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Unpacking the “Why This School” Essay, and How You Can Stand Out

3 Students talking on campus, How to Write the Why This College Essay

One of the most common types of supplemental essays on the Common Application is the “Why This School” essay, which come in many different shapes and sizes. While Cornell College of Arts and Sciences’ 650-word essay requires you to declare your reasons for applying to your intended major, Yale’s open-ended, 125-word “Why Yale?” essay is much more succinct. All of them, however, require you to think and research carefully about what makes the school you’re applying to unique—what resources, courses, and programs they offer that no other university can. 

This is often a difficult essay for students to write, and for good reason. The “Why This School” essay requires you to balance two distinct but related topics: your interests in high school and the resources available at the university that can help you develop those interests. The Why This School essay is also an opportunity for you to identify your goals or aspirations in your interest areas as well.

Sample Why This School prompts: 

Many students pursue college for a specific degree, career opportunity or personal goal. Whichever it may be, learning will be critical to achieve your ultimate goal. As you think ahead to the process of learning during your college years, how will you define a successful college experience? (300 words, Carnegie Mellon University)

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? (200 words or fewer)

How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words, Penn prompt 1 of 2)

At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words, Penn prompt 2 of 2)

How will opportunities at Purdue support your interests, both in and out of the classroom? (Respond in 100 words or fewer.)

How to Incorporate Your High School Experiences

A high school experience can be anything from a long-term commitment to biological research to a Quidditch club you play in on the weekends. It should be something you can continue in university in some form, even if that form changes. Most “Why This School” essays expect you to write about at least one academic interest, with some exceptions. Phrases like “intellectual passion” and “interests in the classroom” can help clue you in on if a school is expecting at least one academic interest to be discussed. 

Selecting the number of high school experiences that you mention in a “Why This School” essay depends on the essay’s length. In a 100-150 word essay, you may only have room to briefly mention one or two experiences, while in a 500-650 word essay, you have the room to mention two or three experiences that can show off different sides of yourself. Try to avoid going above four in most cases, as the essay can start to lose focus and direction with too many experiences mentioned. 

The kind of high school experiences mentioned will also vary based on the wording of the prompt and other essays in that school’s supplemental application. For example, Purdue’s “interests” prompt gives you leeway to select from a broad range of interests, while Carnegie Mellon’s prompt asks you to name experiences related to specific personal or professional goals.

If the school has more than one essay prompt in its supplement, it’s also important to select experiences in the context of the other supplemental essays. If there’s already an essay dedicated to explaining why you chose the major you did and why you want to pursue that major at that specific school, like in the case of Columbia’s supplement, you may want to mention activities less directly related to that major in the Why This School essay. Sometimes the type of experiences the university is looking for will be explicitly mentioned in the prompt, such as Penn’s “community exploration” essay. 

How to Find School Resources

Once you have a list of high school interests that you want to develop in university, it’s time to start researching the school! The best place to look for information if you haven’t been on the physical campus is the school website, and more specifically, the sub-sites related to your interests. 

For an academic interest, the departmental website related to that major is your best friend. For example, you would want to check out the University of Wisconsin’s English department if you mention your passion for creative writing in the essay. While navigating, look out for words such as “lab”, “initiative”, or “opportunities” to find interesting resources unique to that university. If the essay is asking more specifically for why you’re planning on selecting a particular major, you can also look at “major information” or “course requirement” pages to get a better feel for the major’s structure and unique aspects, such as internships or experiential learning opportunities. 

Browsing the list of professors to see if any match your specific research or intellectual interests is also a good idea, since they’re also a valuable resource you can mention. If the university has a rich course catalog such as Yale’s Blue Book, you can also look through that catalog as well.

Finding information on extracurriculars is less standardized, as each school has its own way of organizing student organization information. You can start by Googling “student life” next to each school’s name, and schools will often provide a list of active clubs with a description. If you’re not fortunate enough to find a list, you can also search through departmental websites to find organizations related to your interests, such as a student newspaper or creative writing journal. 

Put It Into Action

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to start browsing some websites and brochures! To keep track of your school research, you may consider using a list-making app such as Trello, Notion, and Todoist. With these sites, you can divide schools into categories (schools you’re applying during the early versus regular admissions cycle, for example), compile links to school resources, and take notes on how a school’s resources match with your interests. 

Pitfalls to Watch Out For: 

Generic reasons. NYU admissions officers have read countless essays extolling the greatness of New York but not the university itself. Remember that if you mention geography, weather, or other broadly applicable categories, those categories can be applied to countless other schools as well. Try to focus as much as possible on resources within the university. 

Talking about prestige or ranking. Schools already have a good sense of their own self-importance. They won’t need you to puff it up! Mentioning prestige or ranking as a reason for applying shows that you haven’t done your research into why you want to attend a school specifically beyond its reputation or its numbers. 

Mentioning redundant or irrelevant resources. It’s great to cite specific resources a school has, but also be on the lookout for when resources mentioned can be redundant, such as if you cite two neuroscience labs you want to research in with similar research goals. In general, depth over breadth is preferable, and consider using the space saved by eliminating redundancies to go more in-depth into what aspects of a resource appeal to you. 

Conclusion

The Why This School essay requires deliberation and careful editing, but when done well, it can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. Schools care about your reasons for attending, and if they aren’t strong or well-developed, they can impact your application’s strength. Conversely, if your reasons are strong, specific, and related to interests you’ve demonstrated commitment to, you’ve just earned your application a closer look! 

Female student holding books on campus

Looking for a Roadmap to College Essay Success?

Our virtual workshops guide students ages 15-18 through every step of the writing process. Through interactive, small-group discussions and exploratory writing prompts, our Roadmap leads to standout essays that rise above the rest. What’s more, students walk away with a writing toolkit for college and beyond.

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Laurence Li

Laurence Li is a native Californian and a recent graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program. Before earning his M. Ed, he worked as an educational consultant in Beijing, China for two years, helping students discover their higher education and career paths. In 2017, he graduated from Yale with a degree in English and concentration in Creative Writing. He is currently an Expert and Site reviewer at WtW and is eager to help high school seniors find their voice in the college application process.

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