When it comes time to apply to your dream college, there’s a lot to prepare. But you’re on top of it. You’ve ordered your transcript to showcase your academic prowess, you’ve collected raving letters of references from prominent figures in your academic and professional life, and you’ve penned a brilliantly convincing personal statement. If you’re an international student, you may have even painstakingly studied to pass the TOEFL and fulfilled other country-specific requirements. Okay, so you’re basically done now, right?
Well, not quite. You’re overlooking one small but important detail: the “why this college” essay.
You might think it’s no big deal, but you’d be mistaken. Obviously, it’s not the most important part of your application, but in highly competitive schools with many applicants similar in skill and academic performance, the “why us” essay can be your ticket into your dream school—or straight into the rejection pile.
So, no pressure, but you can’t afford to mess this up. But where should you start?
Step 1: Reflect.
The first step, although seemingly obvious, is easily overlooked. The first thing you should do is consider why you really do want to attend this particular college. Think about it. Right now. Just take five minutes and come back. Take notes.
What did you come up with? Ideally, you came up with specific, academically based reasons that can only apply to your school in question. Ideally, you came up with compelling reasons that other schools can’t offer you. Ideally, your motivations to attend this school are going to persuade the admissions team that you really are going to grace the school with your presence if they choose to admit you.
It would be optimal to have these motivations initially, but if you could only come up with generic or location-based reasons, don’t fret. You still have time to figure out for yourself why you want to go to this university.
Step 2: Research.
First of all, as someone pursuing higher education, you shouldn’t be shying away from research. Just saying. Furthermore, university admissions offices can generally tell how much research you’ve put into your application, and you don’t want to be on the lower end of that scale: Insufficient research efforts will paint you in the college’s eyes as lazy and passionless, which is exactly the type of applicant they’re not looking for.
So, find out everything you can about the institution.
- Find out what courses are offered. Peruse the course catalog in your department of choice, and read the course descriptions. Make up a tentative dream schedule in your head.
- Research the faculty. Try to scout out your future professors and acquaint yourself with them. Check out their academic works. Let their projects inspire you. See whether your interests align with at least some of them.
- Explore the extracurricular activities and familiarize yourself with the campus culture. Determine which clubs you’d like to join, or simply ascertain the varsity football team’s game schedule. Figure out how you’re going to enjoy yourself when you’re not in class or diligently studying.
- Read up on the school’s history. Find out when it was founded and learn about any crucial events that helped shape its values and attitudes. Identify any special idiosyncrasies the university may have.
- If you’re able to, visit the campus. Talk to faculty and student representatives, if you get a chance, and seize any opportunities to partake in events or classes at the college. Obviously, this will give you a better idea of the school’s atmosphere than its website and promotional materials ever could.
Step 3: Determine what not to write.
With your arduous research out of the way, it’s time to start composing the essay. Many applicants begin by praising the beauty of the campus. Don’t be like them.
So, what should you not do?
- Don’t tell the admissions team that you think the campus is gorgeous. They know it’s breathtaking—they work there. They know it better than you do. Don’t waste their time telling them what they already know.
- The admissions team doesn’t need to know that you like the small class sizes. They’re aware of the school’s class sizes, and if you want an exclusive spot in those classes, you’d best avoid such generic and meaningless statements in your essay.
- Don’t share with the admissions office that you’re excited about their outstanding ranking. They know exactly what the college’s ranking is—they helped it get there. If the school thinks you’re only interested in their excellent ranking, they’re bound to believe that you’d ditch them for a higher-ranked school in a heartbeat—in which case they’d rather just not deal with you at all.
Basically, don’t teach them about the school. If they wanted to learn more about their own institution, they wouldn’t look to you.
Step 4: Write—about yourself.
Think of it like the academic version of a date. You wouldn’t tell the cute guy you’re out with all about his own accomplishments and reputation, would you? You’d have much more success if you told him about yourself. Ideally, you’d show off your best side to impress him and get him interested.
It’s the same way with college applications. Even though the admissions office isn’t likely to be creeped out by how much you know about the school, they’re not likely to be impressed, either. They’re probably harder to impress than the cute guy, too, and they most likely have more applicants to choose from, so you really have to grab their attention.
So, what should you write?
- Write specific things. Write in detail (at least within the boundaries of the word limit). And, most importantly, write things that reflect you and your background, interests, and personality as they relate to the university. The admissions officers already know what the school is like—they want to know who you are to determine whether you’d be a good fit.
- Mention campus visits. Tell them about personal experiences you’ve had with the school. Talk about any meetings with faculty. Discuss any faculty member’s research that interests you—and if you have any innovative ideas to add to their work, absolutely mention it.
- Be authentic. Let your personality shine through, and distinguish yourself from the thousands of other applicants vying for a coveted spot at the school. You can be quirky in your essay as long as you actually are
Step 5: Thoroughly check your essay over.
At best, spelling and grammar mistakes make you look silly, and at worst, they fundamentally change the meaning of your message. Submitting an essay rife with grammar errors reflects poorly on you and your standards of quality, and these oversights could send your application directly to the rejection pile, regardless of content.
So, avoid grammar mistakes at all costs.
- Use a spellchecker. Use a service like Grammarly (but take its advice with a grain of salt). Briefly brush up on your grammar skills with a quick Google search.
- Comb your text over once you’re done and correct all the silly typos you didn’t notice while writing it. Even the best writers let careless errors slip through.
- Have a family member or friend read your essay over, too—we’re often blind to our own typos. A second pair of eyes can also help reveal ambiguities—you know what you meant, so you can’t misinterpret your own writing. Maybe your family member or friend also has brilliant insights for you to add to give your essay the perfect finishing touch.
Step 6: Repeat as necessary.
If your essay can be recycled for any school in the country, you’re doing it wrong.
Many applicants indeed do it wrong. They’ll write up one generic “why us” paper, change the institution and place names, and send off the same lackluster paper to every school on their wish list. If they’re particularly careless, they may even forget to change all instances of the school name, which is a surefire way to not get admitted.
But even if you manage to successfully avoid all references to other colleges, you’re still left with a passionless, generic, fill-in-the-blanks essay that informs the admissions team only that you’re devoid of ambition. Make sure to write something that would still specifically apply to your university of choice even if you deleted the names.
Step 7: Wait.
First of all, let’s be clear: Following all these steps to a T isn’t guaranteed to get you accepted into your college of choice. Ultimately, this essay is just one part of your overall application, and your admission will depend on many other factors.
But following these steps will help you nail the “why us” essay and allow your application to stand out in a sea of other excellent applicants.
So, don’t just brush it off as unimportant.
Do extensive research to learn not only about the institution but also about yourself and your own goals and desires.
Don’t teach them about themselves—you couldn’t possibly know anything about the school that they don’t already know.
Do tell them about yourself and blow them away with your dazzling personality and with what you can uniquely bring to the school.
Do proofread. Letting careless errors slip through could undermine all the work you’ve put into the other steps.
This may sound arduous, but it’s worth it, and it helps show your dream university that you deserve a coveted spot at their prestigious institute. Go forth and chase down your academic dreams!