Why College, and Why THAT College?

High school seniors feverishly complete their college applications, hoping to be offered admission to their dream schools. In many applications, a very popular supplemental essay asks applicants to explain “why” they are a good fit for the college. This essay is perhaps even more important than the main personal statement that applicants fret and toil over for months. Unfortunately, most applicants have no idea how to answer that question.

The concept of “demonstrated interest” is a critical yet poorly known aspect of the colleges’ evaluations. Although most people realize that admissions is highly competitive among applicants, few realize how competitive it is among the colleges. Many universities have trouble filling their classes, and some Ivy League schools have only a 50% chance of having their admissions offers accepted by prospective students. As a result, admissions representatives are highly attuned to whether an applicant is truly interested in their school. They do not want to make offers to applicants who consider the college to be a backup choice.

“Why” essays should not merely recite words and terms listed on the college’s website. They should not try to give every possible reason for attending the school. They should focus on the applicant’s real reasons for wanting to select this university for one of the most important life moments of growth. For applicants who select colleges based upon reputation or rankings, real reasons are elusive.

To write an effective “why” essay, applicants need to spend focused time researching a college deeply. Look not only at what they teach, but consider how they teach. Colleges do not teach in the same way that high schools teach. Understand their philosophy about education, not just the subjects they offer. If they do not require that students select their majors immediately, find out how they designed the curriculum that will be used before students dive deep into their majors. Take a look at how they developed an overall educational environment, not just whether a department is considered strong by some outside news media.

In short, before writing the “why” essays, an applicant must understand not only his or her own strengths and preferences, but also how the strengths and methods of the university could merge with them to make a good fit.

To do this effectively, students should first know the answer to a simply question: Why go to college at all?

It is amazing how often I meet students who have no real idea why there are going to college. Our American society strongly emphasizes a college education, thus making it seem like an assumption or requirement for our youth, not an intelligently considered option. Are you going to college merely as a gateway to graduate school? Are you going to collect a diploma for use in seeking a job? Are you going to learn things, or to learn methods and perspectives? Are you going for the purpose of enjoying “the best years of your life” by partying and traveling abroad?

When applicants have a reasonable understanding of the value of college to them, and of the reason why particular colleges make sense for them, then “why” essays can be extremely effective influencers in the application process.

When drafting these essays, style should follow content. A good “why” essay should include at least four pieces of information. Do you have a direction? Why do you have that direction? Do you have any experience in that direction? Why does our university make sense for your direction?

With personal answers to those questions, drafting the “why” essay is not difficult. My final recommendation is to write in your own voice. Each admissions representatives reads thousands of these essays every year, so try not to bore them by sounding too polished or stuffy.