How to Write a Why This College Essay

You’re sitting down to finish up a college application. You’ve spent countless hours perfecting your Personal Statement. Finally, it’s as good as any 650-word manifestation of your soul can get—you think. 

Either way, it’s definitely done. Then you click open the Common App and see that there’s a writing supplement. Yikes.

This college is asking you that one simple but dreaded question: “Why do you want to go to our college?”

The College Essays

This experience happens often in the college application process. Most students have been through it in some form. If you find yourself in this situation, you’ve probably done the right things to get to this point. You’ve focused on your most important story first. You’ve (hopefully) given yourself time to do a great job on this final step. 

And the Why Essay is not a step you can afford to gloss over. A Why This College essay might sound generic, but it can play a vital role in convincing a college that you are highly likely to accept an offer of admission if they choose to extend it. 

In fact, that is the point: in each Why This College essay that you write, you are being given a chance to prove your fit with the college. In its simplest form, this is about connecting your principles, beliefs, values, and dreams to the culture and opportunities at the college you’re writing about. On the next level, it’s about expressing both what you intend to contribute to that college’s community and what you hope to gain from it. 

But don’t so many other students share your same interests and motivations? I mean, kids who write the Why NYU essay all want to live in New York City, right?

Yes, and no.

Like the Personal Statement, it’s hard to compose a mind-blowingly, earth-shatteringly different Why This College essay. The reasons for that are obvious: colleges have their own identities and images that they cultivate deliberately. It makes sense that students applying to the same college would have overlapping motivations. Clubs and classes only come into being, after all, if there is a collective interest in them. Certain locations and campuses appeal to people who come from certain contexts. The philosophical naturalist, no matter how brilliant, may well end up at Deep Springs over MIT. 

The point is that a Why This College essay is not about being completely original. But it is about proving you know the college, and yourself, inside and out. And that deep knowledge makes you even more certain that you’d thrive at this particular college.

Why do college admissions officers want to read Why This College essays?

Consider the perspective of college admissions officers trying to compose a compelling, impressive, and versatile class of teenagers. It’s important to recruit excellent students, but it’s also important to draw good people. Plus, each college has its own identity. Admissions departments are keenly aware of their stakeholders: administrators, alumni, faculty, current students, staff, and more. They also stay cognizant of the traditions and values their institution has been built upon. When it comes to admissions decisions, the students these Admissions Officers bring to campus are their legacy.

Thus, there are some clear reasons why an Admissions Committee gives a Why This College essay prompt:

In this video, I dive into even more detail on why colleges care about “fit” and how that should guide your research throughout the college admissions process:

So I hope that now, you’re over that initial moment of frustration or panic. You’ve rolled your eyes enough—now you’re ready to roll up your sleeves. 

You’re in the right place. This article will break down how to write a Why This College essay, with tips that help you demonstrate the real connection you feel with the college at hand.

Which colleges assign Why This College essays?

Selective colleges of many varieties give Why This College essays that come in different shapes and sizes. Some, like UMass Amherst or Tufts, provide short and simple prompts with low word counts. Others, like NYU, provide more detail in the essay prompt and more space to work your content into. And still others, such as UPenn, break the Why This College essay into distinct parts that focus on your intellectual and academic interests and community engagement. And there are dozens more that adapt the Why This College essay to some element of their school culture that they feel is essential to their particular school identity.

Here are some sample prompts and word counts that capture the breadth of the Why This College essay spectrum:

What does a college want to see in a Why This College essay?

There are two main things that colleges are looking for in your Why This College essay. The first is what you will gain from your time at their college, and the second is what you will contribute to their college community. Here are the top factors to consider for each.

It’s important to keep both sides of the equation in mind as you plan out your essay. Most students gravitate towards what they can gain from their college experience. You’re probably excited about the opportunities that the future holds, and you might not have strong convictions about how you will add to a new community.

To get you thinking about the next few years in more detail, we’ve developed this handy 2×2 on how to assess your college fit. The top left quadrant is easiest, because it sticks to what you and the college are good at right now, in the present. The top right and bottom left push you to do increasing speculation about what can change, both for you personally and for the college. The bottom right quadrant presents the final challenge: considering how you and the college will both be better off in the long term because of your attendance.

The College Fit

Questions to consider as you fill out your College Fit Research 2×2:

Filling in the Gain x Gain can be surprisingly tough. You may end up feeling like you’re exaggerating your potential impact or expecting too much. But big dreams are more compelling than little ones. Know yourself well enough to stay realistic, but believe in yourself hard enough to know you’ll keep growing toward whatever goals you set.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to jump into researching and writing.

How should you write a Why This College essay?

Now that you’re all set up, you’ll be happy to hear that there is a nice, clean, step-by-step process you can follow in order to write a meaningful Why This College essay. Unlike the Personal Statement, these essays follow more rules and thus are much more tameable beasts. That said, resist the temptation to jump into Why essays before you have a solid concept for your Personal Statement. Given that this core common app college essay will be the single most important piece of your application story, you really need to have it in place—at least to some extent—in order to know your own angle thoroughly enough.

So, with your Personal Statement and Activity List beside you, here’s what to do when preparing for the Why This College essay:

  1. Research the college at hand
    • Watch our video on college research for a primer on the importance of this often overlooked process.
    • Gather keywords related to both your academic and intellectual and your social and personal interests.
    • Use various combinations of these keywords in search engines like Google and social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram.
    • Find as many examples and details as possible on professors, classes, curriculum, facilities, traditions, events, clubs, organizations, institutes, study abroad, professional opportunities, internships, research projects, newsworthy events, and more.
    • Write down some personal questions about the school that you haven’t been able to find full or satisfying answers to even after all this research.
    • Reach out to people you have some connection to who are familiar with the college, ideally through firsthand experience. These could be family friends or relatives, alumni of your school, professors you worked or studied with, or others. Ask them your unanswered questions.
  2. Fill in your Bring x Gain 2×2
  3. Define the essay’s main takeaway in one sentence
    • It’s important to synthesize your 2×2 by clearly stating what you want the reader to understand about you after reading this essay. This will help you stay focused and be a very useful resource to refer back to continually throughout your drafting process.
    • Use this sentence to fill in the takeaway you are aiming for: “[Your name] is the student who will contribute _____________ to our college and use our college’s distinctive experience in order to ______________.”
  4. Refine your examples to create a simple bullet-point outline
    • Using your single sentence, make sure that your research examples are all aligned with your main objective. Do they each support your point? This is a skill you have likely already developed by matching body paragraphs to thesis statements for your academic essays. Use the same principles here. 
  5. Use a clear and straightforward structure
    • State your purpose clearly. If you have 200 words or fewer, you have no space for a hook or anecdote. If you have more than 200 words, only use a less direct introduction if you are completely sure it adds to the meaning of the essay.
    • Present links between your own qualities and interests and the opportunities the school presents which most excite you. Ensure that each detail is personal; avoid generic claims or common college buzzwords.
    • Wrap up with a sentence or two on why exactly you are confident that this specific undergraduate college is the best place for you to grow toward your goals, whether they are academic, social, personal, or professional.
  6. Draft and edit while referring back to Step #3
  7. Ask someone to ask you why you are excited about the college
    • Find a person you trust to give you constructive feedback and have them ask you questions about why you want to go to this college. It’s especially useful if this is someone who is familiar with higher education in general, the college in question, or admissions interviews.
    • Speak honestly and naturally, without trying to quote your essay or remember every exact detail of what you wrote. Can you remember some of your examples effortlessly? That’s a great indication that you are truly ready to make your strongest pitch to this college.
  8. Get that person’s opinion on your essay
    • After you speak with them, ask them to take a look at your Why This College essay. Is it just as compelling as you were when you were speaking aloud? More so, or less so? Ask as many follow-up questions as you can in order to get useful feedback that you can implement.
  9. Make any final changes and wrap it up!

If you set your sights properly and follow this process, you’ll produce a Why This College essay that shows your authenticity and compels a reader to believe that you would thrive at their college.

Need Help with the College Admissions Process?

We all hit personal challenges or roadblocks. If you’re facing these, and want help overcoming them, get in touch with us to see how we could provide assistance throughout the college admissions process. Or, share information on your college application profile using our following College Admissions Calculator.