52 Weeks to College: Week 36

Conquering the “Why College X” and “Why Major X” Essays
September 13, 2021

A substantial percentage – upwards of 60% of selective colleges that use holistic admissions – have either a “Why College X” or “Why Major X” question on their applications. Some have both. Most of these types of questions require a short answer (50-250 words), while others require an essay (250-500 words).

These questions offer you a great opportunity to persuade an admissions officer that this college and its programs are exactly the right match for you.

The tragedy is that most applicants’ answers are pretty bad, and a good chunk of those are truly horrible. But you can beat the odds and deliver a winning answer to these questions.  We'll show you how.



1. Continue working on your essays. You should be on a revolving three-week cycle from now until you’ve completed all the essays you have to write: each week, you’ll be drafting one set, revising another set, and finalizing a final set. This will keep your momentum going without overwhelming you. Refer often to your Writing Map to make sure you are keeping pace with deadlines. Aim to have all your essays finalized at least a week before the submission deadline.

2. Draft a template or templates for answering the Why College X and Why Major X questions on your Writing Map. You can typically use the same template for questions that ask the same basic question — Why College X or Why Major X — and require answers of the same length (short answer of essay). Your Writing Map will tell you the number of templates you need.

3. Continue working on supplementary materials, such as portfolios, audition materials, research abstracts, and the like if you will be submitting them. Your goal should be to have these finished in the next couple of weeks. See our advice about these materials in Week 30 and these blog posts on arts supplements and academic work samples.

4. Check the websites of colleges on your list to see what they are planning in terms of fall events for prospective students. Given the pandemic, it is unlikely that they will be doing their usual rounds to high schools, but they may be organizing specific virtual events for students from your school or your area. See our Tips and Tricks in Week 31 for why we recommend that you make it a priority to attend these events.

5. Complete a draft of your first scholarship application, including drafting any essays. You’ll put your scholarship applications on the same three-week writing cycle as your applications and you’ll knock them out in no time.


1. Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary.

2. Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year


1. Create a template answer to make crafting your answers to Why College X and Why Major X easier without sacrificing quality. A template follows a predetermined pattern for answering the question, but allows you to fill in specific details for each college. Think of a template as a set of fill-in-the-blank sentences: a good example of a different kind of template is the Your Story template you used to develop your strategy in Week 25.

When crafting your template, be aware that a template is largely defined by its structure. For example, you might choose a “story” as your structure, or you might choose a “narrated list” as your structure, or your might come up with some other organizational structure entirely. Whatever your structure, make sure it aligns well with your content for every college where you will be using the template.

You can find more sample templates in Chapter 12 of our book, How to Prepare a Standout Application, and specific examples of templates in action in our digital Inline tool with hints and samples for supplemental short answer and essay questions for particular colleges.

2. Focus the content on what admissions officers want to know. They want to know something about your goals and how College X or Major X will help you achieve them. They also want to know whether you have a genuine interest in College X or Major X.  Note that the specific prompt will tell you whether they are asking about College X or Major X or both, and you need to follow those instructions. 

In terms of goals, answer these questions. What is it that you actually want to get out of your college experience? Check out the last sentence of your story in Week 25 — you have articulated some career goals in the last sentence. What do you need to accomplish in college to put you on a path to those career goals? If you don't have career goals yet, look at sentence 2 of your story—your academic interests—and go from there. College is first and foremost an academic enterprise, so those reasons should be front and center.

In order to convey genuine interest, you must be specific and personal in each answer. For your "Why College X" essays, it's not enough to identify what makes College X interesting in general; you need to specify why College X is interesting to you in particular. Is it the massive library where you want to get lost in the stacks? Is it the respect for vegan students? Is it the creative writing instructor who happens to be your favorite author? Whatever it is, name it. If you are answering a Why Major X question, go beyond your general interest in the subject and explain what draws you to the major at this particular college. Is it specific faculty? An unusual set of courses? A co-curricular opportunity like research or study abroad or service learning? Name the specifics to make your template answer come alive for each college on your list.

3. Ranking and reputation are not good reasons in and of themselves. A classic mistake that applicants make when answering the Why College X or Why Major X question is to refer to a college’s or program’s ranking or reputation. Admissions officers are not interested in your ability to parrot back their marketing materials; they’re interested in knowing whether you’ve done your research and understand what makes the college attractive to you. A bonus of doing this research is that you might discover that the college isn’t actually a good fit for you despite its ranking or reputation, and that’s a good reason to take it off your list.

  • Check paragraph breaks.
  • Check subject-verb agreement.
  • Check verb tenses for shifting tenses or incorrect tenses.
  • Check for pronoun-antecedent clarity and agreement.
  • Check punctuation.
  • Check capitalization.
  • Check spelling.
  • Check and double check until the essay is error-free.

Get more essay help right within your copy of Inline.

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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