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How To Answer The “Why This College” Essay Prompt

26 SEPT 2022

In addition to the Common App essay, students may have to submit school-specific or supplemental essays. The most common prompt for these supplemental essays is the “Why This College” Essay, which asks the student to explain why they want to attend the school to which they are applying. Colleges often include this essay in their application to understand the depth of a student’s interest in the school, as well as whether the student will be a good fit. While these types of essays can sometimes be tricky, they are also a great opportunity to share more about yourself with the admissions officers. In this blog, we’ll go over the best ways to approach this essay and provide helpful tips to help you write an effective “Why This School” Essay.


Purpose of the “Why This College” Essay

The “Why This College” Essay is more than just telling admissions officers why you want to attend their school–it’s a chance for you to give them deeper insight into your passions, goals, and ambitions. Put simply, colleges want to know, “Why are you choosing us?” and “Why should we choose you?”

Admissions officers are looking to find out how interested you are in their school, whether you are a good match for their school’s community, values, and offerings, and how you’ll make the most of your time there. A strong “Why This School” Essay will allow admissions officers to envision your place at their school and show them why you’ll thrive there.

Examples of “Why This College” Essay Prompts

The prompts for the “Why This College” essay might differ from school to school. Here are a few examples of different prompts you might encounter.

Yale & Columbia

  • What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)
  • Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia. (200 words or fewer)

Some schools, like Yale and Columbia, keep their prompts brief and open ended, often with a short word count. While the limited space can be a challenge, it also gives you an opportunity to focus on the most important reasons why you want to attend the school.

NYU

  • We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. What motivated you to apply to NYU? Why have you applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please also tell us why you are interested in these additional areas of study or campuses. We want to understand – Why NYU? (400 word maximum)

Other schools like NYU give a bit more detail in their prompts, helping to identify the categories they would like you to discuss: a specific campus, school, area of study, or academic and extracurricular programs. Because you have an expanded word count, make sure to discuss each of the points they ask for in as much detail as possible.

U Chicago

  • How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

UChicago’s prompt is unique in that it has an open word count. While this may give you the freedom to talk about many topics, your essay should still be concise, cohesive, and well organized to maximize its effectiveness. Notice that this prompt also specifically asks you to focus on your own desires and goals. The admissions officers want to know how attending UChicago will help you achieve these goals, not just what you find interesting about UChicago.

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Tips to Help You Approach the “Why This College” Essay

Although the “Why This College” Essay can be somewhat intimidating, following a few of our tips will help you to create an impactful essay that sets you apart from other applicants.

1. Do Your Research

This is one of the most important you can do things when preparing to write the “Why This School” Essay. Try to research the school you’re applying to just like you would for an academic essay.

Look for things that excite you on a personal level. This might be a concentration within your chosen major, a professor with a unique line of research that fascinates you, an exciting internship program or fellowship that aligns with your interests, or a facility that you want to spend a lot of time in. Dive deep into the school’s website pages and resources to find as many examples and details as you can.

It’s always great to feature resources that can only be found at the school you’re applying to, such as classes, major/minor programs, or study abroad programs. These details will show that you are truly interested in the school and have done thorough research, something many students neglect in their essays.

2. Be Specific

Using your extensive research, be specific when discussing the school’s resources and, more importantly, how you’ll take advantage of them. Not only do you want to name the specific programs or organizations you’d want to be a part of, but you need to give specific reasons why these things appeal to you.

For example, if there’s a unique research program you want to take part in, explain how the program connects to your academic passions, what kind of knowledge you want to gain from this program, and how you will apply that knowledge in the future. The admissions officers should understand how you will utilize the resources you talk about to achieve your overall academic and/or career goals

3. Make This Essay About You

Similar to the previous point, make sure to talk about your own goals, interests, and values in the “Why This College” Essay.

Your essay shouldn’t just be a list of the school’s attributes–it should be about why you are a good fit for that school. Explain why you match well with certain characteristics the school has, or how your goals, interests, and values align with the school’s programs or philosophy. By the end of the essay, the admissions officers should be able to picture you at their school and understand why it is the best place for you to pursue your passions.

You can even take your essay one step further by describing what you would contribute to the school’s community. For example, you could talk about how you would take advantage of a specific student activities resource to start a club that doesn’t yet exist or a research project you’d want to propose within an existing program. This will show the admissions officers how you will actively contribute to their community and make their school a better place.

4. Be Yourself!

Because admissions officers read thousands of essays every year, it’s easy for them to tell when you’re not being genuine. A lot of students will try to be overly serious or profound in an attempt to impress the reader. While you want to maintain some level of formality, don’t force yourself to write in a way that isn’t true to how you talk or think.

As we mentioned earlier, this essay is your chance to help the admissions officers get to know you better. Be as true to yourself and your personal voice as possible, especially when you’re talking about the subjects or resources that excite you. Your authenticity will bring your essay to life and take it to the next level.

Top 3 "Why This School?" Essay Tips

How to Structure Your Essay

Regardless of the word count of your “Why This School” Essay, it’s always a good idea to ensure you have a strong, clear structure.

Introduction

First, you’ll want to start with an opening that introduces the reasons why you want to attend the school. For a prompt with a 200 word count or less, this could be a one sentence stating the primary reason you want to attend the school, or a statement of what you hope to accomplish at the school.

For prompts with a larger word count, the introduction can be expanded to a full paragraph that briefly introduces the main points you’ll be discussing, as well as what interests you in the school overall. If space allows, you could even include a brief personal anecdote or a creative hook to grab the reader’s attention.

Body

In the body of your essay, try to organize your points by category or subject. For example, one paragraph or sentence would be dedicated to discussing academic programs or curriculums, followed by research programs, professional resources, or extracurricular activities.

While there isn’t a universal formula for how to structure your “Why This College” Essay, it’s typically a good idea to talk about the subjects of most importance, like your chosen major program, first, rather than leading with trivial things like a school’s intramural team. Your body paragraphs are also where you’ll put your research to work. After introducing the paragraph or section’s overall subject, you’ll name the various resources you’re excited about, how they align with your interests or goals, and how you’ll utilize them.

As we mentioned earlier, some colleges have multiple supplemental essays in addition to the “Why This School” Essay that ask about your specific academic or extracurricular interests. Although you want to be detailed, be sure that you’re not repeating yourself or including details or subjects already discussed in another supplemental essay.

Conclusion

Even if you have a limited word count, you should have a strong conclusion to your essay that summarizes the points you have made and reiterates your interest in the school. Whether it be one sentence or one paragraph, reflect on why you want to attend the school, how you are a good fit for the school, and how the school will help you achieve your future goals.

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Example of Why This College Essay Response 

Here’s an example of a strong Yale “Why This College” Essay and a breakdown of what makes it so effective. 

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)

While combating climate change is the most difficult challenge our generation faces, I believe comprehensive environmental policies are the solution. With a community at the forefront of environmental justice, Yale shares my deep commitment to policy innovation. By pursuing the Environmental Studies major’s Environmental Policy concentration, I will learn to write comprehensive legislation using scientific, political, and ethical perspectives. Research with the Yale Center for Environmental Policy & Law and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication would help me develop market-based regulations and strategies to garner public support. I hope to continue my work finding on-campus renewable energy solutions with organizations like Project Bright, using our projects to create scalable initiatives. Together with the Yale community, I hope to create a sustainable and equitable future.

This essay works because it is clear, direct, and thorough. From the first two sentences, the reader gets a clear understanding of the student’s passion for environmental policy, what motivates their passion, and how their own values and interests align with Yale’s. In these opening sentences, the student establishes a strong theme for the rest of the essay: how Yale’s resources will help teach or give them experience in crafting innovative environmental policies.

The student also makes efficient use of the 125 word limit, covering academics, research, and extracurricular activities. In just one sentence, the student is able to identify their major, highlight a unique aspect of Yale’s Environmental Studies curriculum that aligns with their interest (the Environmental Policy concentration), and describe why the program appeals to them (it will provide them with a variety of perspectives and give them the skills needed for a career in Environmental Policy).

The student also gives multiple examples of research programs and extracurricular activities that align with their interests, explains what they hope to learn from them, and how they will be useful in the future. In talking about extracurricular activities, the student is also able to allude to their impressive experience with implementing renewable energy on their high school campus. 

Finally, the student closes the essay with a strong sentence about working with the Yale community to achieve their future goals. Although it’s a simple sentence, it focuses on the value of collaboration, rather than individual gain, and conveys their desire to work with the broader Yale community to make the world a better place

What to Avoid in your Essays

There are a lot of easy traps to fall into that can make your essay blend into thousands of other applications. Here are some things you should try to avoid while writing your “Why This School” Essay.

Copy and Pasting

It’s very easy for admissions officers to tell when you’re reusing your “Why This College” essay for every school you’re applying to. Try to avoid using the same generic sentences and simply swapping out the school name as much as possible. Make sure that your essay cannot just be copied and pasted into another school’s application and that it contains details specific to the college you are applying to.

Easily Found or General Information About the School

In the same vein as the last point, your essay should not rely on generic facts or statements about the school that anyone could find with a simple Google search. Common examples of this include talking about the school’s beautiful campus, stating how excited you are to take part in an annual schoolwide tradition, or quoting material from the school’s website or mission statement.

These all could be indicators that you haven’t done, or don’t care, to do deeper research on the school. The main focus of your essay should be describing the resources you’re excited about and what they will help you accomplish.

Things Out of the School’s Control

While things like climate or a school’s surrounding area might play a big part in your college decision, it’s best to keep the focus of your essay on the school itself, especially if you have a short word count.

There are many schools that are located in cities with lots of fun things to do, have a campus with beautiful winters, or are surrounded by wildlife. You want to make it clear that you like the school for reasons that the school has put effort towards. Again, show the admissions officers that you have done your research and have a genuine interest in the school’s offerings.

Excessively Praising the School

Although you do want to talk about the positive attributes that you think make the school special, you don’t need to spend time praising the school’s amazing academic programs or high rankings. Excessive praise or focusing on the school’s reputation can often come across as disingenuous and a forced attempt to appeal to the admissions officers.

Statements like these could also suggest that prestige is more important to you than the school’s actual programs. It’s much more valuable and worthwhile to discuss what genuinely excites you about the school and how these things connect to your specific passions. Because the word count is often limited in the “Why This College” Essay, you want to make sure you’re making the best use of the space you have.

Repeating Other Parts of Your Application

This tip can apply to all of the essays in your application, but make sure that you’re not repeating things you’ve already discussed in other parts of your application. Avoid telling the same stories or using the same details across multiple application essays as much as possible. For example, if your Common App essay talks about an experience you had during one of your community service projects, try to focus on your academic or research interests in your “Why This College” Essay. This will help give the admissions officers a more well-rounded understanding of who you are.

In addition to the “Why This College” Essays, some colleges might also have other supplemental essays that ask you to elaborate on your extracurricular or academic interests. While you can briefly reiterate these interests, try to avoid reusing examples of resources the school offers in multiple essays. For example, you might discuss the school’s specific major program or curriculum in an essay asking about your academic interests, while you discuss school-specific research programs or student organizations in your “Why This College” Essay.

Final Thoughts

The “Why This College” Essay is an important part of your overall application, as it’s one of the best places for admissions officers to learn about your passions, goals, and values. Although it requires a lot of research and thought, a strong “Why This College” Essay will make a compelling argument for why you would be a great addition to that specific school.

Going through the research and writing process for this essay might even be a great opportunity for you to figure out what you’re looking for in a school, or what your academic interests or future goals are.

By identifying specific resources, crafting detailed descriptions of how they align with your passions and ambitions, and using an authentic writing style, you’ll be on your way to creating a unique, personal, and effective “Why This College” Essay.

If you want to get feedback on your “Why This College” Essay and find out if it's strong enough for the school you're applying to, consider getting it reviewed by a professional using Crimson Education’s Essay Review Service.

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