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Countdown to college: Why the 'Why this school?' essay is so important

By Lee Shulman Bierer, Tribune News Service on

Published in Education News

Why is the "Why this college?" essay so important? Admissions officers care why students put their college on their list, and many colleges incorporate the "why" question into their applications.

While most students find themselves having to write a variety of essays for different colleges, the typical student will focus almost exclusively on the Common Application essay or a college's personal statement. Frequently, they think they're done with their application, they go to hit "submit" and find out that the college wants them to write another essay explaining why they want to attend.

These are usually the worst essays imaginable. Students don't know how to distinguish themselves and consequently end up writing about football, Greek life and the weather. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington got so tired of students saying they wanted to come to Wilmington for the sunny climate that a few years ago, their prompt was: "Tell us why you want to come to UNC Wilmington, besides the beach!"

I suggest that students imagine themselves on the other side of the admissions desk. If you were a director of admissions at a college and were choosing which students to accept and which to deny, what would you want to read about in a "Why this college?" essay? Once you are looking at the prompt from their perspective, it's easy to see why droning on and on about the sense of spirit in the stadium won't set you apart.

Colleges want students who want to be there for the academics. Students need to demonstrate that they've done their homework on the college website. How does this specific college differ from others on your list? Are its multi-disciplinary majors appealing? Are there study-abroad opportunities that you can't resist? Is its commitment to an honor code something that speaks to you? Has one of its professors just written a fascinating book and you can't wait to take the class?

What are some things that colleges don't want to read about?


Students often fall prey to regurgitating college facts and trivia that they read in guidebooks or heard on campus tours. Don't tell colleges what they already know about themselves, such as the number of books in their libraries or the fact that the dining halls are open 24 hours a day. Admissions officers don't like it when students suggest that they can make a lot of money after graduation because the school did well in some college ranking, or that with an undergraduate degree from this school, they'll be able to get into a top-notch graduate school.

Make sure your final "Why this college?" essay isn't one that you can multipurpose and use for other colleges. Personalize it and be specific about identifying why each college is a good fit for you. It's very easy for a college to determine which students have put in the effort on this essay.

Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.

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