What is the "Why THIS COLLEGE" Essay?

Many Common App supplements ask students to explain why the college is a good fit for the student. Typically, the "why this college" prompt asks students to identify an area of interest and explain how they will pursue it at the college. Here are some examples:

  • University of Michigan: Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
  • University of Southern California: Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections.
  • University of Pennsylvania: 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.

You get the idea. This post will cover five steps your child can take to write a better "why this college" essay. 

Tip #1: Be a connoisseur.

I divide wine consumers into two categories. The first category is the wine drinkers. These are the people who say, "Wine is wine" and drink whatever is put in front of them. (How uncouth.) The second category is the wine connoisseurs. These are the people who say, "No, you don't understand..." and go on to rattle off seven reasons this wine is so special. (How annoying.)

Before we even get to the details of what to include in the "why us" essay, we need the right mindset -- namely, we need the connoisseur mindset. To write a good essay for a college, your child has to appreciate (or at least try to appreciate) that college's unique traits. That college wants to be treated like a bottle of wine of some stunning vintage, not like a bottle of Arbor Mist collecting dust on the bottom shelf at your local Walgreens.

If your child cannot taste the difference between the colleges on her list, the "why us" essay is the least of our concerns; I'd be more worried that she is applying to schools without really knowing why. Our starting point, always, for the "why us" essay is to be a connoisseur of that school.

Tip #2: Look at the majors.

A good sign that your child has not adopted the connoisseur mindset is when she remarks, "Biology is biology" or "Engineering is engineering" or "Business is business." Matters are rarely that simple.

In the UC system, for example, business-related majors range from business administration to business economics to management science. At Michigan, biology-related majors range from biochemistry to biology to biomolecular science to biopsychology, cognition and neuroscience to cell and molecular biology.

If your child is a connoisseur of a school, then she should be able to explain to you why she has chosen one major over another. This is a powerful argument to make in the essay: Major X is better than Major Y because Major X lets me do A, B, and C.

Of course, we have this idea that it's fine that a student doesn't know what she wants to study. She will figure it out in college, right? Maybe. But in the meantime, the applications require her to argue an interest in something.

Usually, students have some idea about whether they want to be in the sciences or in the humanities. If they do not have a clear idea, though, it might be because their frame of reference only includes classes they have taken.

The good news, though, is that many universities offer great interdisciplinary majors. Consider, for example, that USC offers majors such as Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Change, International Relations and the Global Economy, and Philosophy, Politics and Law.

Tip #3: Look at the classes.

Once your child has a couple majors in mind, we need to push to see how deeply she has looked into them. The easiest way to do this is to ask, "Which courses in that major look interesting?" When the answer is something like Biology 101 or some other intro class, we can conclude that perhaps the student has not delved deeply enough. Can't even name one upper division course in the major? And you really looked? Please. Come on, digital native generation, show me something.

This is supposed to be fun. Your child is going to college. She gets to study whatever she wants. So is it too much to ask that she will find a couple classes that will genuinely excite her? No.

Tip #4: Look at the professors.

Once your child has found some interesting classes, she can find the faculty profiles of the professors who teach those classes. These profiles often include papers the professors have published. Tell your child to read them! This is supposed to be your child's area of interest, so skimming a few papers shouldn't be a huge burden.

If your child is applying to a school that values demonstrated interest (and many private schools do), and if you are planning a campus visit, then why not email admissions in advance and see if will be possible to sit in on that professor's class? Why not come prepared with a question and say hi after class? I don't know why not.

Tip #5: Look at Outside-the-Classroom Opportunities.

The classroom stuff is great, but if your child wants to prove her connoisseur status, she should endeavor to explain the outside-the-classroom opportunities that appeal to her. Research is an easy one because many universities provide funding for undergraduate research. Internships are another easy one because the universities strong in this area will highlight that fact, often on the career center page. Study abroad also comes to mind because cultural exchanges can give students new perspectives on their major. Lastly, your child should remember to look into research centers or other institutes at the university; the area of interest could range from social justice to leadership to public policy to anything else you can imagine.

Whatever the opportunity outside the classroom is, the important thing is for your child to explain how that opportunity will supplement or complement what she is learning in the classroom. 

Organizing the "Why This College" Essay

"All this is great," you might be thinking, "but how do I turn this info into an essay?" I bring you glad tidings. It's not complicated. This whole essay is basically, "One thing led to another, and yadda yadda yadda, that's why I'm a good fit for your school." Here's the general outline I keep in my head when I am working with students:

  • Open with an anecdote that connects the student's interest to the major. For example, when the student was a child, his only friends were pigeons, and now he wants to study aviary science. Or he has been studying pigeons for five years, and he hopes to continue doing so in college. Or pigeons deserve the same rights as people, and so he hopes to study animal law. Whatever. Any reasonable anecdote will do. This anecdote usually ranges from 2 sentences in a 250-word essay to 8 sentences in a 650-word essay. Something like that.
  • Explain what the student finds awesome about the major. Seeing as your child did all that research about the major, the professors, and the classes, this should not be too difficult. If your child has chosen an interdisciplinary major, or if she has two disparate academic interests, is it a good idea to explain why studying both will provide greater insight? Yes.
  • Explain what the student finds awesome about the outside-the-classroom activities. This is where the student gets to stake her claim to how she hopes to create new knowledge. It's important to explain not just what she hopes to do, but why it matters. "I want to learn about pigeons' rights" is much less convincing than the still not very convincing "I want to learn about pigeons' rights because how we treat animals reflects what we value as a society." We can't neglect to spell out Why It Matters, not just to the student, but also to the larger community.
  • End with some keywords. If your child spends more than two seconds on the webpage for her department's major or for the school to which she is applying, she will notice some keywords. These keywords will be jargon-y words like "collaboration," "interdisciplinary," and "global citizen." Jargon or not, we still have to take them seriously. Spouting off these keywords in the opening lines of the essay is as artless of saying "I love you" on a first date. But after your child has courted the school by showing interest, the keywords at the end are a great way to say, "I speak your language."  

And with that, the well has run dry. I have told you what I know. Go forth, etc. Good luck writing!


P.S. You might be thinking, "I'm tired of googling the answers to my college questions. Isn't there a better way?" If so, come join the conversation on our private Facebook group for parents: Free College Counseling. Hope to see you there!