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How to Write the “Why” College Essay

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: September 21, 2020

Table of Contents

Twenty years ago, I applied to the University of Chicago. After I completed the “uncommon essay question,” I encountered an additional prompt to answer. And while so much about UChicago has changed, including being part of the Common Application, the one question that hasn’t changed is this: “How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.”

Other colleges, such as Yale, ask it more directly: “What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?”

But essentially, no matter how it is worded, schools are asking you to write a Why This College essay. The Why This College (“WTC”) essay is arguably your most important response. It’s additional word real estate to demonstrate to admissions officers your passion for pursuing your education at their college. Also, as with anything you’re interested in, it shows that you’ve taken the time to research something you’re going to spend a lot of time and money on to accomplish. You’ll need to communicate your exact reason for applying and how the college is a good fit for you. Conversely, you’ll need to show how you are a good fit for the college. Your ultimate goal is to answer the admission committee’s questions: Are you a good fit? Will you be successful here? How will you contribute to the campus community?

You can write an excellent general essay response. But if you bomb the WTC essay, meaning it sounds generic or rushed, you will significantly diminish your admissions chances. To avoid this unfortunate fate, you’ll need to dig deep into your college choice and craft a response that is tailored and inspiring (for the college that is)–about you and your motivations for applying. 

In this post, I will show you how to write the WTC college essay question. Key points you’ll learn answers to are:

  • What the college is looking for in your response?
  • How to avoid sounding generic?
  • Where to find content that leads to a unique and authentic essay?

What to Write

The admissions equation is one that’s quite simple. It is fit plus value equals admissions. If you can show that you’re a great fit made in heaven and prove it with your application, both numerical and non-numerical factors, and make a strong case for the value you’d bring to the campus and the college to your life, then your chances of admissions are higher. 

When written correctly, the WTC essay can work in your favor. The WTC question asks you to share information such as: what are you looking for in a college? How does the college (as you’ve learned about it) stack up to these criteria? The value you’ll add to the campus community, and how? What are your academic interests? How will the school support your interests so that you thrive personally, academically, and professionally? Hence, you’ll organize and write your essay to answer these questions.

Avoid Sounding Generic

Colleges will vary in terms of their word limits for the WTC college essay. I’ve seen anywhere from 75 words to 650 words. The best strategy is to create a WTC college essay outline you can follow to answer this question. Depending on the word count, you’ll adjust the content that falls in each section.

Here’s a good WTC college outline:

  • How did you first learn about this College? Ideally, you’d use an anecdote here that starts with your first interaction with the school. This should be interesting and grab the reader’s attention.
  • What about this College inspires you? Be as specific as possible. You can talk about a class, program, location, or other feature that is unique to this college. Only choose points that are not true for any other college on your list.
  • What are your academic and career interests? Even if you are undecided about your major, you should mention a few academic programs you are interested in learning more about.
  • What are three things that make this College unique and are important to you? Whatever you choose, you’ll speak to them directly in your essay and tie them back to high school experiences.
  • What specific classes do you want to take? and what professors do you want to learn from?
  • What extracurricular experiences do you want to have at this College?
  • How will you contribute to campus life and the college community?

As you can see from the outline’s questions, you’ll need in-depth knowledge of your school and what it has to offer to write this college essay appropriately. Moreover, by following this outline, you reduce the likelihood of writing a generic essay. With this level of specificity, your college essay will sound unique. For example, when you mention a professor, who is only teaching at that school, you’ve already tailored your response. In fact, in the next section, we’ll go deeper into why you need to be as specific as possible to demonstrate your knowledge and personal interests in the college.

college essay

Find Inspiration

I wish someone would have paid me a nickel for the number of times I asked a student why they’d like to attend a college. Guess what happens? Some get stuck and have nothing to say. Others mention it was recommended by a counselor, teacher, parent, or friends as a “good school.” Or even worse, if they can respond, but tell me features that could be true for [any college] fill-in-the-blank.

So when preparing to answer the WTC college essay question, first do your research. There are several ways you can research colleges.

  • Visit the school in-person or virtually and explore the website to learn about academic majors, courses and requirements, and student activities. Take careful notes of special programs or study abroad opportunities and what students and professors say about the college. Highlight a professor you’d like to take a class with, a program or club you look forward to participating in, or a place you’d like to travel to study or volunteer. Be sure to take copious notes, which you will use to embed into your response eventually.
  • Read an online discussion board, like Quora or Niche, to learn about alumni experiences that you can point to in your WTC response. 
  • Also, consider contacting a current or recently graduated student to ask a question about their experience. You can quote the person in your college essay to make it more unique and special. For my UChicago application, I found a student named John and wrote him an email introducing myself. He replied with a long message that detailed how different Maroon students were. Not only did this get me more excited about the College, but in my essay, I directly quoted him saying that “UChicago kids talk about Marx and Hobbes at frat parties.” 
  • Also, don’t forget to speak to your admissions representative. The admissions officer representing your city, state, or region is typically the first person to read your response. Email them questions, so you get on their radar as a student interested in the school before applying. They can also answer any questions you have about the school and can be used to help generate content for your WTC response.

In your response, always connect back to your experiences in high school as proof that you are genuinely interested in what the school has to offer. For example, if you write that as a matriculated student, you want to join the school’s Acapella Club, then you would refer to winning your state’s choral competitions in spring of junior year. Throughout this essay, you should draw bridges between your interests, what the school offers, and the value you’d bring — all of which can be validated by your transcript, activities resume, recommendation letters, and the words you write in your college essay

Sample Essay + PDF Outline

Here’s a sample WTC response. As you read this college essay, you’ll notice that specific classes and professors are mentioned, as well as other evidence that the student conducted research to learn about opportunities afforded by the University of Central Florida.

 

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