What not to say in your ‘Why this college?’ essay

My initial advice to students writing the “Why this college?” essay often sounds like what I imagine a first session at couples therapy might be like: “I need you to verbalize what you like about this college. Tell me why it works for you; share your positive thoughts.”

Students usually start off with the basics: size; location, particularly if it’s in a city; weather, if it’s in the South; reputation and the sports or the strength of the Greek life program if those are important factors.

Much like a therapist, I am supportive, but I tell them that I am looking for more depth. “Why does this school ‘speak to you’? What sets it apart from the other colleges where you’re applying?”

Colleges don’t want to read what they already know about their school in your essays. In fact, several years ago, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s prompt asked students something like “Why are you interested in UNC Wilmington, besides the beach?” Emory University’s prompt used to read: “Many students decide to apply to Emory University based on our size, location, reputation, and, yes, the weather. Besides these valid reasons as a possible college choice, why is Emory University a particularly good match for you?”

Students need to make a case for their personal fit with the college. What is it about their high school experience and their aspirations that make this specific college a good fit for them? Why is it a good fit for them academically and socially?

Some students go overboard with an emotional plea. “I have loved this college since I attended my first football game in diapers.” Or “I just knew College X was the perfect place for me as soon as I took my first step on campus.” Students need to ask themselves what all this adoration is really saying about them. Unfortunately, not much.

Don’t regurgitate the college brochure and talk about the beautiful campus or the availability of dining halls open 24/7, etc. College admissions professionals know their school well, and they also know what their brochures and websites say.

One of the worst mistakes is when students repurpose their “Why this college?” essay for multiple schools and forget to change out the name of the mascot or the school colors. Whoops – that’s not going to go over very well.

Remember, colleges are always trying to protect their yield; the number of students who say “yes” to their offers of admission. So if you demonstrate that you haven’t carefully done your research, colleges may think twice about whether you’ll actually attend their school if you’re accepted. Some college colors are so distinctive, think maize and blue at the University of Michigan, that you may have also unknowingly tipped off the colleges as to where else you’re applying.