice that the two Northwestern applicants, six years apart and from different countries, not only described the college’s physical setting but used identical language. Student 2 says: “[The location is] just great; right next to the lake, in the nice and cosy town of Evanston. You have the advantages of a small town, such as lots of greenery and a quiet environment . . . “. He also mentioned the “multiple coffee shops" in his previous paragraph. Student 3 says: “Northwestern has a gorgeous location. When I visited the campus, I was smitten with Evanston’s cozy feel . . . The small town environment is comforting without being limiting, offering plenty of cafés, restaurants, and shops to explore . . . Northwestern’s scenic lakeside location is the perfect retreat for studying or relaxing." And remember Student 1? “I have always lived in major cities where I can go to cafes, to hear music, to museums and sports events as part of my everyday life."
There’s nothing wrong with mentioning lakes or cafes or the cozy campus feel. Just be aware that thousands of other students, year after year, have done the same. And it’s a paradox: Colleges attempt to distinguish themselves through their locations. They promote their mountain backdrop, their subway stops on campus, their libraries open 24 – 7 with cookies served during final exams. NYU promotes its access to the whole of New York. As Student 4 says, “No walls insulate NYU from the sprawling labyrinth of NYC, which is ideal for a unique and exciting college experience." Because she had 400 words, she could mention this, and the “bustling crowds" of the city.
In the “Why our college?" essay, it’s virtually impossible not to mention the school’s location or physical qualities. Colleges lure students with all manner of physical beauty or convenience or unique environments. But in this essay, talking too much about the physical surroundings can be your downfall. Colleges know where they are located. They know what their campuses look like. The danger in spending valuable words describing a school’s location is that it leaves you fewer words to talk about yourself.
- Despite colleges’ intense promotion of their rank or their excellence in particular areas, reciting these facts back to them in the “Why us" essay can take away valuable words. Student 3 had room in her essay to say: “Offering the impressive intellectual and technical resources of a prestigious research university, Northwestern would provide me the confidence of knowing that I would be getting the most forward-focused education in journalism," but she didn’t need to. Student 2’s mention of Northwestern’s “rather high rank and great reputation" is only helpful because he lists it as a reason he would leave his home country. Student 1’s words – “reputed," “has top professors," “one of the best in the US"—are so generic they are meaningless.
Colleges asking the “Why us?" question know they are good. They know they are beautiful, or peaceful, or exciting. They know their ranking. You don’t need to remind them.
In fact, I suspect that colleges which limit their “Why us?" response to 100 words are doing so in order to keep students from wasting their words on reputation or ranking-- even on cafes or lakes--without reference to why these are important. “Why us?" essays, especially the shortest ones, need you to focus on heart, not head. If you’ve had a job for two years as a barista at Starbuck’s, and you need a part-time job in college, then by all means say you’re happy that XX college has three Starbuck’s on campus so you can transition to a job easily. If you’ve grown up living in the desert and you’re a painter, you may be thrilled to aim for a college next to a lake, so you can learn to paint landscapes in blues and greens rather than in browns and oranges. That’s what I mean by heart.
I, the admissions officer, would have been largely convinced by Student 3’s last paragraph, about school spirit: “Because I assume leaving home after eighteen years will be difficult, I count on school pride to bring me a sense of community and belonging. From the famed painted rock to the fountain spewing purple water, the robust loyalty to the university captures my heart. Having missed out on pep rallies and spirit week at my relatively rigid French school, I long to attend my first football game at Northwestern, decked out in purple." Adding a snippet of her previous paragraph, about the very specific dance opportunities available in Chicago, and a quick mention of her Lebanese/French background as it relates to journalism (if she hadn’t mentioned it elsewhere), would have been plenty in a 100-word essay.
How do you answer these “Why our college?" questions without being dull? What to avoid:
- Unless you have a very specific reason (i.e. the financial sponsor of your college education requires you to study at a certain set of colleges), in my opinion there’s no reason to mention a college’s general reputation or rank.
- If the college was founded by a famous historical figure, such as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, you need a very specific reason—usually related to your intended studies—to mention it. Otherwise, don’t. Admissions officers at UVA and U. Penn don’t need to be reminded who their founders were!
What to do:
- This sounds obvious, but many students skip this step: Be sure you know why you are applying to a college! The answer should not simply be “Because it’s highly ranked/has a great reputation." If that’s your answer, you haven’t looked closely enough to match that college with your academic interests, the way you learn best, and the other things in life that are important to you. Believe it or not, a student who is happy at one top-five USNews & World Report institution may not be as satisfied at the other four. Because of the structure of the US higher-education system (a topic for another article), it’s possible to get the kind of education you need from more than one college. So look in depth (by visiting, or by talking to current students, going to prospective-student programs, spending time digging into websites) before you apply. If you are required to explain why you’re applying, you need to have other reasons beyond rank, or you’ll have nothing to help make your case in the “Why us?" response.
- You can start with the “Head:" The objective, the obvious, the factual, such as buildings or equipment, scenery, strength of your intended major, particular course offerings, distance from home, comforts, setting (urban/suburban/rural), size, course offerings. But don’t stop with “head" items. Take them further and:
- Convey “Heart:" Why are any of these objective, obvious, factual items meaningful to you? How you will use or give back to these elements of the campus? Student 4’s essay does this brilliantly.
- To convey “heart," explain why these “head" factors are important in your life. Maybe you need a campus close to home because a family member is ill and you need to go home once every two weeks. Maybe your high-school career has shown that you succeed more easily in classes with fifteen students or fewer. Maybe you’re interested in studying drawing, design, computer science, and biology; you never had a chance to study design and computer science in high school, so your intended college needs to have all of these. Maybe you’d prefer a flatter campus because you walk using a cane. Maybe you already have your pilot’s license and your ideal college would have aerospace science programs and be located in a windy state, like Oklahoma or North Dakota. (No kidding! I’ve had these students).
- Think about how you wish your college experience to be different from, or similar to, your high-school experience. Like Students 2, 3, and 4, maybe you want your college experience to be significantly different from, or even the opposite of, your life thus far. Conversely, a senior I know attends a huge high school because his family moved there in middle school. He managed to adapt and succeed, but he looks forward to attending a small liberal-arts college because his formative years were spent in an elementary school with six kids in his class. This information will be key in answering “Why our college?"
- Keep a journal as you do your college search. Your journal can be words or phrases you dictate or write on your phone or scribble in a notebook as you explore colleges. Have a “Head" and a “Heart" column for each item.
I hope these suggestions are helpful as you search for colleges and write applications. Promise me you won’t save the “Why us?" question for 11:30 pm on December 31, and you’ll be fine!