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The "Why This College" Essay

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

You're applying to 10+ colleges and they all feel the same. Here's four categories of research to help your essay stand out for each school!

Table of Contents

Thought Experiment

Let’s pretend this is about restaurants instead of colleges. The question is:

Why do you want to go to our restaurant?

Compare these answers:

1. This restaurant would be an unprecedented opportunity to explore numerous kinds of foods and drinks. Furthermore, I am passionate regarding food; I am thrilled at the possibility to eat food crafted by some of the most esteemed chefs in the world alongside other dedicated customers. Finally, Los Angeles possesses myriad cultures, and the fact that this restaurant is located in LA provides the chance for me to experience all the culinary diversity such a city has to offer.
2. Ever since my sixth birthday party at Olive Garden (yes, I know it doesn’t really count), Italian food has always been my passion. In particular, I fell in love with how a rich marinara or alfredo sauce can elevate even a simple pasta to gourmet heights; my dream is to become a saucier. This restaurant’s specialty is in Italian sauces, and Chef Basil’s background as a saucier at some of Italy’s best restaurants means that I can have full confidence that the Bolognese I get will be as authentic as it gets.

The first example is what I typically see from students. It’s, well, a terrible answer to the question. You could easily copy-paste this answer for any restaurant.

The second example uses a cause and effect argument.

  1. Cause: your long-term personal, academic, or professional goals

  2. Effect: how the college’s resources will help you achieve these goals.


The Admissions Paradox

The best answer for "why this college" is the real answer—as long as the real answer is the best answer.

That doesn't mean you should lie. It means that good answers to this question are specific, often idiosyncratic, and deeply connected to a personal goal or interest.

You need to meaningfully think through what your time at this college will be like.


The 4 Categories of Research

I’ve listed these in order of importance.

1. Main Academic

Something that applies to all four years of college (or most) or gives direct experience in your field.

  • The option to choose a specialty within your major ("investment banking" could be a specialty for a business major)

  • A shadowing opportunity (like at a hospital)

  • The opportunity to do undergraduate research

  • The ability to take advanced classes in another department or school (like the college's school of engineering)

2. Auxiliary Academic

Something that applies to only 1–2 semesters.

  • A professor with a unique area of specialty or particular importance in your field

  • A unique or interesting class

  • Unique aspect of their general education

  • Opportunity for a double major or minor

I'm not sure where to put [X]!

There's no absolute place where a specific feature belongs. It depends on your goals!

  • If you want to do international business, a study abroad program in economics would be Main Academic.

  • If you've always wanted to visit France, study abroad would be Auxiliary Academic.

3. Main social

  • Clubs or extracurriculars

  • Campus life (if applicable)

4. Auxiliary Social

  • School “ethos” (values like divestment, commitment to diversity, religious institution)

  • Something unique about their housing


Final Tip

Most departments (the part of the college that teaches a specific major) have their own websites! Don't just go to the main college website; the department you're interested in usually has much more helpful and relevant information.

As always, best of luck with applications!

– Aaron



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