To high school seniors applying to college right now:
You’re not fooling anyone. We all know you have a dream school, but do your backups know? Chances are, they already do. With the Common Application limit of 20 schools, college admissions officers are completely aware of the fact that you most certainly applied to other schools. For schools like Harvard and Stanford, don’t even bother asking why you want to be there — they don’t need to. When the percentage of accepted students who enroll at these schools nears 80%, they can accept an application with relative confidence that the student will step on their campus the next fall. But what about schools where less than half of accepted students actually enroll? For schools like Tufts and Oberlin, the “Why our school?” question can be the deciding factor.
Actually, scratch that.
At any school whose application has this question, it matters. A lot. Why would they accept students who aren’t excited about going there? Especially in the age of copy-paste, how do colleges know whether the most thought you’ve put into attending was through careful thought or a click of the forwarding button? Here are some things to keep in mind as you write about wanting to attend a certain school (even if you don’t particularly want to):
- Make the school feel special. The school is not a person, but pretend it is. Simply saying that someone looks nice is no way to get that person to commit to you — why would that work on selective colleges? Everyone is “nice” and “talented”, in their own way. Saying that you’ll meet amazing people and get an amazing education at that college is no more special. You can get those things at almost any school. Is there a residential college system that you particularly like? The core curriculum or lack of? Perhaps you’re interested in a particular major and program that isn’t replicated elsewhere? Find things about the school that make it unique to you. Remember, just because someone is hot doesn’t mean you’ll like them as people.
- Market yourself as compatible with the school. And no, don’t read off your resume. What I’m trying to say here is that schools like applicants who have proven that they will fit into the school’s academic and social culture. For example, if you have a wide variety of academic interests and have a transcript filled with art history as well as computer science classes, then a college with a quarter system (where you could take 48 classes instead of 32 on the semester system) might be particularly receptive to you. Ditto with colleges with broad distribution requirements or core curriculums. Interested in interacting with the community outside of the college? Don’t apply to isolated liberal arts colleges! Find the college that is right for you (as cliche as that sounds), and college admissions officers will certainly realize that you are right for that college.
- Don’t copy-paste. I know, it’s tempting. In fact, I encourage recycling essays where possible, but the “Why X school?” essay is the one essay that you should draft from scratch every time. Every. Time. If you can recycle a “Why X School?” essay, it’s almost certainly too broad. Admissions officers will pick up on it right away. Think you can get away with it? Be my guest. Risk the chance that an officer thinks you couldn’t be bothered to write a unique essay for somewhere you could be spending the next four years.
With all this in mind, good luck!