Writing The Perfect “Why This College?” Essay

Most students know that they have to write a general essay that goes to all the colleges on their list. This is required by platforms like the Common Application, which most students use to apply.  But the essays aren’t over after that, unfortunately. Most colleges also have school-specific essays, called supplements. These supplemental essays allow the school to understand how you might be a good fit for their community. One of the most common supplements will ask you to answer the question: “Why this college?” These essays specifically want to know how you’ll take advantage of the academic and extracurricular resources at this specific school. 

Sample “Why This College” Prompts

Let’s start by taking a look at two real prompts from the 2019-2020 cycle that fits under 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)

As you can see, these prompts are basically asking why you want to attend the school in question. Northwestern spells it out even further and specifically asks how you’ll use their resources to achieve your goals. Both prompts have word counts that are much shorter than that of the Common App, which is typical of supplemental essays. These two-word counts are pretty representative, and you can expect the “Why this college” essay length to be 100-400 words on average. That’s not a lot of space for a pretty important question, so it’s especially vital to use the word count wisely.

Good and Bad Sample Responses to “Why This College?”

The key to writing a strong “Why this college” essay is specificity. You want to cite opportunities unique to the school that will help you explore your interests and achieve your goals. The most common mistake students make is listing generic characteristics that could apply to any school. This negatively impacts your application, since it sends the message that you didn’t do your research, and aren’t truly interested in the school.

Here’s an example of something NOT to list in your “Why this college essay.” We’ll take the example of Tufts since we shared the prompt in the beginning.

What NOT to write: 

I’m applying to Tufts because of its low student to faculty ratio, the strong math department, and its prime location in Medford, just a hop away from Boston. When I visited campus, the school already felt like home.

This example is bad because many schools have a low student to faculty ratios and strong math departments. There are also a ton of schools in or near Boston, many of which have a low student to faculty ratios and great math departments too, such as Boston College, Harvard, Northeastern, Boston University, etc. If your statements can apply to other schools, that’s definitely not a good sign. The student also uses an emotional appeal with the line “it felt like home,” which might sound nice, but it has no substance and can be written for any school. You should definitely avoid making any statements like these.

This example shows that the student really hasn’t thought much about their fit with Tufts, and that it probably isn’t their top choice. This is a really bad sign, even if you have stellar grades⁠—Tufts is known for taking applicants’ demonstrated interest more seriously than other schools, so if you show that you show little interest through your essay, you may end up waitlisted or rejected, even if your stats are amazing.

Another thing that this example gets wrong is that it doesn’t describe the student’s goals or interests at all. It’s important to not only talk about why you picked the school but also how exactly those aspects will help you grow.

Now that we know what a bad example might look like, here’s an example of a good reason to cite in your essay:

What TO write: 

As a potential Applied Mathematics major, I hope to gain the tools to model political behaviour. I’m especially interested in elections and am looking forward to taking the course “Mathematics of Social Choice,” as the centrepiece of Social Choice Theory is voting. I would also love to take “Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos,” because it will teach me to use differential equations to predict chaotic behaviour. 

This is a good example, as the courses listed are highly-specific to Tufts, as well as the student’s professional goals. We not only learned something about Tufts, but also the student. Keep in mind that this wouldn’t be a complete essay⁠—it’s just an example of good, specific resources to list. The student would also need to provide context for their interest in politics/elections and math. (For instance, have they helped implement ranked-choice voting for their school student council elections? Have they created models to predict school dance attendance)?

If you want an example of a complete essay, here’s this real student response to 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 specifically has led you to apply for admission.

Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) attracts me because of its support of interdisciplinary study among its wide array of majors. In fact, 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, and 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.

This student clearly outlines BU-specific resources (the interdisciplinary course and undergrad research program), plus how these resources align with their professional goals (to become a neurological researcher). They do “name-drop” professors, but since their work clearly relates to the student’s interests, it doesn’t look disingenuous and shows that the student has done research on their fit with BU. The student also provides background on why they want to pursue research and shows that they already have experience, which makes their interest in the undergrad research program more concrete.

The only thing missing from this essay is the student’s fit with BU in terms of extracurriculars and social life. “Why this college” essays should also cover extracurriculars, as colleges are also interested in how you’ll contribute to their community. In general, these essays should be academic-leaning (especially if they’re under 250 words), but you should still address some social aspects of the college that appeal to you (we recommend about 65% academics, 35% social, with more or less focus on social aspects depending on the word count). Since the student probably already detailed their previous research in their Common App activities section, they could’ve just summarized their research background in one sentence, and used that space to talk about a specific social aspect of BU that interests them.

Here’s another sample essay, but for UPenn. This essay’s word count was much longer, allowing the student to really hone in on several specific aspects of UPenn.

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 both 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 as well as 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 serious barriers to healthcare that I want to resolve. Additionally, Penn’s unique use of simulations to bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application impressed me. Using computerized manikins that mimic human responses, classes in Penn’s nursing program allow students to apply their emergency medical skills in a mass casualty simulation and monitor their actions afterwards 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 have a particular interest 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 in order 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: confidence. 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 to 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.

This student takes a creative approach to the essay, using the Five C’s of Caring. This works really well since these qualities relate to the student’s future career in nursing. It’s also a unique way to respond, and the formatting of the longer essay is easier to read, with the Five C’s in all caps at the start of each paragraph.

What really makes the essay stand out is the depth of the student’s fit with UPenn, and how they’re able to also share more about who they are. The student lists specific courses, research opportunities, technology, and student groups. We also learn that they are a first-generation student, are passionate about increasing access to healthcare (particularly for LGBTQ+ people, minorities, and the elderly), care about health education, and are a feminist who staunchly defends abortion rights (this controversial topic could be risky, but since UPenn is a very liberal school, this should be fine).

Overall, this essay paints a vivid picture of how the student would engage academically at Penn, and we also see clearly how the student would pursue their intellectual passions outside the classroom. Since this essay prompt focused on “intellectual and academic interests,” there was no need to address other aspects of UPenn beyond those supporting their various interests in healthcare.

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