Make “Why this college?” about you

Of all the questions on college applications, any version of “Why are you interested in attending this college?” could well be the one students struggle with most. It’s easy if you’re the rare student who’s interested in a major or program that very few other colleges offer. But most students don’t have their interest narrowed down that specifically. And that’s why so many applicants end up either expressing vague generalities like “You have a great reputation, top professors, and a beautiful campus,” or composing a list of specific features that they obviously just looked up on the college’s website, like “You have an 11-1 student-faculty ratio.” Neither of those approaches gets you closer to admission.

The best answers to this type of question have a lot more to do with you than they do with the college, and here’s why. The colleges are asking not just because they want to know if you’re a good fit. Even more importantly, they also want to know how likely you’d be to accept an offer of admission if one were extended to you.

Let me propose a scenario to better explain this to students who read this blog.

Imagine you received five invitations to the prom, each from someone you’d genuinely like to go with. You can only say yes to one, but here’s the catch—you’re not the only person each is asking. You have no real way of knowing who genuinely wants to go with you and who’s just playing the odds. You could be the first choice, the backup, or somewhere in-between.

In case this admittedly stretched analogy is failing, let me be clear—they’re the college applicants, you’re the college.

One way to get a sense of who would be most likely to take you up on your acceptance might be to ask, “Tell me more about why you’d like to go to the prom with me.”

Which of these two responses makes you feel more confident that they’d say yes to you if you said yes to them?

You have a reputation as a high-achieving student. You have a good GPA, you’ve participated in lots of activities, and you take four AP classes. You also were named all-league in both tennis and basketball, you’ve won a lot of department awards at school, and I heard that you’ve already started to win some college scholarship money. You have a part-time job, so I think you’ll be able to help pay for prom expenses. Finally, you eat salads at lunch a lot, which is a lot healthier than many other lunch options.

You might be flattered. It’s nice to hear someone say positive things about you. But this person just told you a lot about something you already knew well—yourself. And you’ve still got no sense why or if they really want to go to the prom with you.

Contrast that with this response:

I’m not a social risk-taker. I don’t go to the crazy parties, so I’m not looking to sneak booze into the prom or do anything else that so many other people are talking about doing. I just want to go with someone I like, dance, take some pictures, and have a fun night with our mutual friends that we can look back on and smile about. It’s our prom, and it’s a big deal. I think it can be a lot of fun without doing something that will get us in trouble three weeks before we graduate. I don’t know you well, but we’ve talked enough that I think you’re someone who might want the same thing. So if you want to go with me, I’d love to take you. I think we’d make a great prom night couple.

See the difference? Whether or not that description appeals to you is up to you. But you know where this person stands. You know a little more about them and why they think you’re a good prom match. And most importantly, their response gives you a sense that they might welcome a yes from you.

When you answer a “Why this college?” question, it’s fine to describe aspects of that college that appeal to you. And if you’ve found something specific—a major, a program, a professor, etc. that matches something you’re genuinely looking for in a college, say so! They’re asking, after all.

But remember that admissions officers don’t need you to tell them about the place they work. They want you to tell them about you, what you are looking for in a college, and why you both could be a good fit together.

There are times when it’s OK to make something about you. Answering a “Why this college?” question is one of those times.