Writing the "Why College X?" Essay

Writing the “Why College X?” Essay

The “Why College X?” essay should be the easiest to write. After all, if you’re applying to a college, you should know why. (If you don’t, maybe you should reconsider your application.) But how do you express to the college not only that its academics, environment, social life, and extracurricular activities will be great for you over the next four years, but also that you’ll be able to contribute to all these areas? Here are some tips.

Keep it real.

This advice is given in every article about the “why this college” essay, but that’s because it’s important. You’re doing a disservice to yourself and to the institution if you sell yourself as something you’re not. Don’t say you want to take advantage of their school of hospitality, no matter who tells you that will make it easier to get in, if managing a hotel is at the bottom of your list of post-graduation jobs.

Of course, it can be difficult to be authentic in the format of a short essay. From personal experience, I have some advice that might help. After struggling for weeks on and off on my “Why Swarthmore?” essay, I finally deleted all the little scraps of paragraphs I had accumulated and was determined to make a fresh start. Staring at the blank Word document was not helping me any more than it had in the past, so I opened an Audacity file, took my laptop into the bathroom where nobody could disturb me, and talked at my computer for fifteen minutes about why I wanted to go to Swarthmore. I rambled messily and any interviewer would have cringed if that raw form was how I presented myself to Swarthmore. But it wasn’t — when I was out of things to say, I went back to my room, put on some headphones, and took notes on everything I had said. From there, I assembled an outline that was better than all the half-baked ideas I’d had before.

Even if you don’t want to go as far as recording yourself, freewriting for a little while can be helpful for getting into the flow of things. Try writing by hand if you’re normally on a computer — the slower pace of handwriting, as well as just something about pen or pencil on paper, makes your thinking different from when you’re typing.

Keep it…a little fake.

Most people reading this will be applying to more than one college. And especially at more competitive colleges and universities, the “Why?” essay is the one that admissions committees use to try and determine if you would actually go if you were admitted. So how do you convince each of them that they alone hold the key to your future? It’s not so hard — as I’ve said before, you have to have a reason you’re applying there, even if it’s one of your safeties. Only mention the things that appeal to you and the ways that you can contribute, and leave out the not-so-attractive motives you have for applying — it’s not going to win any admissions officer over if you blatantly tell them that you’re only applying to that school because it has a sky-high admissions rate.

Keep it simple.

What resulted from my quarter-hour bathroom mumblings was a heap of ideas and interesting things I wanted to express to the admissions committee. But it would not have done if I’d simply written, “I want to major in linguistics and Swarthmore has linguistics and it’s a liberal arts college and the close-knit community really appeals to me and the small class sizes too, plus it’s LGBTQ-friendly and I want to join this organization and that and the other, and…” No.

Choose the most unique things about the college that also happen to attract you to it, or one-of-a-kind niches that you think you’d be able to slot into, and build paragraphs around each of these things. That is, choose a few central points to build your essay around, and stick to them. Actually cottoning on for paragraphs will certainly make you seem enthusiastic, but it’s not a good demonstration of your writing skills, and that type of writing causes eyes to glaze over because nobody can really be sure what your point is.

Keep it short.

In the same vein as the last point, make sure you are as concise as possible. Of course you should say everything you want to say, but remove all unnecessarily long and roundabout expressions. Yours is only one of many, many essays being read by the admissions committee, and you want to get your point across as quickly and smoothly as possible. Although this isn’t an essay for class, it still matters — probably even more than that King Lear paper you churned out last week. So make sure your point comes across loud and clear, with nothing to distract anyone from it: this college is the one for you.

Have any questions, remarks, or more advice? Let us know using the comment box below!