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Articles / Applying to College / Why [This College]: An Essay That's Never Optional

Why [This College]: An Essay That's Never Optional

N Written by Nina Berler | Aug. 16, 2021

How to Write a Strong "Why This College" Essay

Supplemental essays have been around for generations, and there’s a good reason: they enable admissions officers to see just how serious a candidate is about the target college. That’s particularly important in this test-optional admissions era characterized by unprecedented application volumes, especially to selective colleges and public research universities.

I always tell students to picture an admissions reader at their screen reading hundreds of essays. Yours has to stand out and grab their attention. So get ready to nail those supplemental essays, especially your response to the most common prompt: Why [Name of College]?

How Colleges Use Supplemental Essays

According to an article in the Cornell Sun, supplemental essays are reviewed at multiple steps in a complex applicant review process. “The essay is the opportunity for students to demonstrate both their writing skills and that they have taken the time to research and learn about Cornell,” states Pamela Tan, now Deputy Director of Admissions.

On the Tufts website, Becky Stiles, Associate Director, Tufts Admission, shares:

“I do want to stress the part about being specific in your Why Tufts? Essay . . . Specificity allows you to show off your knowledge of our community while also helping admissions officers picture you here . . . This year, I will read close to 3,000 supplemental essay questions, and it is surprisingly easy to tell when a student just isn’t excited or honest. Put a lot of hustle into your supplement. Know that the time you take pays off . . . Some students who end up applying to Tufts might not have us at the top of their list or have shown demonstrated interest in the traditional sense. But some of those students will show us through their application that they are quintessential Jumbo.”

How Colleges Present Their Essay Prompt

Here are a few “Why [Name of College]?” prompts released for the 2020-21 application cycle.

There are thousands of universities and colleges. Why are you interested in attending Chapman? (Chapman, 200 words or fewer)

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line:

"It is, sir,…a small college, and yet there are those who love it!" As you seek admission to the Class of 2026, what aspects of the College's program, community, or campus environment attract your interest? (Dartmouth, 100 words)

Why are you applying to Occidental? What are your intellectual curiosities and why do you think Occidental is the right place for you to pursue them? (Occidental, 200 words max)

Tell us why you would like to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided, please describe your areas of possible academic interest. (Wisconsin, 650 words)

This is just a brief sampling, of course. As you tackle your supplements, you are bound to encounter this very popular prompt, with some colleges allowing more words than others. On the Common App, supplemental essay questions often appear in sections other than Writing, and this year is no exception. So check carefully before assuming that you’re off the hook.

Your Plan of Attack

Your response to the prompt is a special opportunity to link your skills, interest and research to that specific college.

Try these four techniques:

  1. Take Notes
  2. Grid Out Your Ideas
  3. Focus Foremost on Academics
  4. Write With Style
  5. Be Concise

Take notes

While I like students to tackle their Personal Essay before writing the supplemental essays, you may want to switch that order if you’re taking a tour soon. Some of my students report that they’ve recently been able to attend formal admissions events; others have gone to campuses and taken self-guided tours. Of course, many have done virtual tours. No matter how you’ve seen a college, jot down your thoughts while they’re fresh in your mind. You don’t want to confuse one college with another. No admissions reader at Michigan wants to read an essay about sitting at the Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. (That’s Wisconsin, not Michigan.)

Grid out your ideas

Even if you are a masterful writer, it pays to map out your response writing paragraphs. Here’s a chart representing the brainstorm of an actual student I counseled last year.

Why This College Checklist

Focus foremost on academics

If you’ve been to New Orleans, you know that it’s about as lively a city as possible, including quaint streets, po ’boys, beignets and a classic streetcar. While Tulane Admissions appreciates that you love its unique town, would you really take up too many words writing about eating in New Orleans? After all, Tulane is a major research university located on the opposite side of the famous French Quarter. It embodies community service. Highly qualified students receive offers of special housing and honors programs. So whatever your plans might be should you wind up in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, spare Tulane the details and tell them why you want to join their community.

The same holds true of colleges in major urban centers (think NYU, BU, USC). Sure, you want to go to college in [name of city] because of all it has to offer. But would a college rather hear about its location or its academics? Nearby shops or its research labs? What you’d do on a day off or what you’d contribute while on campus? You get the idea.

The student I referred to above took a virtual tour of Tulane, which she used in her introduction. She went on to elaborate on the key points in the grid above. She was admitted Early Action as a Tulane Honors Scholar, receiving the Founders Award merit scholarship: $23,000 annually! With her permission, I am sharing some of her essay below. (For more, check out Supplementing the College Supplement.)

Her opening sentence:

The first virtual campus tour I viewed during my college search process was Tulane’s, and I have yet to view a virtual tourthat had as much as an impact on me.

Her thesis statement:

I would like to spend my next four years at a campus that values a balance between academics and involvement in campus life as well as a commitment to their surrounding community, and Tulane checks that box.

Her concluding paragraph:

Ultimately, the strong sense of community of collaborative, service-oriented, and happy students is what has drawn me into the spirited environment at Tulane. I know it is a place where I will not only pursue many academically enriching and challenging opportunities but also where I will find my happiness and form connections with others that will last a lifetime.

Write with style

Remember the storytelling approach that worked so well with your Common App Personal Essay? It can work just as well with the Why [Name of College]? essay. You have a story to tell about why you picked that college and what you can add to its community. Let them hear you!

That’s not to say that every supplemental essay needs to be clever and loaded with supporting details; some word counts won’t allow that. Be sincere, and use the checklist below. Read your essay out loud if that helps. Share it with a trusted friend or teacher.

Be concise

Tulane’s word count (i.e., up to 800 words) is about as high as you’ll see for Why [Name of College]? What if you’re a prospective film major targeting Chapman University and you have 200 words to show your love? You can’t afford to spare too many words on the proximity to Hollywood. So take those 200 words and make sure you tell Chapman admissions readers what you want to study, how their program will enable you to maximize your experience and what else you’ll be involved with if you’re fortunate enough to be included in their Class of 2026.

Four Things NOT to do on the "Why This College" Essay

  1. Don’t write what you can read on the website. (They already know that.)
  2. Don’t assume optional really means optional. (It doesn’t.)
  3. Don’t tell them they’re the only college that offers incredible internships. (They’re not.)
  4. Don’t reuse essays for different colleges. If you must cut and paste, be sure to edit and customize!

Supplemental Essay Checklist

  • Look through all sections of the college’s supplement for prompts (not just Writing).
  • Be sure the essay is written in authentic voice (yours).
  • Check English grammar and usage.
  • Verify the word count.
  • Use the Common App Preview button.
  • Link your experiences to the college.

We never know what will happen in a given year. But If you follow these tips, you’ll be on your way to attaining the desired outcome, hopefully at your first choice school!

Keep Reading

Read on for more tips on writing college essays or view Nina Berler's eBook on Supplemental Essays.

Applying early? See what other applicants are saying on the early decision forums.

Written by


Nina Berler

Nina Berler is a college counselor and founder of unCommon Apps. Her ebook, Supplementing the College Supplement, available on Apple Books, contains actual examples from student work. Nina has an AB with Honors from Brown University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University. She holds a Certificate with Distinction in College Counseling from UCLA Extension. Nina is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).

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