Lily Fang 12 min read 12th Grade, Essay Tips

Writing a Stellar “Why This College?” Essay + Examples!

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. 

 

In this post, we’ll show you a couple examples of these prompts, go over good and bad sample responses, and break down how to best respond to these. 

 

Sample “Why This College” Prompts

 

Let’s start by taking a look at two real prompts from the 2019-2020 cycle that fit 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 for 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 low student to faculty ratios and strong math departments. There are also a ton of schools in or near Boston, many of which have 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 behavior. I’m especially interested in elections, and am looking forward to taking the course “Mathematics of Social Choice,” as the centerpiece 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 behavior. 

 

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. 

 

If you want an example of a complete essay, here’s this real student response for 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 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 afterward 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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Tips for Writing the “Why This College” Essay

 

Now that we’ve gone through a couple examples, you might be wondering how to get started yourself. 

 

Here are three steps we recommend to get your essay underway:

 

  1. Make a list of the reasons you decided to apply
  2. Research unique opportunities related to your academic and extracurricular interests
  3. Pick your top academic reasons for applying, and your top extracurricular/social reasons

 

1. Make a list of the reasons you decided to apply.

 

As you made your college list, you likely didn’t pick colleges at random (at least we hope not!). 

 

Ask yourself:

 

  • What drew you to the school in the first place? 
  • What are you looking for in a college in general? How does this school fulfill your criteria?

 

Your answers to these questions should overlap in many places. Oftentimes, these reasons are more general: maybe it was the location, the school size, its academic rigor, the great financial aid, a strong department for your major, an extracurricular. Most of these reasons are not school-specific enough to be used in a “Why this college” essay, but this exercise can help you identify which areas you should research more deeply. For instance, maybe you chose a school because it was ranked among the top 10 LGBTQ+ friendly in the nation. If you were to research this aspect, you might look into the specific organizations that support LGBTQ+ students on campus. 

 

2. Research unique opportunities related to your academic and extracurricular interests.

 

You might be wondering where you can find all these specific courses, clubs, and other resources. The school’s website is a good place to start, or if you have a general idea of what you’re looking for, you can even use Google with the school name in your search, such as “Tufts orchestra.” For course descriptions and syllabi, you can visit the website of the professor who’s teaching the course; they’ll often post more detailed information than the online course catalogue, including readings and concepts to be covered. For clubs, you can also try to find their Facebook groups, which might show events they’re hosting⁠—Facebook groups might even allow you to speak with a current student about their experience; if you do reach out to the Facebook group admins though, be sure to be courteous and respectful of their time.

 

If you want more guidance, see our 7 tips on how to research schools for the “Why This College?” essay.

 

2. Pick your top academic reasons for applying, and your top extracurricular/social reasons.

 

Once you’ve done your research and found specific opportunities to cite in your essay, pick your top 1-3 academic reasons and top 1-3 extracurricular ones, depending on the word count. Going back to the Tufts essay, the good example we gave actually was already 65 words, and it was only able to mention two courses. Keep in mind that you not only have to describe resources specific to the school, but also how they’ll contribute to your goals. This personal aspect is just as important as the actual opportunities, so be sure to allot space to describe why exactly these resources make the school a good fit for you.

 

When it comes to academic reasons, you are free to list anything from special programs to unique majors to specific courses and professors. We want to caution you against “name-dropping” professors, however⁠—unless their work actually fits with your established interests and professional goals really well. Otherwise, it might seem like you’re being disingenuous.

 

We also want to reiterate that you should be sure to not only talk about academics in your essay, but also extracurriculars (unless the prompt asks you to focus only on academics, or if the word count is short, i.e. 150 words or fewer). College isn’t just about what you do in the classroom. Admissions committees want to be sure that accepted students will also contribute to the college community. You should plan to spend about 60-65% of space on academic reasons, and 35-40% on social reasons.

 

Writing the “Why This College” Essay

 

We’ve now gone over how to brainstorm and research content for this essay, but what about actually writing it? Should it be creative and flowery like the Common App essay can be? 

 

Since the “Why this college” prompt is more straightforward and the word count is short, you don’t need to incorporate a narrative form or tell a story at all, unless you want to. For example, if you visited campus and experienced a really interesting course, or sat in on a meeting of a club you liked, this can make for a strong anecdote to begin your essay. Just make sure that whatever story you tell has some substance, and isn’t just a narration of how nice it was to walk around campus.  

 

Regardless of whether you use an anecdote, or just dive right into your reasons for choosing the school, remember these two things that your essay should do. It should:

 

1. Reveal more about your goals and interests, AND

 

2. Describe how the school can help you develop your interests and reach your goals, by naming highly-specific and unique campus resources, both academic and extracurricular.

 

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Lily Fang
Blog Editor at CollegeVine
Short bio
Lily Fang is 2018 grad of Amherst College with a degree in math and French. She has called three countries “home”: the U.S., France, and England. In her spare time, she trains for marathons and writes for her travel and running blog.