Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

How to Answer “Why This College?” pt. 2: 5 Steps to Writing a Great Essay


In my last post I wrote about what schools look for in a “Why Do You Want to Attend our School?” essay.

Buckle up! It’s time to start putting pen to paper.

Here are 5 Steps to Writing a Great “Why This College” Essay:

1. Before You Start Writing, Understand What Makes this School Different From Other Schools. Here’s how to collect that info:

  • Pay attention when you visit. Meet students, talk to faculty. When something interests you, ask questions.
  • Read the website thoroughly (not just the home page). Learn about the school’s educational philosophy and traditions.
  • Locate videos on the website to hear students tell you what they’re doing and why they like attending. This can help give you ideas!
  • Find the news page on the school website that relates to your area of interest and read at least one article that catches your eye. Your goals is to get excited about a teacher, a research program, an invention, a new book—something you can refer to in your essay.

Tip: Googling is an excellent shortcut. College websites can sometimes feel overwhelming. When you’re looking deeper for news and information, Googling can often get you there faster.

How to be awesome with Google: Use specific search terms. Let’s say you’re applying to the University of Illinois and you’re interested in bioengineering. Google  “University of Illinois bioengineering.” But a general search will return masses of information, so use the news tab for research and other news. Similarly, if you’re interested in joining a club, such as an outdoors club, Google the school’s name and “outdoor club” or “environment” or “hikes” and see what you find. (Do a general search here, not news.) Search videos too. One of my students discovered a video from a robotics class and wrote about how he’d work as part of that team.


How to write "why this school" essay2. Don’t Be a Lightweight 

  • Make academics your main focus. It’s okay to mention after-school activities and dorm life as long as you’re knowledgeable about substantial things like courses, instructors, academic opportunities and educational philosophy.

3. Say How You’ll Fit In

  • Visualize yourself as a freshman on campus:  What classes are you taking? Why do you love being there? How are you contributing to the campus community? Why are you a good match? Write about it.

4. If You’ve Talked to People, Say So

  • Whether it’s a tour guide, admissions counselor, coach or professor, making a personal connection shows initiative and enthusiasm. So if you’ve talked to someone, write about it!
  • Mention what you learned from the people you talked to, and be specific about how it pertains to you. For instance, “My tour guide told me he had a great time at school” has nothing to do with you. BUT, if you say, “My tour guide told me how accessible all my professors will be. That’s the kind of atmosphere I’m looking for,” then you’ve written a sentence that is specific and shows how the idea relates to you.

5. It’s Almost Never Too Late to Make a Personal Connection

  • Even if your deadline’s looming you can probably get in touch with a student, alum, or coach.
  • Put on your thinking cap! Take advantage of any connections you have. If you have a friend or relative who attended, get in touch. If there’s a friend of a friend, use that connection! Don’t hesitate to reach out. Ask your friends, parent or relative to be the bridge to help you connect, and then email or give that person a call.
  • If you don’t know anyone personally, it’s still easy to connect. Here’s what you do:
    • Start by locating the email or phone number of the admissions office on the website.
    • Then call or write. They won’t bite—in fact, they’ll be delighted to hear from you. Then ask them to put you in touch with a student in your major so you can learn more.
  • Prepare a few questions so you know what to ask.

    • Here are some suggested questions: What professors do you recommend, what surprised you the most when you got to campus, what’s the best/hardest part about this major, what’s a typical day like at school, what do you do to relax, do you feel like you’re being prepared well to graduate, how do you think you’ll use your degree? Keep asking questions until you find something that gets you excited about going there!

True Story about Making A Personal Connection:

Last year I worked with a student applying to Cornell Engineering. His interests had changed since he’d visited, and now he was interested in pursuing two possible engineering paths, not just one. The problem was that he didn’t know much about the second path and the website wasn’t specific.

I suggested he email Cornell admissions and ask to be connected to a student in that major. When he did, they responded immediately with a contact. Then I helped him create five questions to ask. He emailed the student, introduced himself, and asked his questions. A few follow-up questions and he was done. By the time he was finished, my student had a much better grasp on the second engineering track. Now he could show the school he understood why it would be a good fit and why he was excited by what they had to offer.

It was just that easy.

Everyone who’s writing a “Why This School” essay should try to make at least one personal connection and then use these 5 steps to write a great essay.

NEXT: Part 3—Successful writing techniques, plus examples of essays in action.

Posts in this series:
Part 1: “Why This College”: What Schools Want
Part 2: 5 Steps to Writing a Great “Why This College” Essay
Part 3: “Why This College?” Essay Examples and Successful Writing Techniques

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2012 and has been updated to include additional information and examples.

Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.












Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

4 thoughts on “How to Answer “Why This College?” pt. 2: 5 Steps to Writing a Great Essay

  1. Pingback: How to Answer “Why This College?” Essay – pt. 1: What Schools Want « Applying To College

  2. Pingback: How to Answer “Why This College?” pt 3: Essay Samples « Applying To College

  3. Pingback: 5 Questions to Ask Students on Your College Visit « Applying To College

  4. Pingback: How to Answer “Why This College?” Essay – pt. 1: What Schools Want | Applying To College

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