How to Master the “Why College X?” Essay

By Kim Lifton
President
Wow Writing Workshop

Many schools ask students to respond to a prompt like one of the following:

  • 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?
  • Tulane University: Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane.
  • New York University: Whether you are undecided or you have a definitive plan of study in mind, what are your academic interests and how do you plan to explore them at NYU?
  • Tufts University: Which aspects of Tufts’ curriculum or undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, “Why Tufts?”

At Wow, we call these “Why Us?” essays. Lots of students misunderstand the prompts, and miss out on an important opportunity to stand out. Recently, I read a typical one. It was a beautiful story from a student answering the “Why Us?” prompt for a Big 10 university.

Full of descriptive details about the school’s location and football stadium, the story painted a vivid picture of the long drive to and from the school in the family car with his dad, an alumnus. This boy was clear he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps; he was comfortable inside the stadium; he was certain he would feel at home at this university.

Unfortunately, this story did not respond adequately to the prompt.

To get them moving in the right direction, we ask our students to consider what they want the college to know about them that is not evident from the rest of the application package. How do College X’s curriculum, clubs and campus life support their interests? Why is this student a good fit?

A student should never be thinking, “What are they looking for?” The better question is, “What do I want them to know about me?” They know how great they are; your job is to let them know how great you are, and why you are a good fit for their school or program. What do you bring to the table?

We understand that this task can be difficult — even for students who spent their childhoods wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with their parents’ favorite college logos. Most students have no idea what a school offers academically, socially or culturally. The prompt is also challenging for students who want to tell admissions officers how much they love the big city, how badly they want to escape their small towns, or how much they love the old buildings on campus.

Be careful! This is not what admissions officers want to know. They want to know why you are a good fit for their campus, whether you have the chops to succeed academically, if there are clubs and activities to support your interests, and if you are likely to graduate from this institution.

We regularly check in with admissions officers from small liberal arts colleges, elite universities and state institutions. We’ve found that regardless of size, status or essay prompt, they all offer similar tips:

  • Don’t over-think it.
  • Tell us what you want us to know about you; not what you think we want to hear.
  • Answer the prompt honestly.
  • Make sure your essay is focused and written in your own words and your own voice.

You’ll find all kinds of advice online about writing admissions essays, and much of it is inaccurate or confusing. As you delve into the college application and essay writing process, be careful whose advice you follow.

For more tips on mastering your college application essays, sign up for free resources from Wow Writing Workshop. Wow students get into their dream schools year after year. Find out more at www.wowwritingworkshop.com.