Step-by-Step Guide To Write A Great "Why This College" Essay

November 25, 2021

Most of the students have already decided that they have to write a general essay which they will send to all colleges on their list. This is needed by platforms like the Common Application, which most students use to apply. 

But sadly, the task is not done yet. Several colleges also have school-specific essays, called supplements. These supplemental essays allow the school to understand how you might be an excellent fit for their community.

List of some schools that have to require this prompt:

  • Bowdoin College
  • Brown University
  • Colorado College
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Duke University
  • New York University (NYU)
  • Northwestern University
  • Oberlin College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Tufts University
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Southern California

And there are many more colleges that ask this question as well.

One of the most common supplements will require you to solve the mystery: “Why this college?” These essays particularly want to understand how a student will benefit from the academic and extracurricular resources at this particular school. 

In this article, we’ll give you a step-by-step plan and numerous “Why this college?” (also called “Why us?”)  essay examples to help you stand out and even help you decide what kind of school you want to attend. 

First, we’ll start by covering what not to do in your essay, and then we’ll see where you can find the best resources for researching your “Why this college?” essay.

5 Mistakes Students Make In The “Why This College” Essay

1. Write about the school's reputation, size, location, reputation, environment, or ranking.

You shouldn’t be writing about this because most of the students write about this, and you don’t want to be one with the crowd. Take a hint from Emory University, whose “Why us?” prompt used to read:

Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and, yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a perfect match for you?

Or look at Georgia Tech’s old prompt:

Beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech? 

You can see their admissions committee is tired of reading about those things.

2. When you use emotional language to express your fit.

Telling the admission committee that as soon as you walked onto the campus, “it just felt it was made for you” is 

a) many students say and

b) doesn’t make any sense for readers on how are a good match for the school. 

3. When you just copy-paste the brochures or website language. 

The person evaluating your application could be the one who must have written the words you’re copying and pasting. I know. What are the odds? 

Brian Liechti of Warren Wilson College says. “On the one hand, it shows that a student has researched us, and I appreciate that. On the other hand, as one of those who wrote the words you’re copying, I’d rather see evidence of how what I wrote resonated with you—do we share values? What stood out or spoke to you in that brochure or on that web page? That's what I want to see.

4. When you discuss the traditions the school is well-known for.

Most of the students just research the school's common traditions ( for example, throwing toast at the park at Penn) and then don't mention those things. Why? Because everyone already has.

5. When thinking of this as only a "Why them" essay.

The school already knows how amazing they are. Nicole Buenzli of Union College says, “You probably don’t need to tell us about the beautiful Nott Memorial; I pass the Nott every day, it's on every brochure we create, and we all know it has 16 sides!

Instead, think of this as a "Why we are perfect for each other" essay. 

To prove you and the school are predetermined to be together, make connections between yourself and the school. 

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

 The admissions department has to read an impossible amount of student projects to create a winning class, so remember when I say that everything they ask you to write is meaningful and valuable.

The objective of the "why us" essay goes two ways. Seeing how you answer this question gives the admissions committee a sense of whether you know and value their school.

On the other hand, verbalizing 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 ambitions.

Let’s Check -out “Why This College” Prompts

Let’s have a look at two actual prompts from the 2019-2020 cycle that fits under the ideal category for the “Why this college” archetype: 

Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, ‘Why Tufts?’ (150 words)

Other parts of your application give us a sense of how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. Help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. (300 words)

Here you can see, these prompts are essentially asking why you want to attend the school in question. 

Northwestern goes even further and explicitly asks how you’ll use their resources to achieve your objectives. You can see the word counts that are much shorter than that of the Common App, typical of supplemental essays. 

You can expect your average essay length for “Why this college” can be around 100-400 words. The word count is not enough for a pretty significant question, so it’s essential to use the word count wisely.

If you want an example of a complete essay, here’s this real student response for Boston University’s “Why this college” prompt.

Prompt: In no more than 250 words, please tell us why BU is a good fit for you and what precisely has led you to apply for admission

Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) attracts me because it supports interdisciplinary study among its many majors. The CAS now offers a course that combines biology, chemistry, and neuroscience. As I hope to conduct medical research into brain disorders, I plan to pursue all three areas of study. These cross-disciplinary connections at BU will prepare me to do so.

CAS’s undergraduate research program would allow me to work with a mentor, such as Dr. Alice Cronin-Golomb or Dr. Robert M.G. Reinhart, related to their research on neurological disorders. With them, I can advance the work I have already completed related to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In a summer class at our local university, my partner and I extracted data from fMRI and PET studies and inputted them into a coding program. We then created an indicator map, which we imported into another software program, AFNI, to display significant activity in the brain regions affected by DID. Seeing the representation of our data thrilled me because I knew it could eventually help people who live with DID. I want to experience that feeling again. Successfully analyzing these fMRI and PET studies and learning to code drives me to pursue more research opportunities. This desire motivates me to study at a university that offers research opportunities to undergraduates. BU’s interdisciplinary approach to psychology and support for independent undergraduate research will optimally prepare me for a career as a neurological researcher.

You can see the student clearly outlines BU-specific resources (the interdisciplinary course and undergrad research program) and how these resources align with their professional goals (to become a neurological researcher). They do “name-drop” professors, but since their work distinctly relates to the student’s interests, it doesn’t look false and shows that the student has put effort into their fit with BU. The student also explains why he wants to pursue research and communicates that they already have experience, which shows that their interest in the undergrad research program is solid.

One thing the student fails to mention in this essay is how to fit with BU in terms of extracurriculars and social life. You need also to coveralso need extracurriculars in “Why this college” essays, as colleges want to know how you’ll contribute to their community. 

In general, if essays are under 250 words, they must be academic-leaning, but always remember to talk about some social aspects of the college that appeal to you (we suggest about 65% academics, 35% social, depending on the word count).

Many students might have already detailed their previous research in their Common App activities section, so they could’ve briefed their research background in one sentence cover also and used that room to talk about a particular social aspect of BU that interests them.

Prompt: 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 (650 words).

 Sister Simone Roach, a theorist of nursing ethics, said, “caring is the human mode of being.” I have long been inspired by Sister Roach’s Five C’s of Caring: commitment, conscience, competence, compassion, and confidence. Penn embraces and fosters these values through a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum and unmatched access to service and volunteer opportunities.

 COMMITMENT. Reading through the activities that Penn Quakers devote their time to (in addition to academics!) felt like drinking from a firehose in the best possible way. As a prospective nursing student with interests outside of my major, I value this level of flexibility. I plan to leverage Penn’s liberal arts curriculum to gain an in-depth understanding of the challenges LGBT people face, especially regarding healthcare access. Through courses like “Interactional Processes with LGBT Individuals” and volunteering at the Mazzoni Center for outreach, I hope to learn how to better support the Penn LGBT community and my family and friends, including my cousin, who came out as trans last year.

CONSCIENCE. As one of the first people in my family to attend a four-year university, I wanted a school that promoted a sense of moral responsibility among its students. At Penn, professors challenge their students to question and recreate their own set of morals by sparking thought-provoking, open-minded discussions. I can imagine myself advocating for universal healthcare in courses such as “Health Care Reform & Future of American Health System” and debating its merits with my peers. Studying in an environment where students confidently voice their opinions – conservative or liberal – will push me to question and strengthen my value system.

 COMPETENCE. Two aspects that drew my attention to Penn’s BSN program were its high-quality research opportunities and hands-on nursing projects. Through its Office of Nursing Research, Penn connects students to faculty members who share similar research interests. As I volunteered at a nursing home in high school, I hope to work with Dr. Carthon to improve the quality of care for senior citizens. Seniors, especially minorities, face severe barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, Penn’s nursing program classes allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterward through a video system. Participating in this activity will help me identify my strengths and areas for improvement regarding crisis management and medical care in a controlled yet realistic setting. Research opportunities and simulations will develop my skills even before I interact with patients.

 COMPASSION. I value giving back through community service, and I am interested in Penn’s Community Champions and Nursing Students For Sexual & Reproductive Health (NSRH). As a four-year volunteer health educator, I hope to continue this work as a Community Champions member. I am excited to collaborate with medical students to teach fourth and fifth graders in the city about cardiology or lead a chair dance class for the elders at the LIFE Center. Furthermore, as a feminist who firmly believes in women’s abortion rights, I’d like to join NSRH to advocate for women’s health on campus. At Penn, I can work with like-minded people to make a meaningful difference.

 CONFIDENCE. All of the Quakers that I have met possess one defining trait: belief. Each student summarized their experiences at Penn as challenging but fulfilling. Although I expect my coursework to push me, from my conversations with current Quakers, I know it will help me be far more effective in my career.

 The Five C’s of Caring are important heuristics for nursing, but they also provide insight into how I want to approach my time in college. I am eager to engage with these principles both as a nurse and as a Penn Quaker, and I can’t wait to start.

A unique way to approach essay the essay, using the Five C’s of Caring. This is an exciting read, and this works very well since these qualities tell about the student’s future career in nursing. The way the student has done formatting of the more extended essay, it becomes easier to read. Also, notice how he used caps for all the Five C’s at the start of each paragraph.

What makes this essay extraordinary is the depth of the student’s fit with UPenn and how they can also share more about who they are. The student talks about research opportunities he’ll get, lists specific courses, technology the college uses, and student groups. 

We also come to understand that the first-generation students are passionate about increasing access to healthcare (especially for LGBTQ+ people, elders, and minorities), care about health education, and are a feminist who with full-power defends abortion rights (a complex, controversial topic, but since UPenn is a very liberal school, this should be fine).

 Overall, this essay shows a clear picture of how the student would engage academically at Penn. Wewant, want, and these reasons are often come to know how the student would follow their intellectual desires outside the college. Since this essay prompt focused on “intellectual and academic interests,” you don’t need to write about other aspects of UPenn except those supporting their multiple interests in healthcare.

A Step-by-Step Guide To Write “Why This College” Essay

Now that you have gone through some examples let’s get started. 

Let’s look at the three steps to get your essay underway:

  1. Create a list of the reasons you decided to apply
  1. Research unique opportunities associated with your academic and extracurricular interests
  1. Select your top academic reasons for applying and your top extracurricular/social reasons.

1. Create a list of the reasons you decided to apply.

As you create your college list, here I hope you haven’t picked colleges at random.  

Ask yourself:

  • Why you wanted to get into the college in the first place? 
  • What are you searching for in a college in general? How does this school succeed in fulfilling your criteria?

Your answers to these questions should connect in many places. Many times, these reasons are more general like I mentioned earlier in the mistakes section like the location, the school size, the financial aid, a strong department for your major, an extracurricular. 

Remember not to use these reasons “Why this college” essay because they are not school-specific enough to be used. For instance, you pick a college because it was ranked among the top 10 LGBTQ+ friendly in the nation. If you were to research this aspect, you might look into the specific organizations that support LGBTQ+ students on campus.

2. Research unique opportunities associated with your academic and extracurricular interests.

So the question is, where will you find all these specific courses, clubs, and resources. The school’s website is a perfect place to start if you have no other ideas, or if you have some plan of what you’re searching for, you can even use Google or other search engines to get your information.  

To know about course descriptions and syllabus, you can go to the professor’s website who’s teaching the course; usually, they have more detailed information. They regularly update about the concepts to be covered than the online course catalog. 

For clubs, you can find it on Facebook groups, where you will also find about events they’re hosting⁠. On Facebook groups, you might even get a chance to connect with a current student about their experience; if you do reach out to the Facebook group admins, be sure to be courteous and respectful of their time.

3. Select your top academic reasons for applying and your top extracurricular/social reasons

After completing your research and finding specific opportunities to cite in your essay, you can select your best/top 1-3 academic reasons and top 1-3 extracurricular ones, depending on the word count. 

We’ll go back to the Tufts essay, the example we mentioned was already 65 words, and you can only say two courses. Remember that you have to narrate resources specific to the school and how they’ll shell out to your goals.

This personal aspect is just as vital as the real opportunities, so be sure to grant some space to describe why precisely these resources make the school a good fit for you.

For academic reasons, you are free to list anything from special programs to unique majors to specific courses and professors. However, we want to caution you against “name-dropping” professors⁠—unless their work fits your established interests and professional goals well.  Otherwise, it might seem like you’re disingenuous.

We also want to reiterate that you should be sure to not only talk about academics in your essay but also extracurriculars (unless the prompt asks you to focus only on academics, or if the word count is short, i.e., 150 words or fewer). College isn’t just about what you do in the classroom. Admissions committees want to be sure that accepted students will also contribute to the college community. You should plan to spend about 60-65% of space on academic reasons and 35-40% on social causes.

Is Your “Why This College” Essay Strong Enough?

Essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision, as they’re your chance to humanize your application and set yourself apart from other applicants with solid profiles. 

 The “Why This College” essay is critical, as it allows you to reflect on your fit with the school. Your supplement needs to demonstrate your interest in the college and paint a picture of how you’ll contribute academically and socially.

 To understand if your essay is strong enough, we recommend using our Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. This tool will make it easier to understand your essay’s strengths and weaknesses and help you make your writing even more compelling.

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