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How to Write a Perfect "Why This College?" Essay

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Did you think you were all done pouring out your blood, sweat, and tears in written form for your personal statement, only to be faced with the "why this college?" supplemental essay? This question might seem simple but is in fact a crucial and potentially tricky part of many college applications. What exactly is the "why us?" essay trying to understand about you? And how do you answer this question without falling into its many pitfalls or making any rookie mistakes?

In this article, I'll explain why colleges want you to be able to explain why you are applying. I'll also discuss how to generate and brainstorm topics for this question and how to make yourself sound sincere and committed. Finally, we'll go over some "why this school?" essay dos and don'ts.

This article is pretty detailed, so here's a brief overview of what we'll be covering:

 

Why Do Colleges Want You to Write a "Why Us?" Essay?

College admissions officers have to read an incredible amount of student work to put together a winning class, so trust me when I say that everything they ask you to write is meaningful and important.

The purpose of the "why us?" essay goes two ways. On one hand, seeing how you answer this question gives admissions officers a sense of whether you know and value their school.

On the other hand, having to verbalize why you are applying gives you the chance to think about what you want to get out of your college experience and whether your target schools fit your goals and aspirations.

 

What Colleges Get Out Of Reading Your "Why This College?" Essay

Colleges want to check three things when they read this essay.

First, they want to see that you have a sense of what makes this college different and special.

  • Do you know something about the school's mission, history, or values?
  • Have you thought about the school's specific approach to learning?
  • Are you comfortable with the school's traditions and the overall feel of student life here?

 

Second, they want proof that you will be a good fit for the school.

  • Where do your interests lie? Do they correspond to this school's strengths?
  • Is there something about you that meshes well with some aspect of the school?
  • How will you contribute to college life? How will you make your mark on campus?

 

And third, they want to see that this school will, in turn, be a good fit for you.

  • What do you want to get out of college? Will this college be able to provide that? Will this school contribute to your future success?
  • What will you take advantage of on campus (e.g., academic programs, volunteer or travel opportunities, internships, or student organizations)?
  • Will you succeed academically? Does this school provide the right rigor and pace for your ideal learning environment?

 

What You Get Out Of Writing Your "Why This College?" Essay

Throughout this process of articulating your answers to the questions above, you will also benefit in a couple of key ways:

 

It Lets You Build Excitement about the School

Finding specific programs and opportunities at schools you are already happy about will give you a grounded sense of direction for when you start school. At the same time, by describing what is great about schools that are low on your list, you'll likely boost your enthusiasm for these colleges and keep yourself from feeling that they're nothing more than lackluster fallbacks.

 

It Helps You Ensure That You're Making the Right Choice

Writing the "why us?" essay can act as a moment of clarity. It's possible that you won't be able to come up with any reasons for applying to a particular school. If further research fails to reveal any appealing characteristics that fit with your goals and interests, this school is likely not for you.

 

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At the end of your four years, you want to feel like this, so take your "Why This College?" essay to heart.

 


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Two Types of "Why This College?" Essay Prompts

The "why this college?" essay is best thought of as a back-and-forth between you and the college. This means that your essay will really be answering two separate, albeit related, questions:

  • "Why us?": This is where you explain what makes the school special in your eyes, what attracted you to it, and what you think you'll get out of your experience there.
  • "Why you?": This is the part where you talk about why you'll fit in at the school; what qualities, skills, talents, or abilities you'll contribute to student life; and how your future will be impacted by the school and its opportunities.

Colleges usually use one of these approaches to frame this essay, meaning that your essay will lean heavier toward whichever question is favored in the prompt. For example, if the prompt is all about "why us?" you'll want to put your main focus on praising the school. If the prompt instead is mostly configured as "why you?" you'll want to dwell at length on your fit and potential.

It's good to remember that these two prompts are simply two sides of the same coin. Your reasons for wanting to apply to a particular school can be made to fit either of these questions.

For instance, say you really want the chance to learn from the world-famous Professor X. A "why us?" essay might dwell on how amazing an opportunity studying with him would be for you, and how he anchors the Telepathy department.

Meanwhile, a "why you?" essay would point out that your own academic telepathy credentials and future career goals make you an ideal student to learn from Professor X, a renowned master of the field.

Next up, I'll show you some real-life examples of what these two different approaches to the same prompt look like.

 

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Clarifying why you want to study with a particular professor in a specific department can demonstrate to college admissions staff that you've done your research on the school.

 

"Why Us?" Prompts

You can recognize this version of the prompt from phrases such as the following:
  • Why [this college]?
  • Why are you interested in [this college]?
  • Why is [this college] a good choice for you?
  • What do you like best about [this college]?
  • Why do you want to attend [this college]?

Below are some examples of actual "why us?" college essay prompts:

  • Colorado College: "Describe how your personal experiences with a particular community make you a student who would benefit from Colorado College’s Block Plan."
  • Tulane University: "Describe why you are interested in joining the Tulane community. Consider your experiences, talents, and values to illustrate what you would contribute to the Tulane community if admitted." (via the Common App)
  • 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?"
  • Wellesley College: "When choosing a college, you are choosing an intellectual community and a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but it's a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and select two items that attract, inspire, or celebrate what you would bring to our community. Have fun! Use this opportunity to reflect personally on what items appeal to you most and why."

 

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In a "why us?" essay, focus on the specific aspects of the school that appeal to you and how you will flourish because of those offerings.

 

"Why You?" Prompts

This type of prompt turns the tables slightly, asking something along the lines of the following:
  • Why are you a good match or fit for us?
  • What are your interests, and how will you pursue them at [this college]?
  • What do you want to study, and how will that correspond to our program?
  • What or how will you contribute?
  • Why you at [this college]?
  • Why are you applying to [this college]?

Here are some examples of the "why you?" version of the college essay:

  • Babson College: "A defining element of the Babson experience is learning and thriving in an equitable and inclusive community with a wide range of perspectives and interests. Please share something about your background, lived experiences, or viewpoint(s) that speaks to how you will contribute to and learn from Babson's collaborative community."

  • Bowdoin College: "Generations of students have found connection and meaning in Bowdoin's 'The Offer of the College.' ... Which line from the Offer resonates most with you? Optional: The Offer represents Bowdoin's values. Please reflect on the line you selected and how it has meaning to you." (via the Common App)

 

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In a "why you?" essay, focus on how your values, interests, and motivations align with the school's offerings and how you'll contribute to campus life.

 

How to Write a Perfect "Why This College?" Essay

No matter how the prompt is worded, this essay is a give-and-take of what you and the college have to offer each other. Your job is to quickly zoom in on your main points and use both precision and detail to sound sincere, excited, and authentic.

How do you effectively explain the benefits you see this particular school providing for you and the contributions you will bring to the table as a student there? And how can you do this best using the small amount of space that you have (usually just one to two paragraphs)?

In this section, we'll go through the process of writing the "Why This College?" essay, step-by-step. First, I'll talk about the prep work you'll need to do. Next, we'll go through how to brainstorm good topics (and touch on what topics to avoid). I'll give you some tips on transforming your ideas and research into an actual essay. Finally, I'll take apart an actual "why us?" essay to show you why and how it works.

 

Step 1: Research the School

Before you can write about a school, you'll need to know specific things that make it stand out and appeal to you and your interests. So where do you look for these? And how do you find the details that will speak to you? Here are some ways you can learn more about a school.

 

In-Person Campus Visits

If you're going on college tours, you've got the perfect opportunity to gather information about the school. Bring a notepad and write down the following:

  • Your tour guide's name
  • One to two funny, surprising, or enthusiastic things your guide said about the school
  • Any unusual features of the campus, such as buildings, sculptures, layout, history, or traditions

Try to also connect with students or faculty while you're there. If you visit a class, note which class it is and who teaches it. See whether you can briefly chat with a student (e.g., in the class you visit, around campus, or in a dining hall), and ask what they like most about the school or what has been most surprising about being there.

Don't forget to write down the answer! Trust me, you'll forget it otherwise—especially if you do this on multiple college visits.

 

Virtual Campus Visits

If you can't visit a campus in person, the next best thing is an online tour, either from the school's own website or from other websites, such as YOUniversityTV, CampusTours, or YouTube (search "[School Name] + tour").

You can also connect with students without visiting the campus in person. Some admissions websites list contact information for currently enrolled students you can email to ask one or two questions about what their experience of the school has been like.

Or if you know what department, sport, or activity you're interested in, you can ask the admissions office to put you in touch with a student who is involved with that particular interest.

 


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If you can't visit a campus in person, request a video chat with admissions staff, a current student, or a faculty member to get a better sense of specific topics you might write about in your essay.

 

Alumni Interview

If you have an interview, ask your interviewer questions about their experience at the school and about what going to that school has done for them since graduation. As always, take notes!

 

College Fairs

If you have a chance to go to a college fair where your ideal college has representatives, don't just attend and pick up a brochure. Instead, engage the representatives in conversation, and ask them about what they think makes the school unique. Jot down notes on any interesting details they tell you.

 

The College's Own Materials

Colleges publish lots and lots of different admissions materials—and all of these will be useful for your research. Here are some suggestions for what you can use. (You should be able to find all of the following resources online.)

 

Brochures and Course Catalogs

Read the mission statement of the school; does its educational philosophy align with yours? You should also read through its catalogs. Are there any programs, classes, departments, or activities that seem tailor-made for you in some way?

Pro Tip: These interesting features you find should be unusual in some way or different from what other schools offer. For example, being fascinated with the English department isn't going to cut it unless you can discuss its unusual focus, its world-renowned professors, or the different way it structures the major that appeals to you specifically.

 

Alumni Magazine

Are any professors highlighted? Does their research speak to you or connect with a project you did in high school or for an extracurricular?

Sometimes alumni magazines will highlight a college's new focus or new expansion. Does the construction of a new engineering school relate to your intended major? There might also be some columns or letters written by alumni who talk about what going to this particular school has meant to them. What stands out about their experiences?

 

School or Campus Newspaper

Students write about the hot issues of the day, which means that the articles will be about the best and worst things on campus. It'll also give you insight into student life, opportunities that are available to students, activities you can do off campus, and so on.

 

The College's Social Media

Your ideal school is most likely on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, TikTok, and other social media. Follow the school to see what it's posting about. Are there any exciting new campus developments? Professors in the news? Interesting events, clubs, or activities?

 

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The Internet

Wikipedia is a great resource for learning basic details about a college's history, traditions, and values. I also recommend looking for forums on College Confidential that specifically deal with the school you're researching.

Another option is to search on Google for interesting phrases, such as "What students really think about [School Name]" or "[School Name] student forum." This will help you get detailed points of view, comments about specific programs or courses, and insight into real student life.

 

Step 2: Brainstorm Potential Essay Topics

So what should you do now that you've completed a bunch of research? Answer: use it to develop connection points between you and your dream school. These connections will be the skeleton of your "why this college?" essay.

 

Find the Gems in Your Research

You have on hand all kinds of information, from your own personal experiences on campus and your conversations with people affiliated with your ideal school to what you've learned from campus publications and tidbits gleaned from the web.

Now, it's time to sift through all of your notes to find the three to five things that really speak to you. Link what you've learned about the school to how you can plug into this school's life, approach, and environment. That way, no matter whether your school's prompt is more heavily focused on the "why us?" or "why you?" part of the give-and-take, you'll have an entry point into the essay.

But what should these three to five things be? What should you keep in mind when you're looking for the gem that will become your topic?

Here are some words of wisdom from Calvin Wise, director of recruitment and former associate director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University (emphasis mine):

"Focus on what makes us unique and why that interests you. Do your research, and articulate a multidimensional connection to the specific college or university. We do not want broad statements (the brick pathways and historic buildings are beautiful) or a rehash of the information on our website (College X offers a strong liberal arts curriculum). All institutions have similarities. We want you to talk about our differences."

 

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Time to find that diamond, amethyst, opal, tourmaline, or amber in the rough.

 

Check Your Gems for Color and Clarity

When I say "check your gems," I mean make sure that each of the three to five things you've found is something your ideal school has that other schools don't have.

This something should be seen from your own perspective. The point isn't to generically praise the school but instead to go into detail about why it's so great for you that they have this thing.

This something you find should be meaningful to the school and specific to you. For example, if you focus on academics (e.g., courses, instructors, opportunities, or educational philosophy), find a way to link them either to your previous work or to your future aspirations.

This something should not be shallow and nonspecific. Want to live in a city? Every city has more than one college in it. Find a way to explain why this specific college in this specific city calls to you. Like pretty architecture? Many schools are beautiful, so dwell on why this particular place feels unlike any other. Like good weather, beach, skiing, or some other geographical attribute? There are many schools located near these places, and they know that people enjoy sunbathing. Either build a deeper connection or skip these as reasons.

 

Convert Your Gems into Essay Topics

Every "why this college?" essay is going to answer both the "why us?" and the "why you?" parts of the back-and-forth equation. But depending on which way your target school has worded its prompt, you'll lean more heavily on that part. This is why I'm going to split this brainstorming into two parts—to go with the "why us?" and "why you?" types of questions.

Of course, since they are both sides of the same coin, you can always easily flip each of these ideas around to have it work well for the other type of prompt. For example, a "why us?" essay might talk about how interesting the XYZ interdisciplinary project is and how it fits well with your senior project.

By contrast, a "why you?" essay would take the same idea but flip it to say that you've learned through your senior project how you deeply value an interdisciplinary approach to academics, making you a great fit for this school and its commitment to such work, as evidenced by project XYZ.

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Describing how project XYZ demonstrates your investment in a particular course of study that then happens to align with a specific program at the university is an effective approach to the "why you?" essay.

 

Possible "Why Us?" Topics

  • How a particular program of study, internship requirement, or volunteer connection will help further your specific career goals.
  • The school's interesting approach to your future major (if you know what that will be) or a major that combines several disciplines that appeal to you and fit with your current academic work and interests.
  • How the school handles financial aid and the infrastructure setup for low-income students and what that means for you in terms of opening doors.
  • A story about how you became interested in the school (if you learned about it in an interesting way). For example, did the institution host a high school contest you took part in? Did you attend an art exhibit or stage performance there that you enjoyed and that your own artistic work aligns with?
  • How you overcame an initial disinterest in the school (be sure to minimize this first negative impression). Did you do more research? Interact with someone on campus? Learn about the school's commitment to the community? Learn about interesting research being done there?
  • A positive interaction you had with current students, faculty, or staff, as long as this is more than just, "Everyone I met was really nice."
  • An experience you had while on a campus tour. Was there a super-passionate tour guide? Any information that surprised you? Did something happen to transform your idea about the school or campus life (in a good way)?
  • Interesting interdisciplinary work going on at the university and how that connects with your academic interests, career goals, or previous high school work.
  • The history of the school—but only if it's meaningful to you in some way. Has the school always been committed to fostering minority, first-generation, or immigrant students? Was it founded by someone you admire? Did it take an unpopular (but, to you, morally correct) stance at some crucial moment in history?
  • An amazing professor you can't wait to learn from. Is there a chemistry professor whose current research meshes with a science fair project you did? A professor who's a renowned scholar on your favorite literary or artistic period or genre? A professor whose book on economics finally made you understand the most recent financial crisis?
  • A class that sounds fascinating, especially if it's in a field you want to major in.
  • A facility or piece of equipment you can't wait to work in or with and that doesn't exist in many other places. Is there a specialty library with rare medieval manuscripts? Is there an observatory?
  • A required curriculum that appeals to you because it provides a solid grounding in the classics, shakes up the traditional canon, connects all the students on campus in one intellectual project, or is taught in a unique way.


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If the school can boast a cutting-edge laboratory where you dream of conducting research, that would be a strong focus for a "Why Us?" essay.

 

Possible "Why You?" Topics

  • Do you want to continue a project you worked on in high school? Talk about how or where in the current course, club, and program offerings this work would fit in. Why will you be a good addition to the team?
  • Have you always been involved in a community service project that's already being done on campus? Write about integrating life on campus with events in the surrounding community.
  • Do you plan to keep performing in the arts, playing music, working on the newspaper, or engaging in something else you were seriously committed to in high school? Discuss how excited you are to join that existing organization.
  • Are you the perfect person to take advantage of an internship program (e.g., because you have already worked in this field, were exposed to it through your parents, or have completed academic work that gives you some experience with it)?
  • Are you the ideal candidate for a study abroad opportunity (e.g., because you can speak the language of the country, it's a place where you've worked or studied before, or your career goals are international in some respect)?
  • Are you a stand-out match for an undergraduate research project (e.g., because you'll major in this field, you've always wanted to work with this professor, or you want to pursue research as a career option)?
  • Is there something you were deeply involved with that doesn't currently exist on campus? Offer to start a club for it. And I mean a club; you aren't going to magically create a new academic department or even a new academic course, so don't try offering that. If you do write about this, make double (and even triple) sure that the school doesn't already have a club, course, or program for this interest.
  • What are some of the programs or activities you plan to get involved with on campus, and what unique qualities will you bring to them?
  • Make this a mini version of a personal statement you never wrote. Use this essay as another chance to show a few more of the skills, talents, or passions that don't appear in your actual college essay. What's the runner-up interest that you didn't write about? What opportunity, program, or offering at the school lines up with it?

 

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One way to impress admissions staff in a "Why You?" essay is to discuss your fascination with a particular topic in a specific discipline, such as kinetic sculpture, and how you want to pursue that passion (e.g., as a studio art major).

 

Possible Topics for a College That's Not Your First Choice

  • If you're writing about a school you're not completely psyched about, one way to sidestep the issue is to focus on what getting this degree will do for you in the future. How do you see yourself changing existing systems, helping others, or otherwise succeeding?
  • Alternatively, discuss what the school values academically, socially, environmentally, or philosophically and how this connects with what you also care about. Does it have a vegan, organic, and cruelty-free cafeteria? A relationship with a local farm or garden? De-emphasized fraternity involvement? Strong commitment to environmental issues? Lots of opportunities to contribute to the community surrounding the school? Active inclusion and a sense of belonging for various underrepresented groups?
  • Try to find at least one or two features you're excited about for each of the schools on your list. If you can't think of a single reason why this would be a good place for you to go, maybe you shouldn't be applying there!

 

Topics to Avoid in Your Essay

  • Don't write about general characteristics, such as a school's location (or the weather in that location), reputation, or student body size. For example, anyone applying to the Webb Institute, which has just about 100 students, should by all means talk about having a preference for tiny, close-knit communities. By contrast, schools in sunny climates know that people enjoy good weather, but if you can't connect the outdoors with the college itself, think of something else to say.
  • Don't talk about your sports fandom. Saying, "I can see myself in crimson and white/blue and orange/[some color] and [some other color]" is both overused and not a persuasive reason for wanting to go to a particular college. After all, you could cheer for a team without going to the school! Unless you're an athlete, you're an aspiring mascot performer, or you have a truly one-of-a-kind story to tell about your link to the team, opt for a different track.
  • Don't copy descriptions from the college's website to tell admissions officers how great their institution is. They don't want to hear praise; they want to hear how you connect with their school. So if something on the college brochure speaks to you, explain why this specific detail matters to you and how your past experiences, academic work, extracurricular interests, or hobbies relate to that detail.
  • Don't use college rankings as a reason you want to go to a school. Of course prestige matters, but schools that are ranked right next to each other on the list are at about the same level of prestige. What makes you choose one over the other?
  • If you decide to write about a future major, don't just talk about what you want to study and why. Make sure that you also explain why you want to study this thing at this particular school. What do they do differently from other colleges?
  • Don't wax poetic about the school's pretty campus. "From the moment I stepped on your campus, I knew it was the place for me" is another cliché—and another way to say basically nothing about why you actually want to go to this particular school. Lots of schools are pretty, and many are pretty in the exact same way.

 

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Pop quiz: This pretty gothic building is on what college campus? Yes, that's right—it could be anywhere.


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Step 3: Nail the Execution

When you've put together the ideas that will make up your answer to the "why us?" question, it's time to build them into a memorable essay. Here are some tips for doing that successfully:

  • Jump right in. The essay is short, so there's no need for an introduction or conclusion. Spend the first paragraph delving into your best one or two reasons for applying. Then, use the second paragraph to go into slightly less detail about reasons 2 (or 3) through 5.
  • To thine own self be true. Write in your own voice, and be sincere about what you're saying. Believe me—the reader can tell when you mean it and when you're just blathering!
  • Details, details, details. Show the school that you've done your research. Are there any classes, professors, clubs, or activities you're excited about at the school? Be specific (e.g., "I'm fascinated by the work Dr. Jenny Johnson has done with interactive sound installations").
  • If you plan on attending if admitted, say so. Colleges care about the numbers of acceptances deeply, so it might help to know you're a sure thing. But don't write this if you don't mean it!
  • Don't cut and paste the same essay for every school. At least once, you'll most likely forget to change the school name or some other telling detail. You also don't want to have too much vague, cookie-cutter reasoning, or else you'll start to sound bland and forgettable.

For more tips, check out our step-by-step essay-writing advice.

 

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Avoid cookie-cutter responses to "why this college?" essay prompts. Instead, provide an essay that's personalized to that particular institution.

 

Example of a Great "Why This College?" Essay

At this point, it'll be helpful to take a look at a "why us?" essay that works and figure out what the author did to create a meaningful answer to this challenging question.

Here is a "Why Tufts?" essay from James Gregoire '19 for Tufts University:

It was on my official visit with the cross country team that I realized Tufts was the perfect school for me. Our topics of conversation ranged from Asian geography to efficient movement patterns, and everyone spoke enthusiastically about what they were involved in on campus. I really related with the guys I met, and I think they represent the passion that Tufts' students have. I can pursue my dream of being a successful entrepreneur by joining the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society, pursuing an Entrepreneurial Leadership minor, and taking part in an up-and-coming computer science program.

Here are some of the main reasons this essay is so effective:

  • Interaction with current students. James writes about hanging out with the cross-country team and sounds excited about meeting them.
  • "I'm a great fit." He uses the conversation with the cross-country team members to talk about his own good fit here ("I really related with the guys I met").
  • Why the school is special. James also uses the conversation as a way to show that he enjoys the variety of opportunities Tufts offers (their fun conversation covers Asian geography, movement patterns, and other things they "were involved with on campus").
  • Taking advantage of this specialness. James doesn't just list things Tufts offers but also explains which of them are of specific value to him. He's interested in being an entrepreneur, so the Tufts Entrepreneurs Society and the Entrepreneurial Leadership courses appeal to him.
  • Awareness of what the school is up to. Finally, James shows that he's aware of the latest Tufts developments when he mentions the new computer science program.


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The Bottom Line: Writing a Great "Why This College?" Essay

The "why this college?" essay is essentially looking for three things:
  • Proof that you understand what makes this college different and special
  • Evidence that you'll be a good fit at this school
  • Evidence that this college will, in turn, be a good fit for you

The prompt may be phrased in one of two ways: "Why us?" or "Why you?" But these are sides of the same coin and will be addressed in your essay regardless of the prompt style.

Writing the perfect "why this school?" essay requires you to first research the specific qualities and characteristics of this school that appeal to you. You can find this information by doing any or all of the following:

  • Visiting campuses in person or virtually to interact with current students and faculty
  • Posing questions to your college interviewer or to representatives at college fairs
  • Reading the college's own materials, such as its brochures, official website, alumni magazine, campus newspaper, and social media
  • Looking at other websites that talk about the school

To find a topic to write about for your essay, find the three to five things that really speak to you about the school, and then link each of them to yourself, your interests, your goals, or your strengths.

Avoid using clichés that could be true for any school, such as architecture, geography, weather, or sports fandom. Instead, focus on the details that differentiate your intended school from all the others.

 

What's Next?

Are you also working on your personal statement? If you're using the Common App, check out our complete breakdown of the Common App prompts and learn how to pick the best prompt for you.

If you're applying to a University of California school, we've got an in-depth article on how to write effective UC personal statements.

And if you're submitting ApplyTexas applications, read our helpful guide on how to approach the many different ApplyTexas essay prompts.

Struggling with the college application process as a whole? Our expert guides teach you how to ask for recommendations, how to write about extracurriculars, and how to research colleges.

 

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Dr. Anna Wulick
About the Author

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.



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