“Why Brown?” “Please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you.” “Why does Yale appeal to you?” “Given the opportunities at Hopkins, please discuss your current interests and how you will build upon them here.” “Specifically, how will an education from Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?”
Questions like this flood college application supplemental essays. Sometimes they’re even more elaborate. For example, Dartmouth’s supplement each year includes a question similar to the following:
“While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?”
How Admissions Officers Use Why School Essays
Regardless of how they ask, these are all the same type of question. They ask you to explain why you are applying to a particular university. Sometimes they ask about specific programs within the university (especially if you are applying directly to engineering programs). Admissions officers love these questions because they make it so easy to weed out applicants who aren’t top-tier university caliber. Being able to answer these questions well won’t guarantee you getting into a top school, but it’s certainly a necessity to prevent being immediately discarded.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, some friends and I got the chance to view our Yale admissions files recently. All of them had “YY specific” written within the first couple lines of the first admissions officer’s notes (“YY” stands for “Why Yale?”). I would bet that any application that doesn’t have a specific YY essay is immediately put in the reject pile—admissions officers in the Ivy League simply don’t have time to read through applications from students who don’t demonstrate a genuine and researched interest in their university.
A specific essay is one that clearly shows the admissions officers you have gone online to figure out opportunities that are available at their university, but the essay ultimately needs to do more than just be specific. There are two main goals to a why school essay:
Demonstrate your ability to research and articulate specific reasons
Show the admissions committee what type of student you are going to be on their campus
These seem like simple goals, but students often mess up one or both even though there is a simple approach one can follow to write a great Why School essay of any length in any context.
Easy Steps to a Great Why School Essay
First, research the school thoroughly. Google “[insert university name] admissions” and you’ll run into a page run by the admissions officers at that school specifically linking you to various resources. Spend at least 20-30 minutes exploring these links, clicking around, going back, and clicking on new links until certain details start to pop out. Maybe it’s their underwater basket weaving club or joint program in economics and history. Try to find details from three domains—academics, extracurricular activities, and community.
Next, force yourself to write out your goals for college. This can be hard, so spend some time thinking carefully and honestly about what you hope to accomplish during college. Do you want to prepare for a career as a politician, explore your artistic side, become a technical expert, start a business, or maybe all of the above? My main desire was to explore and refine my interest in biology, for example, but I also wanted to keep pursuing my interests in music, martial arts, and climbing. These don’t have to be set in stone (most people end up changing their college majors), but you should have some idea of what you want to do and how you’re going to start.
With these two, or perhaps a little more research to follow up on your goals, you should be ready to write the essay. In it, work to continually tie together your goals and specific details about the university from your research. Explaining how the two fit is how you show the admissions officers your plan for being a successful student on their campus.
The following I wrote when applying to Yale in 2016-2017. I state my goal, to “pursue my interests in general biology… curiosity” a little late, but otherwise the essay does a good job of communicating my plan with specific details.
Why does Yale appeal to you? (100 words or less)
"The course variety (Everything from Malaria Lyme and Vector-Borne Disease to Epigenetics) and interdisciplinary focus make Yale’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology the ideal place to vigorously pursue my interests in general biology while exploring other areas of curiosity. An assortment of classes guiding young researchers in intensive independent research endeavors, summer research opportunities, and regular seminars in the Osborn Memorial Laboratories further foster the community of biological research at Yale. I know Yale would feel like home with the residential system, active climbing club at City Climb, Yale Club Taekwondo, and Yale’s 17-piece jazz ensemble."
In 99 words, I include around ten specific details about Yale that appeal to me. You don’t need to be quite that dense, but you should definitely include at least one thing each about the academics, extracurricular activities, and community that appeal to you. For academics, research your major, the department you’ll be in, any special programs you would want to participate in, professors you might want to research with, or classes you might want to take. For extracurricular activities, many schools have directories you can look through. Otherwise you can google keywords to try to find one that matches what you want. For community, think about housing/dorms, special events or traditions, or networking opportunities.
There are a few traps students fall into when writing these. Never try to copy-paste from one “Why School?” essay to another. If this works, you haven’t written a specific enough essay. Avoid discussing location unless you have something very specific to discuss—there are more than fifty colleges in the Boston area, so loving Boston isn’t a reason you want to go to MIT.
Lastly, avoid mentioning your visit to campus. Colleges will already have recorded this and noted it if they care about your visit. Most often this leads people into discussions about how pretty the campus was or how nice the people were, which are poor indications that a school and a student match.
Do your research, state your goals clearly, and be specific in connecting the two for a great essay that not only meets the basic requirement, but presents you as someone who will be active and engaged in the academic and social community of the university and gives the admissions officers a good reason to want you there.