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Crash course: How to write a great “Why School” essay

writing why school essay

For our students applying to a long list of schools, the “Why School” essay can be one of the most challenging parts of the essay process. Unlike other prompts, this one cannot be recycled across schools—and if you’re applying to 10 schools or more, these drafts can accumulate into a major time sink.

But while these essays are usually short, they can make the difference in putting your application over the line at competitive universities. It’s worth the time to do them right… here’s how.

Understand why colleges ask this question. They are not including this prompt to make more work for you (after all, reading it creates more work for them, too!). Schools ask this because they need to protect something called the yield rate. That’s the percentage of students who accept the school’s offer of admission and matriculate there, and it’s an important factor that affects the school’s prestige, financial stability, and ability to attract highly qualified students. So, colleges want to admit students that they believe will accept their offer—and the Why School essay is one way they try to ascertain this. If you can show enthusiasm for the school and convince them that they’re your first choice, the Why School essay can increase your chances of acceptance.

Research the school. The Prospective Students part of a school’s website is a good place to start, but you’ll need to go beyond this area to write a great Why School essay. Check out online information about specific departments, professors, student organizations, and unique resources at the university. For instance, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books Library and Directed Studies program are unlike any resource at other schools, and they’ll be of great interest to humanities majors. You can also look at the student newspaper, and don’t be afraid to go back in time a bit as you peruse the articles. This can be a valuable way to get an unvarnished look at a school’s culture—a perfect supplement to the university’s official marketing materials.

Discuss topics that are unique to the school—and to you. The essay will stand out if you write on topics that other applicants won’t write about. For example, a common cliche in Why School essays is to discuss “studying with world-renowned professors.” However, all elite colleges employ world-renowned professors, so this does nothing to explain why you prefer the target school over a competitor. Also avoid discussing resources that may be specific to the school, but that all students will benefit from—for example, a residential college system or sunny weather.

So, what should you discuss instead?

Relate the school’s resources to your personal interests and goals. The truth is that many colleges offer similar benefits to their students—career services offices, clubs related to your major, study abroad, and undergraduate research programs are all standard at elite schools. If you want to write about one of these resources, focus on what makes it different from the same program at competing schools, and a perfect fit for you as an individual. For example, a study-abroad program in an unusual country, whose content directly relates to your career goals, is a much stronger discussion point than writing about study abroad opportunities in general. Perhaps many schools offer research opportunities, but one professor at your target school is doing work that’s closely related to your academic interests. Mention that professor by name and share why you’d love to work with them. (Professors’ bio pages on their department website usually include their research interests.)

In crafting a Why School essay, nothing can replace good research—and there’s no way to rush this. Our best advice is to start early and to always keep your eye on not just why your target school is great, but why it’s great for you.

At College Choice Counseling®, our counselors and tutors are here to help you with college counseling, college essay and application help, test prep tutoring, and academic subject tutoring. Reach out we’ll help you succeed!

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