How To Navigate The “Why THIS College” Essay Question

One of the most common university application essay questions asks prospective students why they want to attend *THIS* particular school. Of the thousands of options, what made you choose school X over school Y? It’s a seemingly simple question that may look like a good opportunity to toot the horns of the admissions officers, but what many don’t realize is that the answers offer a lot of insight into who you are as a person and who you will be as a student, if accepted.

If you are certain about your choice, the question can be easy to answer. If you are applying just to apply, it can be difficult, often resulting in generic essays (and maybe even a big NO). In order to avoid the large pool of vague applicants (they want to attend because of the location/climate, the size of the school, or the top-notch dining options, etc.) you MUST describe specifics about the university and how it will help you reach your goals.

WHY Are You Applying?

Seriously, why? Higher education requires a lot of time and money, so you really need to want it. When it comes to your top choices, answering this question should be easy. Maybe your dream is to be a doctor and the university has the best nursing program in your region. Or, perhaps your goal is to work for an esteemed publication and their business and marketing school has an impressive magazine journalism concentration. Nail down your reasoning before you hit Send.

On the contrary, some of your applications are likely going to “back-up plan schools,” but you should still have a reason for applying to those over others. Take some time to browse the university websites and catalogues to educate yourself on what programs, classes and activities will be available to you. You may even consider reaching out to current and former students to pick their brains about what they love(d) about the school.

What do you find appealing? Does anything scream “this could be for me”?

Now, you shouldn’t write your essay about wanting to take Public Health 101, because you heard it’s interesting and an easy A. That’s not reason enough to be accepted. However, you may refer to Public Health 101, among other courses offered in its program, and explain how you feel confident that the curriculum’s structure will help you seek employment as an Environmental Health and Safety Specialist.

In addition to your career track, you may also make mention of the campus atmosphere and how it feels to you, if it is relevant. A visit can simply feel RIGHT. It can feel like HOME. And that is something that admissions officers want to hear. It shouldn’t be your only reason, but it may be a significant factor in your decision-making process. If an applicant has not visited a school that they are applying to, they may have a trickier time explaining why they want to go there. While you should be able to describe your attraction to the school and their programs without physically going (I mean, you chose it for a reason, right?), a visit really helps solidify that decision. That’s why we encourage students to go on college tours either before applying, or at the very least, after receiving acceptance letters. A visit creates more opportunity for content, allowing you to paint a real, genuine and believable picture of interest, and demonstrated interest is what may get you in.

Write what comes from the heart, and nothing else. They will know the difference.

WHY Are They Asking?

It may seem a bit strange to have to tell admissions why you want to attend, but it’s for good reason. Remember when we mentioned “back-up plan schools”? Well, admissions officers want to admit students who not only have a genuine interest, but ones who will actually enroll and attend. The selection process is grueling because they’re working to meet a certain level of prestige and ranking, which will ultimately yield more interest in the future because they can use the numbers in their marketing materials. The more interest a student demonstrates, the more likely they will be to perform well academically, which will aid the university’s overall competitive scope.

They also want to be sure that you are the proper fit. It isn’t uncommon for students to transfer to different universities part way through their higher education because their initial choice just wasn’t for them. These transfers are reflected in a school’s rate of retention; the more people leave, the less desirable a university is perceived to be. Admissions wants students who will remain dedicated and interested in their school of choice, all the way through graduation.

Most applications will include this question, even if they make it sound more complex than it really is. How it may be asked:

  • Simply, “Why Yale?”
  • More complicated, but still the same question… “How will Virginia Tech help you navigate your academic path? Please provide specific examples of how you plan to explore your program of interest and how the curriculum will help you achieve your goals.”

The “Why us?” question may seem like a trivial one, and may even feel like a waste of your time, but the bottom line is that it is in your best interest to know how to answer it. It may make you realize that you simply don’t have enough interest in a school, or it may help you conclude that your “back-up” actually has far more to offer than you realize.  If you can’t explain why you would be excited to attend a certain school, even after visiting and digging deep into their informational archives, you should rethink what you want out of your higher education experience and perhaps spend more time looking for the right place.