Why Are You Applying to This College – And Other College-Specific Essay Questions

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: June 21, 2021

What does it take to write a good supplemental essay that responds to the prompt, “Why are you applying to this college?”and other college-specific questions? It takes planning, and two of the best planning techniques are to doing some research and brainstorming. Take a few minutes to understand how the question may be tied to the college’s mission statement. Each of the five supplemental essay types listed below asks you to consider how your own values stack up against those of the college. What experience(s) can you share with the college that will demonstrate how you will take advantages of the college’s unique resources and your potential contribution to the campus community? Does at least one anecdote share a particular value that aligns with the college’s values?

Let’s talk about the research you need to do to begin unpacking what the college is asking. After August 1, you’ll have access to the Common App to search for this year’s essay questions that you’ll need to answer – although some of them are likely to be released later in the summer or into the early fall. Beware: some additional essay questions may be “released” when you choose a specific college within the university or when you choose a specific major. Just add these extra essays to your spreadsheet as they pop up. Spreadsheet? Yes. Set one up with these columns:

  • Name of College
  • Application Deadline
  • Values in Mission
  • Essay or Short answer Question(s)
  • Word or Character Limit
  • Your anecdote and values demonstrated

By creating the spreadsheet as part of your planning, you’ll see which essay topics overlap, saving you time by “repurposing your content”: very often, you can use the same response, with minor changes, for more than one school! The anecdotes on your spreadsheet should reveal the “chapters” of your life that tell your unique and compelling college story as it related to the university and/or potential major.

Student Speaking with College Rep

Colleges use their essay questions as a way to get to know even more about you and your potential match to them. You can prepare for these essays by taking a deep dive into the college’s website and its official and unofficial social media postings, and during in-person or virtual college visits, by asking lots of specific questions about majors, professors, and campus life. With your list of essay questions in mind, you should also approach reps at college fairs and at other one-on-one visits to your school or region. Ask probing, specific questions relevant to the prompts that will help you gather information to use in your written responses.

Each of the essay questions below is asking this same question in a different way: “Why do you want to attend this college?” Your essay should build a bridge between your experiences, values, and goals, and what the college offers.

Here are some factors to consider as you brainstorm for each essay:

  • How do you fit in?
  • What college resources are available that relate to your interests?
  • What resources will help you attain your goal?
  • How well do you know this college? (Be specific about professors, classes, majors, academic opportunities offered: departmental projects, research, internships, coops, study abroad, extracurriculars, and campus life activities)
  • What’s important to you and why?
  • What can you share with the admissions reader that doesn’t appear elsewhere in your application?
  • What do your anecdotes say about your values, character, impact and how you interact with the world around you?
  • What does your overall essay say about you as a college student?

In case you were wondering, here’s a list of the most common supplementary essays, followed by a few colleges that love to ask for them!

The Community/Diversity Essay

When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?

Colleges known to ask the community question: Boston College, MIT, U Michigan, Macalester, U Colorado, Boulder, NYU, Amherst, Cal Tech, Columbia, Duke, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Tufts, UNC-Chapel Hill, U Penn, UT Austin, U Vermont, U Washington, Villanova

The Quirky Question

The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used. (University of Chicago)

Colleges known to ask quirky questions: U Chicago; Cal Tech, Cornell, UVA, UGeorgia, U Vermont, Williams, Oberlin

The Intellectually Curious Essay

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that has developed over time...what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (200 words Carnegie Mellon)

Colleges known to ask the Curious Question: Barnard, Boston College, Columbia, Dartmouth, Haverford, Stanford, Swarthmore, Tufts, U California, U Chicago, U Penn, Wash U, Yale

The Why This Major Essay

With the understanding that you are able to change Colleges at Lehigh after one year, please briefly describe why you choose to apply to the College or major you selected above. (Lehigh, 200 words)

Colleges known to ask the major question: Most!

Extracurricular Essay

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150-400 words)

Colleges known to ask the Extracurricular Question: MIT, U Colorado, Cal Tech, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Stanford, UT Austin, U Vermont

Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy, suggests that you use a Venn diagram to find a “super topic” that can be used with several colleges.

  • Choose a significant achievement or passion project that might work for a super topic
  • Brainstorm to identify a topic that works for a few prompts
  • Ask yourself:
    • What did I do?
    • What problem did I solve?
    • What lessons did I learn?
    • What skills did I gain?
    • What impact did I have (on others or on myself); quantify if possible?
    • How did I apply what I learned?
College Essay Diagram

Before you hurry off to write your essays, take a moment to consider these few, common mistakes that you must avoid:

  • Non-specific: Make sure your essay is written specifically for one particular college. Use the specific terminology that the college uses. Is it “major” or is it “area of concentration”? Does this college refer to its new students as “freshmen” or as “first years”? By employing such specific details, the college knows you are not confusing it with another college on your list, and that you’ve done your homework.
  • Incorrect information: Ensure that the information in your essay is correct! Don’t lead with, “I can see myself in the stands with my friends on a cool, crisp fall day waiting for the homecoming game to begin” if you’re addressing the University of Miami!
  • Ending with a cliche, especially the wrong one: Writing to SMU, “I can’t wait to become a Badger!” Bucky the Badger is the mascot at University of Wisconsin, not Southern Methodist!
  • Brevity: When answering an essay with a small word count, be sure you use enough words to answer the question completely.
  • Writing about the school’s size, location, weather, or reputation: Colleges are academic institutions, they want to hear strong, specific, goal centered reasons why you wish to attend their college. The readers already know the generalizations regarding their campus. You’ll have to dig lots deeper to make an impression.

You’ll know that you have a thorough and complete “Why this college essay?” if you can review your work and find evidence of college specific programs, majors, activities, and professors. Make sure that you’ve cited 2-3 personal reasons why you want to attend the college, how the college will help you achieve your goals, and how you can contribute to the campus community.

Finally, make sure that each time you cite a reason, program, professor or resource offered by the college, you connect it back to your experience and values. By using the essay spreadsheet and examining the prompts, you’ll be able to save time by spotting topics that overlap and using the same anecdote to answer more than one college’s essay. Researching and writing these supplemental essays can be the most daunting part of the application process. Depending on the colleges you choose, that might mean you have 20-30 essays to write, but by using a system to keep track of the topics, deadlines and overlaps, you’ll really make the job manageable. If you need more helpful tips to get you through the application process, check out our Complete Guide to Applying to College.

Take it from us: we’ve successfully helped thousands of students simplify the college application process and write convincing essays. Contact us for guidance to create winning applications.

Topics: Common Application


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