The Ultimate Guide To Why This College Essay

The whole purpose of the “Why us?” or “Why this particular college” essay is to show through specific details and examples—why you’re a perfect match for a particular school. In some cases, the “Why us?” essay is an essential way to demonstrate an interest in a specific college.

The “Why this college?” essay and this prompt also happen to be one of the most popular supplemental essay questions asked of students on the college application. 

Check out few schools that have (or recently required) 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 dozens of other colleges ask this question as well.

This guide will provide a step-by-step strategy and tons of “Why this college?” (sometimes called “Why us?”)  essay examples to help you stand out on your essay and even help you decide what kind of school you want to go to. 

We'll start by covering what NOT to do, what kinds of details you SHOULD include in your essay, and where to find the best resources for researching your “Why this college?” essay.

6 common mistakes every student make on the “Why this college” essay

Mistake No 1: Mentioning the school's size, location, status, weather, or ranking.

Shouldn’t you mention this? Because that's precisely what many other students are writing about, and you don’t want to be a commoner. Let’s 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 have a look at Georgia Tech’s old prompt:

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

I am pretty sure their admissions readers are tired of reading about those things.

Mistake No 2: Just using emotional language to confirm fit.

You can tell your school that as you walked onto and you liked it is something many students say, and it doesn’t give the reader a clear idea of how you are a good match for the school. Also, neither makes the statement, “I can see myself supporting the Wildcats at MetLife Stadium on Sundays.”

Mistake No 3: Messing up with the name of mascot, stadium, team colors, or names of any famous people or places on campus

It should be avoided because it's the fastest way to show you're a loose researcher. In the example above, the Wildcats play neither at MetLife Stadium nor on Sundays. Also, saying that I can see myself in your school is a cliché of the "Why This College" essay. Avoid it too.

Mistake No 4: Repeating the brochures or website language. 

Sometimes it could be that the person is reading your essay and assessing your application inscribed the words you’re copying and pasting. I know it’s hilarious. 

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

Mistake No 5 Talking about traditions the school is well-known for.

You do not need to talk about the school's common traditions (like throwing toast on the field at Penn, for example, or painting the rock at Northwestern). Why? Because everyone already has. How do you know about the traditions? Just  google the name of the school and the word “traditions.” 

Mistake No 6: Thinking of this as only a "Why them" essay.

The school knows it’s fantastic. “You probably don’t need to tell us about the beautiful Nott Memorial,” says Nicole Buenzli of Union College. “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 best for each other" essay. 

Let’s say you're on a date, and the person sitting across asks, "So, why do you like me?" You don’t just say, "Because you're nice," or, “My close friend says a relationship with you will improve my job prospects.” When it comes to the “us” in “Why us?” think of it this way:

“Us” ≠ the college you’re applying to

“Us” = the school + you

To convince you and the school are destined to be together, make connections between the two of you.

A step-by-step guide: How to write a “Why this college essay.”

Step #1: Do your research. 

How? Like this:

How can you find the resources you need to understand about a specific school? 

“Search deep” on the school’s website. Go through the school’s online catalog/course schedule and look for not only majors and minors but also particular programs, activities, courses, and opportunities that set the school apart from all the others you’re applying to. 

Browse reviews from experts. Here are some great ones:

  • The Fiske Guide to Colleges (Edward B. Fiske)
  • Colleges That Change Lives (Loren Pope)
  • The Best 376 Colleges (Princeton Review)

Check out student reviews. Students sometimes reveal things that experts don’t say or are not suppose to say. Both Niche and Unigo have genuine student reviews. Go through them. You can get a sense of the campus vibe and aren’t skewed by just 1-2 opinions. 

Take accurate and virtual tours. I know it’s difficult to see a campus without visiting it. And if you can, please do it. But if you can’t stay in person, check out:

Important Tip: Take at least five online tours so you can compare schools. 

Reach the admissions office and talk to your local rep.

Most colleges have special representatives for particular regions of the country (and the world). You can speak to them. And they're beneficial! Why this is a good idea:

It’s an excellent way to find out about a school. Some people get paid to answer your questions. Don’t be afraid or be shy, and you can ask anything. They won’t be mad at you; they’ll be glad you asked.

Your conversation may help you write your essay. There is a chance you could learn something meaningful on the call, and you may be able to write in your essay, “When I conversed to so-and-so XYZ in the Admissions Office, he/she told me….” 

There is quite a chance at some schools, the person you speak to on the call may be the one who reads your application. And how great will it be when they’re reading your app, and they think, “Oh, I remember this student! They were so pleasant.”

Important Tip: Remember to ask some good questions before you call and try not to ask about anything you could Google in five minutes. 

Don't ask, for instance, if the school has a Chemistry major. Ask instead how easy it is for non-majors to take advanced dance classes or what sets their Business program apart from other schools (considering you've already Googled these things and can’t find the answers).

Never be afraid to make a connection and ask questions if you are in doubt. It’s a fabulous way to engage with the world, even if you’re doing something as specific as researching an essay about why you chose this college.

Connect with a current student.

Post on social media: “Anyone knows a current or former student at Purdue?” Ask a short set of questions that you’ve already prepared beforehand. Generally, these questions will help you write your “Why This College” essay and will be exciting, specific, and open-ended. 

Don’t ask general questions like, “So, what’s it like there?”  or “Did you like it?”. Ask open-ended questions that will be entertaining for them to answer, like: “What was the most exciting class you took and why? What surprised you the most about college? What do most people not know about the college.” 

The more entertaining your questions are, the more exciting the answers will be, and the more you’ll show why you are interested in this college.

The top-secret three-word trick to finding specific information for your “Why this college essay.”

Find a syllabus. 

Research, search the deepest depths of Google, or you can ask someone who attends the school and find a syllabus for a class you may take at that school. 

Why does this help? Let’s say you’re trying to explain why you’d take a particular class. What more excellent way than to study the language the professor uses in the part of the syllabus that says, “What I hope you will learn from this class”?

Take this course information, excerpted from a syllabus by (and quoted with permission from) Dr. Frank Anderson at the University of Michigan: 

This course provides a comprehensive introduction to reproductive health, both in the United States and from a global perspective. The course will introduce students to cross-cutting themes including 1) historical discourses on reproductive health; 2) the social ecology of reproductive risks (e.g., gender, race, sexuality); 3) the relevance of physical anatomy to reproductive risks; 4) life course perspectives; 5) human rights frameworks, and 6) application to health behavior and health education assessments and interventions. Additional (more specific) topics in reproductive health will be addressed, including maternal morbidity, contraceptive use, pregnancy, STI care, HIV, abortion care, and violence against women. Through a comparative look at reproductive health needs in diverse social settings, we will critically examine the logic and impact of current domestic and international standards for reproductive health policy and practice.

You can show off your research skills by mentioning in your essay you found a syllabus:

“When I read Professor [X]’s syllabus for her Class in [Y], I was intrigued by the possibility of exploring [Z], in particular….” 

Step 2: Organize your research using one of these.

What you’re looking for as you research: Specific reasons that connect the school and your interests and needs. Have a look at the simple formula: 

A (school-related detail) + B (how this connects back to you) = a great “Why us?” sentence.

Important Tip: Remember the “Why This College” essay is an opportunity to share a few more of your skills/interests/talents/passions. Ask yourself: are all these values/qualities somewhere else in my application? If not, where could I weave them into my “Why This College” essay?

Step #3: Decide your approach to the essay.

Important: There is no “best” approach, and students are accepted to excellent schools each year with each of these strategies.

Approach No 1: The primary, perfect “Why this college essay that includes several reasons.”

How it works: Research some opportunities at the school and connect each one back to you in an organized way.

Try to find 10-15 reasons. While you may not finally name all the reasons in your final version, research this many will give you plenty to choose from when you start your draft.

What do I mean by the “organized” way?

Here’s a framework for a basic, solid “Why This College” essay:

  1. A straightforward thesis that names the academic area(s) you want to pursue and maybe charts the path of the essay
  1. Main reason #1 and 3-4 specific details
  1. Main reason #2 and 3-4 specific details
  1. Main reason #3 and 3-4 specific details
  1. An ending that maybe discusses what you’ll give back

Let’s look at an example of an essential, perfect “Why This College” Essay that includes some reasons:

The Why Michigan “Why This College” Essay Example

Prompt: 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? (500-word limit)

Mark Twain was a steamboat pilot. Agatha Christie was a nurse. Robert Frost was a light bulb filament changer. The best writers write beautifully and integrate their individual experiences and awareness outside the world of literature. By connecting the study of literature, media, and perhaps law, I suppose the University of Michigan will provide the education necessary to evolve as a journalist.

A journalist cannot touch the peak of his craft if his understanding of literature and critical thinking skills are weak, which is why I’m thrilled to explore what the Department of English has to offer. I look forward to Academic Argumentation and Professional Writing courses, as I believe these will provide me with a firm basis in journalistic writing techniques and improve my expertise to write analytically and develop well-supported arguments. Furthermore, the Professional Writing course will teach me how to write in a concise, straightforward style, a skill vital to a journalist.

At The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, I will apply the skills learned in class with media studies in and beyond the classroom. The Honors Program provides an opportunity for independent research into the field of mass media, which will allow for intensive group studies and in-depth research opportunities, and the superb networking opportunity provides the chance to meet and engage with prominent figures in media-related studies, which will provide deeper insight and knowledge into the field. Outside the classroom, I can see myself writing scripts for the student-run television station WOLV-TV or composing headlines for The Michigan Daily.

And although journalism is the path I’m currently on, I want to remain open to other opportunities I may encounter at UM. The Pre-Law Advising Program is attractive because I want to explore the intricacies of law and policies that govern this world. I believe that the judicial role is closely related to the expository skills of a writer, and I look forward to exploring this new field of study that wasn’t offered in my high school education.

But all these are what UM has to offer me. As a member of the UM community, I realize that I’ll want to give back as well. The various volunteer programs offered by Volunteers Involved Every Week appeals to me, as does the possibility of volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Michigan, as I have previous experience with elementary school teaching. And as an international student, I know the pains of learning English as a second language. I can contribute to the ESL teaching program either at UM or abroad, and I see this as an opportunity to impact not only at UM but also in Washtenaw County and beyond. (466 words)

Things that are great about the “Why Michigan” Essay

The short catch. Generally, many students spend way too long on their opening when a short one is wonderful. This essay’s hook is just 40 words long and works well. Does your “Why This College” essay even need a hook? Nope. If you use this first approach, get to the main argument as fast as you can.

The clear thesis gives a path for the essay. This will take you back to AP English class essays, where you’re required to make your argument specific at the start and then provide evidence to support it. That’s what you’re doing in a “Why This College” essay, and you argue that you and the school are a perfect match. 

Three main reasons and 3-4 bits of supporting evidence per paragraph. I suggest identifying three main reasons because a) it keeps your essay organized, b) it’s easy to adapt for different length “Why this College” essays, and c) it provides “buckets” for your research. (“Buckets” = the themed paragraphs you need to “fill” with research.)

The way he sprinkles “salt” into his essay. Remember above where the author notes that he “look[s] forward to exploring [law at Michigan, as it] wasn’t offered in [his] high school education”? I call this sprinkling “salt” into your “Why us?” essay. Why? Consider this analogy: salt makes one thirsty and, by mentioning opportunities you haven’t had access to, you let the reader know that you’re thirsty for something the school has to offer. And the reader may know of opportunities for quenching that thirst that you don’t—including the “salt” may inspire them to think of those ways. 

Approach No 2: The 3-5 Unique Reasons Strategy 

Find 3-5 opportunities that are appropriate to the school (i.e., available at no other school you’re applying to) and connect each one back to you.

This is a great approach, as concentrating on fewer reasons allows you the chance to share more about yourself and your interests (i.e., “why you”). But it can be more challenging to write because it can be troublesome to find specifics that genuinely set a school aside from other schools. It is possible to find these unique offerings. However, it’s always worth trying, especially for your top-choice schools.

Important Tip: Ask the admission department what sets their school apart from other schools.

APPROACH No 3: The “One Value Strategy”

Identify the essence that links you to the school and tell a story.

This approach is suitable for: 

  • Schools that a) have smaller “Why this College” essays and b) seem to be asking for this type of response.
  • Students who feel approach No one and  No two might combine too much and are willing to take a risk.

Why is this a risky approach?

You’re preceding listing 5-15 reasons that connect you to the school. This approach joins on a particular story, purpose, or insight. And if:

  • your reader is skimming
  • your story isn’t well-told 
  • the central purpose isn’t clear
  • The insight doesn’t make the reader feel something, and the essay may not work. 

3 Ways to make sure your “Why this college ” essay is doing its job

1. Look at your essay for capital letters. Because, chances are, capital letters mean you’ve included something specific that the school offers. 

2. Highlight your solid reasons for wanting to attend. I’ve done this in the “Why Johns Hopkins” essay above. Notice after doing this if you have just 1-3 items highlighted in bold. If so, you can probably trim in some places to make room for more reasons. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you’re going for the first or second approach I’ve described, then 1-3 reasons per paragraph is a good rule of thumb, whereas if you’re going for the third approach, you can kind of do whatever: you might choose to go in-depth on one significant reason. But either way…
3. Ensure that you connect it back to yourself each time you mention something about the school. How do you know? Simply check each mention of the school and see if you’ve explained why this is important—not just in general but also to you.