Helping Students Approach the “Why THIS college?” Essay with More Confidence (and fewer eye rolls)

Helping Students Approach the “Why THIS college?” Essay with More Confidence (and fewer eye rolls)
By Sarah Graham, Princeton Day School
September 13, 2023

This post was originally published on the ACCIS AdmitAll blog in 2016 (but the advice still stands!).

“Maybe you’re having trouble writing the “Why?” essay because you don’t actually want to go to this college?” I remarked to the frustrated senior in front of me. Silence. More silence. Then a half-smile and nod.

So we took that college off the list. While this answer seemed obvious to me based on the conversation that preceded it, it hadn’t occurred to the student that this might be the reason behind her struggle to craft the perfect “Why?” essay for the college in question.

In fact, I’ve had many versions of this conversation over my years as a college counselor. And I understand why. It’s often the case that there’s not a lot of time to step back and really think about the bigger picture of THE LIST and the reason behind every college on it in the swirl of college essay writing, looming deadlines, and everything else students do in addition to applying to college. But there should be.

So enter the “Why this college?” essay – the bane of many students’ Common App supplements.

Don’t hate me, but I’ll confess: I love this question. I wish every college would ask it because it gives students permission to stop and think. Or at least it can.

The reactions to the “Why x college?” essay essentially boil down to three basic categories: 

1) “They don’t give me enough space to write everything I love!”

2) “This is SOOO annoying! Why do they make us talk about that? I have no idea what to write.”

3) “Is it really bad that I just wrote one version and replaced the name of the college in every one?”

Before any of these reactions makes you delete a school from the “My Colleges” tab, consider that this can actually be a wonderful opportunity. Here are some tips for mastering the “Why?” essay: 

1) Try to view this essay as one thing you can control in what can sometimes feel like an out-of-control process. Electronic applications (in multiple forms!). Comparisons to “other applicants”. Baffling admissions statistics and criteria. A lot about this process can seem faceless and out of your power at times. But the thought you put into the “Why?” essay is one thing you can control, a chance to add some thoughtfulness and purpose to your application process.

2) Consider writing the “Why?” essay even if it’s not asked. What?! More writing??? Actually, writing a short summary of what compels you to apply to a certain college can be a great way to sort out your thoughts. Remember, you should really want to write this essay for a college that you’re hoping to have the opportunity to attend! (At least consider doing this for the college(s) you’re considering as ED/EA options.)

3) Take good notes when you tour colleges (virtually or in-person) and attend information sessions. Let’s face it…all of the colleges start to get jumbled together in your mind after a while. If you take a moment to write down a few specific things that you like and don’t like about every college as you visit the campus (or learn about it in another way like a college fair or virtual tour) that can really help you write the “Why?” essay later. A good old-fashioned paper notebook can be a fantastic investment here but there are also a ton of apps that can help too. Figure out what works for you!

4) Add specifics about that college. Go back to those great notes you’ve been taking during your research. Learn more if you need to. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be able to write one “Why?” essay and then just replace the name of the college for every school that asks this question.

5) Focus on what you know. If you need a jump-start, ask yourself: What have you loved about high school? How does this college help you continue to build on it? What do you want to change for the next step? How will this college help you do that? 

6) Think about why you want to go to college overall. Whoa. That can be an even harder question to tackle. But it’s an important one. If you don’t have an answer to it – or at least one that you can easily put into words – let me suggest scheduling an appointment to talk this through with your college counselor.

And, seriously, after all this…if you still can’t write the “Why This College?” essay, be honest with yourself. You just might not really want to go to that school. And that’s ok too. 
Share this post:

Comments on "Helping Students Approach the “Why THIS college?” Essay with More Confidence (and fewer eye rolls)"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment