How to Research a School for the “Why This College” Essay
When you apply to college, you’ll have a couple different types of essays to write. The first is the personal statement, or the essay that will go to each school, like the Common App essays. However, in addition to those generic essays, you’ll likely have to write supplemental essays, or college-specific essays. One of the most common college-specific essays you’ll need to write is the “Why This College” Essay.
This is an essay prompt that many colleges love, and it’s very easy to spot. In this post we’ll be going over just how to research colleges so you can write a strong response to this essay. If you want to learn how to write the essay, see our tips for writing a stellar “why this college” essay.
What is the Purpose of the “Why This College” Essay?
Before we dive in, let’s go over what exactly the “Why This College” essay is asking. Here are some actual “Why This College” Essay prompts from the previous application cycle:
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)
These prompts are different, but they essentially ask the same thing: why are you applying to this college, and what specific aspects of the college make you want to attend? The purpose of this essay is to gauge your interest in the particular college and whether you are a good fit, both academically and socially. This essay needs to be very specific to the school you are writing it for, so, unfortunately, you will not be able to reuse this essay with multiple schools.
When you write this essay, you want to make sure that you convey your interest in the college with specificity. Don’t rely on generic statements like “I relate to the campus culture” or empty flattery like “I want to attend this prestigious institution.” You need to cite college-specific offerings, traditions, and history that appeal to you and explain why they appeal to you. You need to explain how this institution aligns with your values, goals, and ambition. And overall, you need to make it clear that you are a good fit for the college.
Tips for Researching a School for the “Why This College” Essay
Now, getting an essay that has all of those components is going to require you to have an in-depth understanding of what each university has to offer. Well without attending the university, how are you supposed to know what opportunities are available at a school and what it’s like to go there? Here are some tips for researching schools for the “Why This College” essay, especially if you can’t go visit the college.
1. Make a list of the reasons you decided to apply
This is a great starting point for your school research. After all, you can’t try and learn everything there is to know about a school, hoping you’ll find some things that will resonate with you. That would take forever! Instead, think back to when you were making your school list. What are the reasons that this school was on your list?
If your answer consists of generic things like, “It’s ranked highly” or “It’s in this location that I love”, that’s okay! Now you have a focus for your research. For example, let’s say a student is applying to Berkeley as an intended Economics major, and the biggest reason she wanted to apply to Berkeley is because it’s near San Francisco. The next step for her would be to research what internship, extracurricular, and networking opportunities Berkeley’s Economics department offers in San Francisco. That way, she can link her love of the Bay Area to Berkeley and her career goals.
2. Look on the school website/departmental websites
Great, so you have a direction for your research. Where do you find the school-specific information you need? Well, the most reliable source for any information about a college is their official website. The school website will generally tell you all of the basic information you need to know about a school like its location, size, what it’s best known for, and any notable achievements that the university has had recently.
If you want to get more specific information on the particular major or academic track you’re interested in, you should look for a department-specific website. Going back to the example from above, the student applying to Berkeley for Economics could look at the Berkeley Economics Department website to explore opportunities available to undergraduates in the economics field. There, she might discover that Berkeley has an extensive undergraduate research program for students that interests her and that she has the opportunity to publish her research in several undergraduate economics journals on campus. It’s these kinds of specific examples that are key to mention in a “Why This College” Essay.
3. Visit student group websites and Facebook groups
If you want to get a student’s perspective of a university, you should read through forums where students from that university are frequently contributing to. If you read through student group websites or Facebook groups specifically for current university students in a specific field, you’ll probably read some interesting stories about what opportunities current students are pursuing. This will give you a good idea of what kinds of paths you can explore at this university and see if they interest you.
For example, the student applying to Berkeley might discover, after some searching, that Berkeley Economics students have formed several Facebook groups where they discuss current opportunities and happenings in the Berkeley Economics department. If she joins this group, she might discover a specific research study she’s interested in, a class she really wants to take, or an organization on campus that sounds really interesting to join.
4. Speak with a real student
While you’re looking at things that students are saying online, it might behoove you to actually talk to a real student at that university. This is particularly beneficial if you can talk to somebody who is pursuing a major in your intended field of study. That way, this student can give you specific advice, having been in your shoes. See if your counselor knows any alumni who went to that particular school, ask in your friend groups, and have your parents reach out to their network. You’ll be surprised at the contacts you find!
Not only can students give you an insider’s perspective into what you seek to gain from an education at a particular college, but they can also give you firsthand knowledge on the culture at the school. Are most of the classes big or small, and does that affect how much one-on-one time you get with the professor? Is collaboration encouraged at this university, or are people generally on their own? These are important questions that will help you decide how you will fit into this academic environment.
5. Check the school’s social media accounts
College social media accounts are usually focused on highlighting big campus news, accomplishments and accolades associated with the university, and cultural phenomenon involving the school. This includes notices of school closures, winnings of Nobel laureate faculty, and spirited posts about campus sports.
Checking out a school’s social media accounts will give you a good idea of what this university values and what image it wants to project to the world. Once you scroll through a school’s social media accounts and get a general idea of what the college values, you need to ask yourself which of the college’s values align with your own? These common values will be perfect to highlight in your essay.
For example, our potential Berkeley bear scrolled through Berkeley’s official Twitter account and noticed several posts highlighting student innovation projects like startups and other inventions. She is able to surmise from this that this university is a place where students are encouraged to be creative and develop something new. This might resonate with her if she plans to start a business someday or solve a certain world problem.
6. Search “day in the life” videos or “dorm tours” on YouTube
While the official websites and social media accounts of a university are a great way to get the official word on what is available for you at a university, there are more informal ways of learning what it is truly like to be an undergraduate student living every day on campus. YouTube, in particular, is a great resource for finding fun and educational ways to learn what a typical day at a college looks like, what the general vibe is on campus day-to-day, and what you can look forward to if you decide to attend. You can feel free to reference these specific aspects of everyday life in your essay to show that you took the time to gain an in-depth understanding of student life.
Going back to the Berkeley applicant example, she might find a fun “Dorm Tour” video on YouTube made by someone who seems similar to her. Through this video, she may discover that there are certain dorms on campus reserved for students in certain academic programs like STEM fields. She can use this in her essay by mentioning that she wants to stay in a certain dorm as part of one of the programs.
7. Read comments on forums like Reddit and College Confidential
Finally, if you want to get the unfiltered, unedited, realistic opinion of what it is like to attend a university, channels like Reddit and College Confidential are a great place to go. Here, users do not worry about university/personal image, and they are often more honest here than they are on other forums. So by scrolling through these channels, you are likely to discover aspects of the university and opportunities that you would not have learned about in any platform.
With forums like this though, be sure to fact check as many of the things you read as much as you can. Since the content is largely unregulated, there is a chance that some of it may be fake. The last thing you want is incorrect information on your college application.
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