After the personal essay is finished, many students think that the hardest part of their application is behind them. In my opinion, the personal essay is the easier part. In many ways, and for many reasons, it’s easier to write about yourself than it is to write about a college and why you want to apply. In part because it’s difficult to write, the “Why Our College?” essay (and its many variations) is one of the most popular follow-up questions asked by colleges. The universities want to see how you deal with this important question.
I implore my students to consider these types of questions when choosing schools to apply to. I ask them to carefully take notes and take photos when researching colleges and take notes after visiting the campus. Then I ask them to create a document with two columns – one heading is “What I want” and the other is “What the college has.” And do this task for every school that wants to send an application. Unfortunately, due to human nature, students often neglect this important task. But it lies in wait and shows up when students are working on their applications. And the work still needs to be done before submission.
So what exactly are schools looking for when they ask for this prompt? First, let’s look at what they don’t want. You don’t want to read how you like the school’s size, location, ranking, and weather. Why? Because most students write about these factors, and admissions readers are tired of reading about these things. Another reason is that colleges make the assumption (not entirely absurd) that a student plans to attend college for an education. Since colleges offer education in the form of bachelor’s degrees, it stands to reason that a strong “Why Our College” essay would highlight academics and the campus community that supports them rather than weather or size, at least as the highest Priority. Some colleges even go a step further and spell out exactly what you’re supposed to write about. want an example Sure thing—here’s Northwestern University’s call for this cycle:
In 300 words or less, help us understand how to include specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious What these specifics are, as well how they can enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.
Notice the words in italics along with the twice used word “specials” and you are even asked to elaborate on how these specials will enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond (ie after graduation). Wow! You’ve got to pack a lot of punch into 300 words!
Next, you should avoid using overly emotional language. How many times have I read “I’ve wanted to go to MIT since I was in kindergarten and it’s my dream college”? Now I’m not making fun of that kind of reaction – I think it’s heartfelt. But it won’t get you to MIT.
Another important prohibition is to make mistakes related to the college’s colors, mascot, and teams. And don’t misspell the names of important people associated with the college, and don’t use false names for libraries, departments, and research organizations. You may not think it’s important to use the word “department” instead of the word department, but to those reading your application, mistakes like this are a red flag that you haven’t done your homework .
So what should you write about? As I mentioned above, academics make a good start. But be careful – you should not try to take what you write about one college’s academic programs and opportunities and paste it into another college’s essay. That would be another red flag and show the admissions people that you didn’t do enough research. Schools are unique in what they offer and you need to show them that you understand their uniqueness. It makes them feel special! And don’t we all love to feel special?
Another set of factors to research and write about are specific classes, professors, clubs, and activities that you would be really excited about. And show how the academics and these activities perfectly match your needs and interests. I recently read an essay that contained a reference to the student’s excitement about a photojournalism contest at Stanford. And coincidentally, the coed is both an amateur photographer and a senior contributor to her high school’s newspaper. Pure genius tying the two together!
So when dealing with these types of prompts, try to put yourself in the shoes of the admission reader and think about what they want to read about? It is very easy for a college reader to identify which students took the trouble to write this type of essay. So it’s worth taking the time to perfect it.
Elizabeth LaScala PhD guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She helps students choose majors and programs of interest, develops best match college lists, provides personalized essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students navigate each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds maximize scholarship opportunities and financial assistance rewards. Call (925) 385-0562 or visit Elizabeth on her website to learn more.
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