How to Write a Successful “Why X School?” Essay Without Ever Having Visited the Campus
Perhaps one of the most difficult essays to write when applying to colleges is the “Why X School?” Essay. Odds are, you don’t have distinct reasons to want to attend X and you haven’t even set foot on the campus. How can you possibly convince a college you want to attend when you yourself don’t even know? The first thing to note is that you’re not answering why you want to attend a school; rather, you are answering why you are a good fit for the school (and by implication if you’re a good fit then likely you should want to attend). The specific way to tackle the prompt varies with the word limit essay:
Essays Shorter Than 250 Words
If you only have 250 or fewer words to work with, you have to be short and to the point. One way to write your essay is to find a unique characteristic or essence of the school that sets it apart from others. For example: UChicago has a market-oriented economics curriculum, NYU has one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, and Tufts is extremely artsy with an eclectic range of activities. Then, your task is to show how your personality matches the unique characteristics of the school. For example: you may vociferously devour The Economist in your free time, have lived in 20 different countries, or are unable to choose between your cultural cooking classes and the debate club.
Alternatively, you may focus on a certain school’s customs or a particular theme that the school emphasizes continuously and discuss how the theme aligns with your particular academic or extracurricular interests. For example, Penn stresses the importance of an interdisciplinary education, so a great response would focus on one’s desire to study both management and international relations and the intersection between the two.
Keys for Short Responses: Do simply not name-drop professors or research unless you have demonstrated significant and impressive accomplishments in the same field as that of the research. You must also explain how you plan on working with/learning from the professor or conducting research in a particular field.
Essays Longer Than 250 Words
For longer essays, you can first expand upon any technique used in a shorter essay. For example, in a short essay you may only be able to convey that NYU’s diversity aligns with your background and career interests. However in a longer essay, you can expand upon that idea and further describe how you plan to engage with NYU’s diversity, how you will fit in the school. Draw more specifically on what you’ve done or experienced so far in high school as support.
Alternatively, you can respond to a longer essay by using a vehicle as a base for your response. An example of this is to describe a particular scene or characteristic part of a school to frame a discussion about fitting in with the institution. You don’t even need to have visited a school to correctly do this. For example: For Penn, you could use observations of students walking down Locust Walk as a vehicle for discussing some academic or social aspect of Penn such as Penn students being “more social” than those at other schools. Of course, it’s always good to qualify your observations and perhaps reflect on more sides of a school. With the Penn example, you should also note that Penn students strike a balance between being academic and social (lest you become construed as misrepresenting the school).
Keys for Long Responses: Don’t get caught up in describing some particular aspect of a school to stretch out the essay. The admissions officers don’t need you to educate them about their own institution. Instead, your goal is to focus on your fit with that aspect, something the admissions officers have not yet experienced.
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
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High school seniors applying to the University of Dallas have to share their favorite joke. Brown University wants to know the best advice applicants have ever given. Caltech wants the three adjectives friends would use to describe the applicant. Bard asks students to analyze Seneca, and the University of Chicago tells applicants to “Find x.”
These are just a few of the written statements and essays that students applying for college are being asked to complete, as schools try to find new ways to judge how creative an applicant really is, and how well he or she can write.
Of course, there is no real way to know if an applicant gets a lot of help on the essay. But a school can tell there's a problem if an essay from a student who practically failed English sounds like it was penned by Tolstoy.
High school seniors (and/or their parent) are now in the throes of college application essay writing, laboring over every word, punctuation and thought.
Do essays actually matter? Well, like just about everything else in life, it depends, according to college admissions directors. In some schools, not so much; in others, they can be the determining factor in an acceptance or a rejection.
There are some schools that just ask the basics -- Why do you want to come here? and What do you have to offer? -- but some seem to try to outdo each other and themselves each year with clever essay prompts.
And that means applicants have a lot of essays to write.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way anymore. The Common Application was developed in 1975 with the idea of easing the admissions process for students by reducing the number of separate applications a student applying to a number of colleges would have to complete. More than 410 schools now accept it.
Alas, many colleges still require forms and essays that go beyond those on the Common App. (You can see a list of colleges that accept the Common App but require more essays.) And even though it is discouraged, some applicants try to tailor Common App essays to particular schools.
The Common App essay prompts are straightforward: Applicants are asked to discuss their extracurricular activities, as well as select one of the following to write about:
- Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
- Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
- Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
- Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
- A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an
- experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Here are some of the less conventional questions students are answering:
University of Chicago
From its Web site:
The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.
Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.
As you can see by the attributions, some of the questions below were inspired by submissions by your peers.
This year’s essay questions:
Essay Option 1
Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK
Essay Option 2
Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006
Essay Option 3
Salt, governments, beliefs, and celebrity couples are a few examples of things that can be dissolved. You’ve just been granted the power to dissolve anything: physical, metaphorical, abstract, concrete... you name it. What do you dissolve, and what solvent do you use?
Inspired by Greg Gabrellas, AB 2009
Essay Option 4
“Honesty is the best policy, but honesty won’t get your friend free birthday cake at the diner.” —Overheard in the city of Chicago
Does society require constant honesty? Why is it (or why is it not) problematic to shift the truth in one’s favor, even if the lie is seemingly harmless to others? If we can be “conveniently honest,” what other virtues might we take more lightly?
Inspired by Eleanor Easton, a second-year in the College
Essay Option 5
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
Yale asks applicants to write essays, plus the following questions, to be answered in 25 words or less:
1. What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow?
2. Recall a compliment you received that you especially value. What was it? From whom did it come?
3. If you could witness one moment in history, what would it be and why?
4. What do you wish you were better at being or doing?
5. If you were choosing students to form a Yale class, what question would you ask here that we have not?
University of Dallas
Along with three conventional questions, including “What influenced you most to apply to the University of Dallas?” the school also asks: “Tell us your favorite joke or humorous anecdote.
Applications are to answer one of the following questions in 150 to 250 words:
1. People face challenges every day. Some make decisions that force them beyond their comfort levels. Maybe you have a political, social or cultural viewpoint that is not shared by the rest of your school, family or community. Did you find the courage to create a better opportunity for yourself or others? Were you able to find the voice to stand up for something you passionately supported? How did you persevere when the odds were against you?
2. If you founded your own college or university, what topic of study would you make mandatory for all students to study and why? What would be the values and priorities of your institution and why?
3. In our ever-changing society, people have defined "equity" and "community" in many different ways. How do you define these terms and what are the implications of equity and community for our 21st century society?
California Institute of Technology
Limiting yourself to the space provided, please answer the following questions. Don’t overanalyze. These aren’t trick questions and there are no wrong answers. We are interested in learning more about your personality, values, and interests. We really are looking for short answers, not essays. Sometimes a few words will do, other times you may need as much as a paragraph.
1. What are three adjectives your friends would use to describe you?
2. Please list three books, along with their authors, that have been particularly meaningful to you. You need not confine yourself to math- or science-related texts.
3. Members of the Caltech community live, learn, and work within an Honor System with one simple guideline, “No member shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” While seemingly simple, questions of ethics, honesty, and integrity are sometimes challenging. Share an ethical dilemma that challenged you. What did you do?
4. Caltech students have long been known for their quirky sense of humor and creative pranks and for finding unusual ways to have fun. What is something that you find fun or humorous?
Interest in math, science, or engineering manifests itself in many forms. Caltech professor and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988) explained, “I’d make a motor, I’d make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I’d play around with selenium”; he was exploring his interest in science, as he put it, by “piddling around all the time.” In a page, more or less, tell the Admissions Committee how you express your interest, curiosity, or excitement about math, science or engineering.
Before answering this question, you might ask those around you—family, friends, or teachers—how they see you as a mathematician, scientist or engineer. They may offer insightful observations!
Brown, among other things, asks applicants to respond to one of the following in no more than 500 words:
A. Tell us about an intellectual experience, project, class, or book that has influenced or inspired you.
B. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given, and why?
C. French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?
An essay of no more than 150 words:
Imagine that you are the director of admission at a highly selective liberal arts college and you had to choose from among a group of very well-qualified applicants. Aside from excellent academic performance, what one characteristic would be most important to you in making your decision? Why?
Choose one of the following essay options:
*One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Austrian writer and social critic Karl Kraus, famous for his provocative aphorisms, wrote “Civilization ends, since barbarians erupt from it.” Write a short commentary on what you think this might mean from your perspective 100 years later, and whether it makes any sense.
* The Roman philosopher Seneca, writing in the first century, wrote a set of letters of advice to a young friend. In the 23rd letter he wrote, "Make this your business: learn how to feel joy...true joy, believe me, is a serious thing.” Write a short response to these thoughts, indicating if you wish, the extent to which you may have come to realize that Seneca was right.
* Submit a graded analytical paper (a thousand words or less) written in your junior or senior year (transfer candidates: from a college class). The submitted paper must include the teacher/professor comments, grade, and assignment.
A required personal statement in no more than 300 words:
Imagine looking through a window at any environment that is particularly significant to you. Reflect on the scene, paying close attention to the relation between what you are
seeing and why it is meaningful to you.
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