One of the most straightforward but still difficult questions students see on a college application is the ‘Why us?’ question.

Why Stanford? Why Princeton University’s College of Engineering?

This question is obviously harder to answer for students who haven’t had the opportunity to visit a college and experience it firsthand. And it’s impossible to answer adequately without doing some research.

Why This College Essay: Avoid This One Common Mistake!

There are pitfalls that will trip up even the students who have done due diligence and know what they’re talking about. Let’s look at one common mistake. One student essay I read said the following:

There isn’t a particular person who prompted my interest in Brown.

While we were touring schools, my dad announced that our next stop was “Brown.” However, after visiting the campus and meeting its students, I discovered the vibrancy and brilliance that give Brown an unmistakable identity.

There is little to object to about the writing itself. This student has obviously carefully crafted these sentences, thinking hard about word choice, phrasing, and flow.

The problem lies in what is being said.

Any student can talk about the “vibrancy and brilliance” of Brown—even the student who knows nothing about Brown except that it’s a well-known school! This essay utterly fails to explain why Brown is a great fit for this particular student. It offers no specifics about why Brown is alluring to the student and what the student offers to Brown.

The next excerpt succeeds where the first failed:

‘Comparative Health Systems: Hong Kong,’ taught by Professor Kagan, merges my work at the San Francisco Department of Public Health with my love for the city of Hong Kong. I’ve been able to actively compare the two systems during my internship. While working in the San Francisco Department of Public Health the summer before my senior year, I wrote a basic lesson plan on nutrition to teach at an English summer camp in Guangdong Province, China. There, I experienced firsthand the differences between the knowledge of the students in China and the knowledge of the students in California.

This was written by a student applying to the University of Pennsylvania. Notice how the student used his own personal experiences and academic interests to explain why he was interested specifically in U Penn. He was able to point admissions officers to the specifics of his own profile without straying away from the scope of the “Why U Penn” question.

Also, by referring to Professor Kagan’s class, this student showed that he had done quite a bit of research about U Penn. He had obviously read through the course catalog, envisioned himself at U Penn and thought about which of the many concrete opportunities that only U Penn had, of which he would most take advantage. This student had thought seriously about where to go to college.

His decision wasn’t based just on the name value of the school; he had deep-seated reasons to apply to U Penn, which made it likely that he’d accept an offer of admission if it were made.

Another cautionary note for the Why This College Essay

A note of warning. The particular tactic of naming one specific course is catching on and becoming rather too common. It’s certainly not the right approach for everyone, although it might still be the right approach for some. The best thing for students to do is not to worry too much about fads, but also not to model their answers on anyone else’s.

Students should visualize themselves at the university, pretend they get to select courses or join in activities or explore the surrounding city, and see what truly captures their imagination.

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