The "Why DO You Want to Apply to Our College?" Admissions Essay

Posted by Sam Ashworth on 7/29/13 7:30 AM

One of the great (and few) advantages that applicants today have over their predecessors is the near-universal acceptance of the Common Application. Instead of having to grimly grind out a dozen colelge essays on a multitude of head-numbing topics, applicants can now take the time to polish their main essay to a high shine. The unacknowledged side effect of this shift, however, is the increasing importance of the never-pleasant “Why Do You Want to Go to Our College?” question.

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These questions give applicants fits for two reasons:

      1. Half the time, the applicant doesn't want to go to X college, because it's a not her top choice, or it's a safety school. It's hard to write an essay designed to convince a committee that Last Ditch U. is the alpha and the omega of one's desires.

      2. The applicant wants to go to X college, but lacks any real sense of what life will actually be like there. And it's this second, more pernicious issue that I want to talk about today.

Stop me if you've seen or considered writing an essay like this before: “On a typical day at Blunderbuss College, I catch and toss a frisbee as I stroll across the Plimpton quad on my way to my Philosophy class taught by a professor whose name I have just looked up online, then, after an invigorating lecture on the topograpy of geneological iconography, gather my books and hustle across campus to a Post-Human literature seminar with the android version of your star English professor because the human version is too busy Twittering to show up, then repair to the library to begin my Marginal Human Anatomy essay on the Physiognomy of Carnies, and finally, round off the day with a bracing discussion of particle physics with my roommate before we go to hear his girlfriend's jazz quintet rock the dining hall.”

The worst thing about these essays is how disingenuous they are—and college admissions committees can spot disingenuousness a mile off. But this is not the fault of the writer. All the applicant is trying to do is imagine what college is really like. And the mistake many applicants make when obsessing over US News rankings, scores, chances of acceptance, and so on, is that they never get a chance to learn what will happen to them after they get in.

What do I mean by that? I mean that few college applicants ever have a sense of a school's academic organization—what kind of requirements come with their potential major, what kind of interdisciplinary options are available, how easy it is to get funding for a club, and all of the other things that college freshmen learn by ordeal once they arrive. The problem with this, though, is not that you need to know this information in order to “get a head start” or something like that, but rather that you need to know it in order to frame a good application.

Let me give you an example. Which of the following sounds better?

    • I want to enroll in classes in your world-reknowned English department, study at the knee of Charlie Charmander and Patricia Pikachu, and hopefully use the knowledge I acquire to go on to graduate school.”

    • I want to be an English major, and I like that you require all English majors to write a thesis. While I love interpreting texts, I don't have a lot of research experience. Since I plan to attend graduate school someday, a department that places such exceptional emphasis on developing students' research skills beginning with freshman year is very appealing to me.”

Clearly, the second one is stronger, because it not only shows that the student has done her research (and not just looked up august names), but it also states clearly why the student would be a good fit for this specific school. It is this second thing that often gets left out in college applications, where students are (justifiably) obsessed with showing themselves in the best light, and showing how intelligent and wonderful they will be when they arrive on campus But that ignores the question that the admissions officers are asking: “is she really right for us?”

Any application which doesn't answer that question clearly and persuasively is a far weaker application. But fortunately, there is a solution. Applicants should definitely plan overnight visits at the colleges they want the most; they should also reach out in any way they can to friends and family to get a sense of how academics are different in college (ignorance abounds about how college work differs from high school). All departments publish their major requirements online—science departments, for example, will have detailed information about what kinds of projects faculty members are working on, and how undergraduates can contribute (this is essential knowledge for science-oriented applicants).

The point is, it's not enough to say how much you love the intellectual vibrance of a college, or how much you want to study with their rock stars (who may not even teach undergraduates!). All colleges are intellectually vibrant. Essays like these suggest that the applicant hasn't actually thought through why she wants to attend College X, only that she wants to go. This leads to torpid applications that fail to convey to the committee the most important thing of all: how the student will contribute to the school.

This question—“how will the applicant contribute to this campus?”—is the main question that admissions officers use to determine whether or not to accept a student. This is why perfect-2400, 4.0 GPA students who are just grade-machines with no distinctive personality wind up getting rejected from top schools. But it's also why applicants without such lofty scores can and do get into those schools, by presenting genuine, compelling applications that persuade committees that they truly are the perfect fit.

Tags: college admissions, expository writing