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How to Write a “Why This College” Essay

Tova Tolman

Written by Tova Javetzon October 9th, 2019

I began my career as both a tour guide and senior interviewer at my alma mater, Barnard, where I later joined the admissions team and read and reviewed applications from students applying from the northeastern, midwestern, and western regions of the United States, as well as Canada. A few years later, while pursuing my master’s degree, I briefly left admissions to be the director of student life at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Realizing I missed working closely with students on the high school side of college counseling, I joined the admissions team at Fordham University where I recruited and reviewed applicants applying to Fordham’s liberal arts and business colleges. My most recent experience at Montclair State helped me understand what the application process looks like outside of highly selective colleges and how to help students who may not be fully prepared for college-level work. One of my favorite past experiences was managing the athletic recruitment process at Fordham as well as a number of sports at Barnard. Understanding the inner workings of both the Ivy and Patriot athletic leagues meant I was able to guide students to find the best athletic matches as part of their college search.
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What about being a student at _____ most excites you? Why would you like to attend ______? Or, my personal favorite and most succinct, Why _____? As admissions officers wade through equally qualified applicants, they work to determine who is going to be the best fit with their institution. Who gets what they are all about? Who has done their research and understands “Why this College?” They ask it in a lot of different ways, with varying requirements when it comes to length, but they're all trying to get at the same thing: Why do you want to be here, as opposed to one of the other wonderful schools on your list? Let's take a look at an answer I read recently. Fear not, I changed the name of the school to protect the identity of the author: Ever since I took a tour of Generic College, I knew it was the school for me. The robust study abroad program, diverse student body, extensive internship opportunities, and engaging faculty are all exactly what I'm looking for in a college. I can't wait to be a student on your beautiful campus and live in one of the greatest cities in the world. Sound familiar? The trouble with the above is just that—it’s too familiar. The same sentiments could be expressed about nearly every college and university out there. Mentioning the name of the school should not be the sole identifying factor. Nor will it be sufficient to explain why you want to attend college in a particular city. Having read applications for three different schools in New York City, I can't tell you how many responses I read about the wonders of the city that never sleeps. While a school's location might be part of your reason, you'll need to dig deeper to answer why you wouldn't be just as happy at one of the other many schools in that city. Instead, review the following tips when you consider how to dig a little deeper:
  • Be genuine. Reflect thoughtfully on what connects you to the school and make that connection clear to the reader. Simply listing attributes of the school won’t cut it. They know they have a really cool _____ program or a state of the art ____ facility. But how does that ____ connect to YOU?
  • Be specific. Your essay needs to pass the “thumb test.” If you put your thumb over the name of the college and the essay could still apply to another college, it isn’t specific enough; admissions officers want students to write that essay just for their university.
  • Go deep. Push beyond the surface and don’t spend too much time on the most prominent traits of the college. Find things that are more specific to your interest alone.
  • Did you visit? If so, include your reflections. What was most memorable? What resonated with you? How did you feel being on campus? What did you experience while there?
  • If you didn’t visit, spend time looking through the website. Exploring pictures and click on links that sound interesting to you. Search for things that connect you to the college and refer to specific things that get you excited.
  • Explore how you fit holistically with the college from both an academic and social angle, noting that academic reasons usually carry more weight than social reasons.
  • Avoid using the school’s rankings in your answer. The school is fully aware of their ranking and if you say you are applying because they are number one on some list, it begs the question: Would you still apply if they were number two? This gives the impression that you don’t want what they offer, but rather some notion of perceived prestige. It’s not a winning approach.
  • Include compelling smaller details. Can you envision yourself eating lunch in the grove at the center of campus? Is there a particular class that you are especially excited to take? Do you find humor in one of their quirky annual traditions?
  • Lastly, take this question seriously. If they ask, they want to know your answer. There are a lot of college options; admissions officers want to know that you are choosing their school for good reasons and not just clicking a box on your Common Application.


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