When you're done reading this post, you'll know how to start the "Why College X?" essay. Of all the essays, this one annoys my students the most.

Judging by their reactions, this essay is better termed the "Even though you don't really know me, tell me why I'm great" essay. So, yeah, even though many 17-year-old students don't know exactly what they want to do in life, and even though most of them won't get the chance to visit the college before they apply, they still have to explain why that college is just right for them.


It's no wonder this prompt grates on kids' sense of authenticity. I was grating Parmesan cheese last week, and when the block of cheese slipped, I ended up grating a layer of skin off the side of my thumb. My 3-year-old daughter asked, "Does it hurt, Baba?" My 5-year-old son said, "Haha!" When my students write this essay, I'm 90% sure in their heads they're hearing the colleges say, "Haha!"

Let's call this essay what it is: an exercise in sincere flattery. It's not going to feel "authentic" the way the open-ended "tell me about yourself" essays do. The reason is that students have to include impersonal, not-really-me snippets of "source material" from the school's website. The good news, though, is that the essay doesn't have to feel authentic for someone to do a good job. As with every other kind of essay, there's a process to get you the finished product. Yes, anyone can write a work of sincere flattery. Hooray!

Step 1: Understand the "Why College X?" Prompt.

Earlier this week, after my kids' first day of school, I took them to get ice cream because being a parent means being able to invent rituals like that. But you know as well as I do that "Do you want ice cream?" is a dumb question because the answer is always "Yes!" The important question is "What flavor do you want?"

Pretend the college is a person you love. You want to make this person happy by bringing him or her ice cream. Not just any ice cream -- his or her favorite flavor. That's how the "Why College X?" essays are -- each college prefers a different flavor. Some want you to focus on why you like the school's academic opportunities. Others allow you to focus on whatever aspect of the school appeals to you. But it's easier to let you see for yourself. Here are some flavors of "Why College X?" prompts, taken from the 2015-16 Common App writing supplements:

  1. University of Michigan: "(Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum) 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?"
  2. Northwestern University: "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? (300 word maximum)"
  3. Cornell University: "Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests? (Please limit your response to 650 words.)"
  4. 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. (400-650 words)"

If you write a "Tell me about yourself" essay without looking at the prompts first, you'll be fine because whatever you wrote will fit in with one of the Common App prompts and one of the UC prompts. Not so for the "Why College X?" essay. Before you start, you really do need to read and re-read the prompt to make sure you understand it.

Step 2: Understand the Thesis Sentence.

In our Parent Guide to the Personal Statement, I mentioned Thomas C. Foster's observation in his guide How to Read Literature Like a Professor that the real purpose of every quest is self-knowledge. In the same way, a "tell me about yourself" essay describes a student's battle for self-knowledge. Though you don't need to state it explicitly, that is the thesis sentence: "This matters to me because it changed me."

As I mentioned above, though the "Why College X?" prompt might be irritating, it's not mystical. It has its own thesis sentence, too: "College X is good for me because it will let me continue to explore my interests." You don't need to come out and say that thesis sentence -- just keep it in mind as what you're hoping to convey.

The amazingly original image I would like you to envision is that of a bridge. A bridge from where to where? From your past to your future. Remember that this essay is an exercise in sincere flattery. The sincere part is your interests. That's your past, what you've done so far. The flattery part is all the details about how the school will be just the place for you to develop your interests. That's your future, what you're going to do next.

When you're writing these "Why College X?" essays, you're building that bridge between past and future. When you do this well, you leave the admission officer thinking, "Yes, my awesome school really would be the perfect and natural place for this fine young citizen to explore her interests."

Step 3: List Your Interests.

No school is going to believe you if you start off with, "You're perfect for me!" You have to work up to that. Ease into it. You have to start by showing the school a little bit about your interests. Biology? Business? Engineering? No -- please don't say it -- English? Yes, figuring out your favorite subject is a great starting point for identifying your interest.

Now list out a few particular moments you remember pursuing that interest. These might start in class. Is there a concept you remember? Did you do a project or a paper? What captivated you? Was there anything you found so interesting that you did extra reading or research? This extra research doesn't have to be "official" -- it could include watching documentaries on your own or taking a class on Coursera, for example. These moments might also extend beyond class. Did you pursue your interest somehow through an extracurricular activity? Doing research, doing an internship, or doing non-assigned reading are all possibilities.

I know. Some of you just don't have any burning interest for any subject. What then? Fake it. Well, not completely. I mean choose the least non-terrible area of interest you can think of. Find something plausible and run with it. Admitting that you have no interest isn't going to cut it.

Step 4: List the College's Opportunities.

Now that you've listed your interests and some moments you explored them -- your past -- it's time to focus on the school's opportunities -- your future. Start with the school website or, more specifically, the website of the school or department in which you're interested. Let's make this specific. Suppose you like business and are considering University of Michigan's Ross School of Business for its Bachelor of Business Administration.

Before you get bogged down in all the details, try to get an overview of what the school values. The Michigan Ross website looks something like this:


Look at the big categories at the bottom that I circled in red: study abroad, social impact, lead through crisis, pursue your passions, close-up look at government, and find your ideal job. These are hints about what Michigan Ross values. Is it a good idea to work one or more of these concepts into your essay? I'm glad you asked. Yes.

After you have a sense of the big picture, explore the details. On the Michigan Ross website, you can do this by checking out the categories I circled in green at the top:


Click through About Ross, Programs, Our Community, and Faculty & Research. What interests you? Maybe it's something one of the alumni has written about his experience. Maybe it's a course you can take. Maybe's it's research one of the faculty members is doing.

The goal here is to come up with 7-10 specific details from the website that reveal how you'll pursue your interest at the school. This is how you move beyond the "because it has a great business program" type of answer. Think of this as a proposal -- you're trying to give the reader confidence that if you're accepted, you know exactly how you'll jump in and get involved on your first day on campus.

Also, as a side note, students fortunate to have visited a school should feel free to write about conversations they had with current students, faculty, or administrators. (But you don't need to say, "As I walked across the quad for the first time, I could feel that this was the perfect place for me." Negative, Red Rider.) If you haven't visited the school, that's fine. Has your school invited an admission rep from the school to speak? Sign up! Even better, read through the school's website before the presentation, prepare a couple questions, and like totally ask them.

Step 5: Connect Interests to Opportunities.

Are you remembering that this essay is a bridge between your past and your future? You start with an anecdote about your interest, or one aspect of your interest. Then you talk about some specific details about the school that will let you explore that interest. Then repeat with new aspect of your interest and additional supporting details.

Don't get distracted by whether this essay feels authentic. Just focus on getting it done in a workmanlike manner. It might not be inspired, but it should be solid.

Set a Timer.

I leave you with the simplest piece of advice for starting the "Why College X?" essay (or any other essay): Set a timer. Let me make it super easy for you. Go to google.com, type "20 minute timer" in the search box, and click the "Google Search" button. Did you do it? No? These essays won't write themselves, you know. Go set a timer. You can sit there for 20 minutes if you want, but at least set the timer -- when the timer's up, you're done.

Now that you've read through the 5 steps and set a timer, you're on your way to answering the "Why College X?" prompt. Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.