Tackling the “Why Do You Want to Apply to This College” Admissions Essay

Posted by Zoe Balaconis on 12/19/15 10:00 AM


The Common App has taken a huge amount of work off of your shoulders. Gone are the days of separate, specific essay questions and endlessly different applications. But, that also means that any opportunity to get more in-depth, specialized knowledge about your interests is going to be very valuable for admissions teams. It makes the “Why Do You Want To Apply To This College” essay very important.

The Challenge

The obvious challenge of this essay is that maybe you don’t really want to go to this college, or, also likely, you don’t really know much about it. How do you write a convincing, compelling essay with little evidence and maybe a lack of sincere feelings? The answer: it’s difficult. But, really, all schools are great, challenging institutions and you don’t know where you’ll end up, so why not give it your best shot?

Pre-Writing Tips

  1. Visit the school. The best pre-writing tip I can give is to try to arrange a visit to the school prior to applying. This will not only give you an idea of their admissions process, their student body, their academic focus, but also how you fit into all of that. If and when you go, make sure to take note (doesn’t have to be real notes — you don’t want to make people uncomfortable…) of meaningful interactions you have with professors, students, or administrators. It’s those personalities that really help you decide if you like a place, and those specific, anecdotal touches will make your essay so much stronger. For example: While the ongoing Biology Department research in northern Tanzania is a huge draw, my brief meeting with Dr. Smith truly opened my eyes to how accessible, dedicated, and supportive the faculty at University ______ is. An in-person visit will provide you with the evidence and support to make this a much stronger essay.
  2. Do some introspection and some research. All that said, I know that visiting every college you’re applying to is difficult and expensive, so, now what? You want every essay you write for admissions to be as genuine as possible, and for that to happen you need to do some introspection about what you really want so that you’re able to describe it. Before you begin your essay, take a few hours to jot down some goals you have for the next year, the next five years, and the rest of your life. They can be abstract, like “help people” or “travel to South America,” or specific, like “start a company” or “go to architecture school.” The point is to look at your values and goals and make sure they line up. Are your choices now going to lead to the kind of life you want? Sure, there’s always room for change, but for now, what is it you want to study, be involved with, who do you want to work with and why? Once you have those long term goals nailed down, it may be easier to see what you need to do in the short term. For instance, if one of your life goals is to “start a company,” you may want to spend time in college learning the skills you’ll need to do that, like marketing, accounting, and finance. Your table might look like this: 

1 year goals

5 year goals

life goals

get into college with ed program

get a job out of college

write a novel

study teaching

student teach in college

work in a school

Making this sort of list will help you to see where the college you’re applying to can help you achieve your goals. The student above may investigate such questions like, does the college have a good education program? Do they have student teaching? If so, that’s great because you can write about being involved with those things in order to achieve your life goals. If not, perhaps you should reconsider applying.

I know that deciding on these things can seem like the most difficult question, and you may not know (I had no idea what I wanted to do going into college), and that’s fine. Even if you do know, there’s a very high likelihood that what you want to do will change during college and throughout your life, so choosing at this point is pretty low stakes. My suggestion: for the sake of the admissions process, try to pick an area of interest based on what you’re excited about right now. It doesn’t have to be academic, it can be in activism or sports or sex education — it’s just much better to convey something specific rather than to say, I don’t know. No one knows, so why not use this opportunity to reflect, explore, ask your teachers, parents, and mentors about their careers and careers you may enjoy. Just showing the admissions team that you’ve thought about these things, even if you’re not quite sure, makes a great impression. It means you’re serious about contributing to their institution and about your studies.

  1. Make an outline. Once you have your goals and you’ve done some research on the school and you know how the two align, begin mapping out how you’ll work through this essay. Do you want to start with an anecdote, then move to what you’ll do at the school, then talk about how that aligns with your career goals? Do you want to start with your career goals, move to why this school is a great step on that path? Do you want to start with an example of how you’d like to affect the school, how that supports your passions, and why you think you’d be an asset? There are plenty of ways to structure this kind of piece, and the more natural-sounding, the better. Don’t be afraid to break out of the typical essay format. Make it more narrative and less academic.

Writing Tips

  1. Be very deliberate and confident in your language. Instead of writing, If I come to Tremont College, say, When I am a student at Tremont College. Phrase your goals as definites to give the impression of determination, without sounding overconfident.
  2. Be specific. Try and delve into what is really offered at this school. Don’t just say I want to take advantage of their active student government organization — that’s a good start, but it’s very general. Every school has a student government and saying that you want to be active in it doesn’t tell the admissions team really anything about you. In short, it’s a missed opportunity to stand out and show them your interests. Try to go further and be more specific by saying something like, I aspire to be a member of the student council so I can effect changes that make Tremont College more sustainable. I’m passionate about reducing paper waste because of my time working, etc. etc. That is much more telling about your interests and makes more of a narrative thread connecting your interest and activities. You want to show your trajectory, and being specific helps to do that.
  3. Which brings me to my next point, don’t be afraid to suggest how you are going to change the school. Often students are afraid of saying what they think is wrong with an institution in this essay because they think it might be offensive to the admissions team and detract from their application. In reality, any positive changes you may affect on campus make you an asset to the school. You don’t want to seem like a rabble-rouser, but think about what you’re passionate about and how you may want to get involved with this issue on campus. For example: When I’m a student I would like to get involved in promoting equality, acceptance, and support for transgender students. I know how difficult it is to navigate academic institutions while transitioning, and I’d like to help others through that process and make it a more tolerant one on campus.

Post-Writing Tips

  1. Proofread and let someone else proofread, too. This is a general tip, but make sure you have someone look over your essay for awkward sentences or grammatical errors. It’s hard to spot them in your own writing, so let a friend, sibling, teacher, or parent look over what you’ve written to make sure it makes sense.
  2. Read your essay aloud. Not only will this help you catch little errors (especially run-on sentences), but it will also help put the writing in your voice. Letting an admissions team hear your voice and personal style through your writing is key. Any sentence that is awkward saying aloud should be rewritten to be smoother, clearer, and more you. Go with what feels right: if you have a sense of humor, don’t be afraid to use it. If you have a lot of passion about a certain topic, don’t hold back. More than anything, this essay is a vehicle for letting this school get a taste of your personality. Take advantage of that!

Good luck, and, of course, have fun with this essay! It may be a requirement, but it definitely does not have to be stuffy! Consider how many essays admissions teams have to read. Make yours stand out with interesting images and a strong voice.


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Tags: college admissions