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Decoding Common College Application Prompts Series (Part 1): ‘Why This College’ Essay

Some advice on writing the 'Why This College' essay--It's not just about the prestige, the rankings, or the money.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: It’s too early to be thinking about this. Summer’s not over yet. I’m about to start senior year. I just want one tiny shred of happiness before I dive into this mess…

Even though application deadlines are months away, it’s never too early to start drafting your essays–particularly the “Why This College” kind. Within time, I will be writing a series of articles on common college essay prompts and how to approach them. This prompt is arguably the most difficult to write well, especially when you’re applying to multiple schools. If you’re broke like me, you might just be tempted to say “College X is amazing because it’s prestigious and gives me money”. But schools have their own unique culture, values, and opportunities. Your essays should reflect on those qualities.

Image from Flickr Creative Commons

What is a “Why This College” prompt?

They have variations –some have seemingly extraneous details– but they’re basically asking the same question. Why do you want to come here? What is it about our institution that compels you to apply? What do we have that can help you accomplish your goals? What will you contribute to our community? These are some questions that you can think about as you brainstorm your essay.

Here are some examples of “Why This College?” prompts from previous years. I’ve dissected these examples to offer insight on approach.

“Why Brown, and why the Brown Curriculum? (200 words)” (2)

Notice that they’ve added “and why the Brown Curriculum.” It didn’t used to be this way until recently, and it’s implied that its famed Open Curriculum was an extremely common topic to talk about. The addendum also speaks a lot about their academic culture and their value of freedom in student learning. Why does that academic culture appeal to you? You have to also ask, “What else about Brown?”.

“Why do you wish to attend Colorado College and how would you contribute to our community?” (recommended length: 2-3 paragraphs, maximum 250 words) (1)

This one is a slight variation because it’s explicitly not only about why this college but also why you. Why do you belong in their community and what can you offer? With Colorado College’s Block Plan, you don’t spend a lot of time in class each day. What would you do during that free time? How would you use their resources?

“What motivated you to apply to Rice University? Please be specific.” (250 word limit) (2)

This is a pretty straightforward “Why This College” prompt that actually guides you a bit. What about Rice made you want to apply? Its tight-knit community? A professor you’re dying to learn from? A video from an extracurricular group you can’t stop watching?  It might be easier to approach a ‘what’ than a ‘why.’

“Each Sunday night, in a tradition called Storytime, students, faculty and staff gather to hear a fellow community member relate a brief story from their life (and to munch on the storyteller’s favorite homemade cookies). What story would you share? What lessons have you drawn from that story, and how would those lessons inform your time at Williams?” (300 or fewer) (3)

This prompt is a little tricky because it’s loaded with a lot of elements, but that last line tells you why they are asking this. In its core, this is a more concentrated “Why you?” And it wants you to answer it in the form of a story or past experience. You can certainly approach “Why This College” prompts through a narrative, but it’s not often a requirement. These prompts are typically more straightforward and open-ended so you won’t be seeing these often.


These are only a few examples, but each “Why This College” prompt wants to be dissected with the same depth as the rest. You want to be able to distinguish each school from each other if you’re applying to multiple schools. And the key to that is research–and a few months is enough time to give you depth in your responses.

Image from Flickr Creative Commons 

How to Familiarize Yourself With Your College(s)?

  1. Campus Visits/Fly-In Programs – Easily the best way to get to know your colleges. Having access to campus and opportunities to talk to students and professors is valuable. You’re able to get a better sense of what it’s like being a student there and consider factors that weren’t even on your radar. If you can’t afford travel, a few colleges offer fly-in programs during the school year to open up that opportunity. If you want to learn more about these opportunities, check out Merrina Lan’s article on campus visits for more information.
  2. College Website – If you want to learn about your colleges, you can access more than enough information on their websites. And trust me–you won’t be able to go through all those websites in a day.
  3. Social Media – Most schools have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts. Plus, schools also have separate pages for academic departments, offices, and student groups if you’re interested in specific areas . Highly recommend checking these out if you haven’t already.
  4. Admission Blogs – These were some of my favorite sources to go to because you get a fresh perspective from students who go there without actually being there. The school website and social media market its selling points, but current students will usually tell you like it is.
  5. School Newspaper Websites (Ex: Harvard Crimson, Yale Daily News) – If you want something a little more honest than admission blogs and keep up to date with student life, school news gives some pretty good insight.
  6. Review Sites – Sites like Niche, Unigo, College Confidential (god forbid) are pretty useful for getting unique perspectives on the college (alumni, professors, other students, etc.) that range from honest/accurate to borderline-hate-speech/ridiculous. With these sites, proceed with caution.


Even if you can’t visit the campus, there are tons of options you can still explore to get to know these colleges. Don’t be afraid to reach out to admissions or a current student if you have questions–either at campus or online. It might help you dispel some of your concerns and reinforce reasons why you want to attend in the first place. Additionally, these talks could help supplement your essays.

Tips: Do’s and Don’ts with the ‘Why This College’ Essay

DO – spend a lot of time brainstorming. Write out a list of reasons (even if they seem stupid), draw a picture of the campus, write out your fantasies of being a student there–anything to get the creative juices flowing.

DON’T – copy and paste the same essay for each college. Admission officers recognize generic, copy-paste essays when they see it. It would be especially awkward if you pour your heart out about Harvard to a Yale admissions officer – and last I checked Harvard doesn’t need a ‘Why this College’ essay.

DO – allocate time for research because that’s the hardest part. If you’re applying to 6+ schools and you haven’t started, start now. Especially when fly-in season is coming up.

DON’T – write about these topics: prestige, rankings, the beautiful architecture, and the location. That’s flattery at best. Prestige might still be a part of it, but if you strip away all those other factors, what’s left?

DO – apply to as many fly-ins as possible. Fly-ins are fairly selective and one of their application essays often involve a variation of  the ‘Why This College’ prompt. It’s good practice if nothing else and if you get accepted, well, there’s nothing wrong with missing school to get a paid trip to another part of the country.

DON’T – procrastinate. If you had to procrastinate on essays, don’t let it be essays with these prompts. Know your limits and your time. If you think you can write a pretty good Why This College essay in two weeks, go ahead. Just don’t do it the night before.


Some Ideas You Can Write About – Leading Questions

  • Are there any specific extracurriculars/student groups you’re interested in? Have you done these activities in the past? How do you want to pursue them at College X? Why College X specifically?
  • Are there any professors you want to learn from? Does their work interest you? Is their work similar to what you’ve done in the past/currently?
  • Is there a specific approach in your desired field of interest?
  • Do their values resonate with you?
  • What is so compelling about their student culture/life? How do you see yourself contributing to that student life?
  • Is there something you want to start on campus? How can College X help you achieve that?


The ‘Why This College’ essay may seem intimidating at first, but it’s an essay that gauges school fit. Is the school the right fit for you? Yes? Then prove it. Admission officers love prospective students who are most likely going to commit to their school – just as students love schools who are more likely going to admit them. It goes both ways, and this essay helps find those people. When it comes down to applicants with the same stats, same excellent track records, but varying interests in the college, it’s clear who’ll be crying tears of joy on decision day.



“Apply to Colorado College.” Colorado College,

ISDeveloper. “Welcome.” The Common Application, 16 June 2017, (I used prompts from the 2017-2018 Common Application supplements)

“Williams Writing Supplement.” Admission,

1 comment on “Decoding Common College Application Prompts Series (Part 1): ‘Why This College’ Essay

  1. Pingback: The Road I am Taking to College Admissions: August – The Student Scientist

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