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The Savvy Applicant Blog

College Expert Advice: How to Write the Why This College Essay

You’re applying to many colleges. So, when you encounter a college essay prompt asking you why you want to attend X college specifically, it can be difficult to pinpoint just what sets it apart from the other, say, seven, ten, or more colleges on your list. 

The “Why this college” or “Why us” prompts are fairly common. Wondering how to crack it? Here’s our breakdown.

Why Colleges Have the “Why This College” Prompt

College admissions committees are looking to build a student body that will contribute to and sustain the community. They want to attract students and eventual alumni who are innovators and creators, and they want to have a hand in shaping those minds. When you’re responding to the “Why Us” prompt, you’re telling them exactly how an education there will shape your intellectual and professional journey. This essay isn’t just about the college; it’s about you, too. 

A more concrete reason for this prompt is that colleges want to have a high yield, the ratio of accepted students who end up attending. Yield factors into rankings in sources like U.S. News and World Report and contribute to the overall reputation of the school. This essay is one way for them to gauge how likely you are to attend and help them attain a high yield. If you seem genuinely passionate about the college, then they can assume you’re more likely to matriculate if offered a spot in the freshman class.

Examples of Prompts

There are many different forms of the “Why This College” prompt. Here are a few variations to help you identify the theme:

  • Columbia University:
    • Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why.

  • Emory University:
    • 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 particularly good match for you?

  • Georgia Institute of Technology:
    • Beyond rankings, location, and athletics, why are you interested in attending Georgia Tech?

  • New York University:
    • We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand – Why NYU?

  • University of Pennsylvania:
    • At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community.

  • University of Michigan:
    • 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? 

  • Yale University:
    • What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? 

Writing Why This College Essay

What NOT to Focus On

Let’s start with mistakes to avoid when writing your essay.

Many students fall into the trap of offering superficial or generic reasons for wanting to attend. An admissions committee doesn’t want to hear that you’re attracted to the warm weather — you can just as easily find that at another college in the South. Emory even calls out the commonality of that response in its prompt. The same applies to wanting to be in a city or town or being part of a small, medium, or large student body. While you may prefer certain settings or sizes, the fact is, you can easily find those qualities anywhere. 

Prestige and rankings are another topic to avoid. Yes, Yale is very prestigious and consistently ranks among the top three universities in U.S. News, but that alone isn’t a reason to attend. Your familial connections may also factor in, but they shouldn’t be your sole reason for applying. Finally, if you can find pretty much all the reasons you give through a cursory look at the website or brochure, that’s a sign that it’s time to dive a little deeper. 

How to Write the “Why This College” Essay

1. Draw on specific qualities you’re looking for in a school.

Start with what you want out of a college. These won’t be the only qualities you mention, but they can serve as a jumping-off point. Perhaps you want to pursue a unique major that only exists at a handful of schools. Maybe you’d prefer a large campus that’s deeply involved with the local community. Or, are there specific clubs you’d like to join or start?

Again, these won’t be the sole factors you mention, but they can help you structure your narrative.

2. Research the college thoroughly.

Now it’s time to get more specific. Thoroughly research the college. You should read a college guide book, methodically review the website, and hopefully, if at all possible, visit the school. Additionally, you might email an admissions counselor at the school with some questions or speak to a current student or alum. (If you don’t know anyone affiliated with the school, try asking your guidance counselor if there are former students from your high school who attend or attended X college.) Peruse a course catalog. Write down the names of faculty. These steps will help you develop a list of specific qualities that are unique to the school.

You don’t have to solely focus on academics, although you should make them a main point of your essay. You can also include traditions, extracurricular activities, and the campus itself.

3. Explain your connection to the school.

This essay is about your relationship with the school, not solely the school itself. In fact, it’s really more about you than the college — how and why you will thrive there. To that end, use the space to explore why you’re a mutual fit. It can be especially helpful to use a story or anecdote (just not, “I’ve had a Yale sweatshirt since I was 10”).

For example, when you visited, was there an “aha” moment for you? Perhaps you witnessed a demonstration, and you, a politically-minded individual, saw that there were kindred spirits there. Or you sat in on a lecture with Professor Y and gained a new perspective on the Great Recession. 

Even if you didn’t visit, you can still establish a strong connection to the school. In that case, you might share a story about why you’re interested in studying a certain program that you can only find there — grounding it in an anecdote from your past — or a professor you want to study with. 

4. Bring it all together.

Combining your larger reasons with the specific details paints a clear picture of why this is the right college for you. Use the details to ground the bigger-picture aspects of your story. For instance, if you’re applying to Cornell’s School of Hotel Management, you might describe how you’ve been collecting hotel brochures since you were a child in the hope of one day opening your own. That, combined with your desire to be on a large, rural campus with deep ties to the surrounding town — and work every job possible in a student run hotel — made you know Cornell was the school for you.

If you’re ever going to name drop, this is the place to do it. Mention specific names of people, buildings, societies, clubs, and more. As always, be as specific as possible, and pay attention to the writing itself, not just the content. This is a story about you and your connection to the school — not just a list of reasons.

So you've got a better handle on the "Why This College" essay, now what? The college admissions process can be overwhelming for some. If you're looking for additional insight, reach out to our college consultant experts or check out our Admissions Calculator to find out what your chances of getting into your top choice school are:

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