When writing your college supplements, you will almost certainly come across the “Why this college?” essay in many forms. For example, Stanford asks you to “Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford” in 50 words, while Columbia asks “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why” in 300 words.
Colleges ask this questions for two reasons. First, to find out your demonstrated interest, because the more students that enroll after being accepted, the better the college looks. Second, it’s an easy way to weed out non-serious candidates. The biggest mistake you can make is copying and pasting the same essay for each college. If you think it’s as easy as substituting College Name 1 with College Name 2, you’re doing it wrong.
In fact, just because it’s a shorter supplement doesn’t mean you should leave it for last. The “Why this college?” supplement is actually one of the hardest essays to answer. Ideally, you would’ve visited the campus, researched the school, and spoken to former alums to really know the answer. But not everyone has the privilege (or money) to travel to see schools, Luckily, I have some shortcuts for you.
1) The Campus Visit
The college tour is the golden standard to reference in these supplements. It shows the most demonstrated interest and also gives you the best reference if this college is the right fit for you. It might even help you narrow your list - sometimes stepping foot on campus right out of the car is all you need to know to feel nope, not for me. When you’re there, be sure to take notes on everything you see and hear and get business cards too just in case. These notes will be crucial in helping you come up with a more unique answer than just something you’d find on the website. Imagine where you’d see yourself hanging out or studying on campus, interact with the students and professors to see if they’re “your people,” eat where they eat - really experience the school like you would as a student next year. See if you feel like you fit in and then describe why you felt that way for your answer. What did the school culture feel like? What impressions did the students give you about the type of community there? (For more tips on nailing the campus visit, click here.)
2) Speak to Former Alums
Getting the perspective of current or former alums is worth more than any brochure. Maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask your real questions at the campus visit or you think the rote answer you got from the admissions faculty wasn’t real enough. An alum not connected to the admissions team has no reason to lie to you. Ask your counselor to connect you with anyone who went there recently. If that doesn’t work, reach out to your network. Facebook and LinkedIn make this super easy. Or search to see if any reps will be coming to a campus fair near you. Find out why they loved the school (and what they felt was lacking) - really use this opportunity to see if it’s the right fit and to explain why.
3) Research The School
Find out the majors, extracurriculars, professors, clubs, ratios, etc that would excite you about the school and reference them by name, so you’re not just spouting off generic stats. Find unique elements of the school’s culture, community, offerings, that can’t be found anywhere else. Saying your dream school has the greatest professors is not as meaningful as saying you can’t wait to study Russian literature with Professor Stanton at Barnard, for example. Then, go even deeper - look up the professor’s research area and see if she takes research assistants or find the types of classes she’s teaching next fall. The more research you do, the more authentic your answer will be.
4) Stalk The College’s Social Media
This is key. Remember that each campus has a brand and you need to figure out a way that you fit into that brand. The college’s social media presence is a great way to discover how the college speaks about itself, what it prides about itself to boast on Facebook, and most importantly, the insider slang it uses to refer to itself or its students. Cornell students are Cornellians. Columbia is known for its blue and white school colors. University of Michigan students are proud Wolverines. Also, stalk the website and keep track of any taglines or words they use consistently to describe themselves. Try to mirror that same language in your essay so it’s clear you’re a diehard fan of the school.
5) Show Your Passion
This essay should feel like a love letter to the individual college. Once you have the specific impressions from the campus visit or the online research, make sure your essay doesn’t read like a clinical laundry list. Narrow down what you love and include only the things that truly excite you about the school. Make sure to include the “why” for every thing you mention - why that club is your dream afterschool activity or why that professor’s class will change your life. The language you use should be less formal and more enthusiastic - your excitement should jump off the page. Use phrases like “I can’t wait” or “I’d be thrilled” as opposed to “I would also be involved in…”