3 Rules for Writing Your "Why College X" Essay

Here's how you make yours stand out
June 9, 2020

Want to know a secret?

Admissions officers want you to have an amazing application.

We know many of you think that admissions officers are basically trolls looking for some reason to deny you, but they aren’t.

What they are really looking for is a reason to admit you. A reason that you stand out from the million trillion other applicants that – on paper/pixels – look just like you.

Most of you think the way to stand out is to have better credentials, but spoiler alert, last year, there were more than 45,000 applicants who were valedictorians, more than 150,000 applicants who scored in the top 2% on the standardized test scores, and more than 180,000 applicants who were good enough athletes that they registered with the NCAA clearing house in order to be recruited.

Get the picture? Good credentials are essential, but they aren’t enough.

That extra special something that causes you to be a stand-out is really nothing more than letting the admissions officer see your personality, your values, your motivations – the things that make you truly unique on the planet.

That’s why you have to seize every single opportunity you are given to reveal essential aspects of yourself.

One great opportunity comes in the form of the Why College X essay – the most popular supplemental essay (at last count nearly 50% of the most selective colleges have some form of this essay on their application).

Here are some examples of Why College X essay prompts:

If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences as a first year applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you?
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. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.
Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person … any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.

Tragically, most of you blow it when it comes to this essay. You give some “blah, blah, blah” regurgitation of the college’s own marketing materials or, worse still, you give an answer that demonstrates you actually know nothing about this college.

Don’t be the applicant who blows it! Take the time necessary to develop an awesome Why College X essay for each college on your list right now. You’ve got the time and you can get the information you need.

It’s the perfect way to get started on your college applications because it gives you some essays that are ready to go and it helps you narrow your college list. Don’t be surprised if you find out that once you really, really think about it, a few of the colleges that you thought you wanted to apply to fall off your list. Honestly, if you can’t write a great Why College X essay for a college, why would you go there?

A great Why College X essay is mostly about having specific and thoughtful content. Follow these three rules for developing your content and you’ll be able to write a Why College X essay that makes you a true stand-out!

Rule #1. Your content needs to show that the college is a match for you.

That means that your content should be focused on showing the match between what you want or seek in a college and what College X has. You and the college should be a match on three critical dimensions:

  1. academic/intellectual dimension,
  2. extracurricular activity/work dimension, and
  3. life/community dimension.

Here’s an example: you want to attend a college where you can major in biology (academic/intellectual), be a part of an equestrian team (activity), and live on campus all four years (life/community). The core of your content is as simple as that.

Rule #2. Your content needs to be specific and demonstrate that you have taken a “deep dive” into the particulars of College X.

Continuing with our example from above, do you have any guess as to how many colleges offer a major in biology? That’s right – almost all of them (although not every single one, so you should double check).

Your content would not be specific enough to make you a stand-out unless you take a deep dive into biology majors at College X. What makes it especially appealing to you? A particular faculty member? A sub-specialty within the major? Research opportunities? A living-learning community? The more specific you get, the better and more stand-out your essay will be.

Do a deep dive for every one of the three critical dimensions. Check their website, talk to faculty and staff at the college, find current students and alumni online, read the school newspaper and other media about the college. It will take some time, but it is time well spent.

Rule #3. Your content should be honest, but steer clear of the less persuasive reasons you want to attend College X.

Admissions officers aren’t stupid. They will see right through you if you are dishonest in this or any other essay. And really, why would you be dishonest in this particular essay? Presumably you have good, solid reasons for why you want to attend College X. If you follow Rules #1 and #2, you don’t need to make up reasons that you think sound better.

That being said, you may have personal reasons for wanting to attend College X that would not be all that persuasive to the admissions officer. You want to leave those out. For example, you may want to attend College X because of its stellar reputation as a party school. That’s fine if that’s important to you, but not persuasive to an admissions officer. So just don’t mention it.

Okay, okay, so you probably know that. But what you might not know is that is also not persuasive to say that you want to attend College X because it is the college highest ranked on US News and World Report that also has an equestrian team.

News flash: rankings don’t reveal anything about why you and the college are a match. They only reveal what the editors of US News think about that school.

In fact, as admissions officers see it, depending on the rankings to tell you what colleges are a match for you is actually a very lazy and ineffective way to identify your right-fit colleges. So again, even if you honestly want to go to a particular college because of its ranking, you shouldn’t include it as a reason in your answer.

Now that you know our three rules, you’re ready to write a stand-out Why College X essay!

Anna Ivey is one of the founders of Inline. An experienced admissions consultant and a frequently cited media expert on the topic of college admissions, she is also co-author of the college admissions bible How to Prepare a Standout College Application. Learn more about Anna's background here.

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