Demonstrated interest has become increasingly important at many colleges, as they try to predict yield, which is the number of admitted students who enroll in the college. Since the Common Application makes it easy for students to apply to a dozen or more schools, many colleges have added supplemental essays, in addition to the college essay, in the hope that students who are willing to do the additional work are seriously interested in the school. One of the most common supplemental essays is some version of “Why are you applying to our college?”
I have seen hundreds of the “Your university offers outstanding academic programs in a dynamic urban location with great access to internships” essay. It is a very efficient approach, since students can just change the name of the college and use the same essay for each application.
It is also a very ineffective approach. If the same essay can be sent to different colleges, you are not answering the prompt, which asks why you and this college are a good match. After students have spent many hours perfecting the main college application essay, I can understand the urge to rush through these extra essays and be done with the applications.
But this is an opportunity to set yourself apart from all the other applicants who dash off a generic essay. This question should prompt students to research the school and think about whether it is in fact a good fit.
Flattering the college is not a good strategy. Neither is telling admissions officers what they already know about their school. You don’t need to tell University of Pennsylvania that Wharton School is one of the top business schools in the country. You do need to tell them what unique academic programs, research opportunities, and extracurricular activities make Wharton a perfect fit for your background, interests and goals.
The first step in responding to this prompt is to spend time on the college website. If you plan to major in political science, read about the course offerings and look for any unusual programs and opportunities. Does the school have a polling institute that uses undergraduates to conduct interviews? Have many students completed internships with local government agencies? Does the school offer a Washington semester for students who want to study in the nation’s capital?
The student life section of the college website should list clubs and organizations. If there are any unusual clubs that sound especially interesting, you can name them. Again, the focus should be on why this club is perfect for you. Perhaps you have been on your high school debate team and you are excited about this college’s winning debate team.
You can also access a school newspaper online, and if you read it regularly, you will learn what groups are active on campus and what issues are being discussed in the campus community. How do you see yourself contributing to this community?
Reading about a school’s programs and talking with current or former students is the kind of research students should be doing before deciding to apply to a college, but very few invest the time that’s required to really understand what a college has to offer and whether it is a good fit.
Writing this essay is an opportunity to make sure that each of the colleges on your list is right for you. It is true that if you know you want a small liberal arts college, many of the schools on your list will have similar characteristics. But you should still be able to find something specific that appeals to you at each school. If you can’t think of anything that excites you about the college, you still have time to revise your list.