Embrace the “Why”! : Learning to Love the Why _______ College? Supplemental Essay


“Maybe you’re having trouble writing the “Why?” essay because you don’t actually want to go to this college?” I remarked to the frustrated senior in front of me. Silence. More silence. Then a half-smile and nod.

So we took that college off the list. While this answer seemed obvious to me based on the conversation that preceded it, it hadn’t occurred to the student that this might be the reason behind her struggle to craft the perfect “Why?” essay for the college in question.

In fact, I’ve had many versions of this conversation over my years as a college counselor. And I understand why. It’s often the case that there’s not a lot of time to step back and really think about the bigger picture of THE LIST and the reason behind every college on it in the swirl of college essay writing, looming deadlines, and everything else students do in addition to applying to college. But there should be.

Enter the “Why ____ College?” essay – the bane of many students’ Common App supplements.

Don’t hate me, but I’ll confess: I love this question. I wish every college would ask it because it gives students permission to stop and think. Or at least it can.

The reactions to the “Why ____ college?” essay essentially boil down to three basic categories:

1) “They don’t give me enough space to write everything I love!”

2) “This is SOOO annoying! Why do they make us talk about that? I have no idea what to write.”

3) “Is it really bad that I just wrote one version and replaced the name of the college in every one?”

Before any of these reactions makes you to run away from applying to a college that asks why you want to be there, consider that this can actually be a wonderful opportunity. And here are some tips for mastering the “Why?” essay:

1) Try to view this as one detail you can control in what can sometimes feel like an out-of-control process.Electronic applications (in multiple forms!). Comparisons to “other applicants.” Baffling admissions statistics and criteria. A lot about this process can seem faceless and out of your power at times. But the thought you put into the “Why?” essay is one thing you can control. Rather than just another box to check, this essay is a chance to add some thoughtfulness and purpose to your application process.

2) Consider writing the “Why?” essay even if it’s not asked. What?! More writing??? Actually, writing a short summary of what compels you to apply to a certain college be a great way to sort out your thoughts. Remember, you should really want to write this essay for a college that you’re hoping to have the opportunity to attend! If you don’t want to do this for every college that doesn’t ask the question, at least consider it for the college(s) you’re considering as ED/EA options.

3) Take good notes when you research colleges. Let’s face it…all of the colleges start to get jumbled together in your mind after a while. If you take a moment to write down a few specific things that you like and don’t like about every college as you visit the campus – or learn about it in another way like a college fair or virtual tour – that can really help you write the “Why?” essay later. A good old-fashioned paper notebook can be a fantastic investment here but there are also a ton of apps – like Evernote – that can help.

4) Add specifics for that college only. Go back to those great notes you’ve been taking during your research. Learn more if you need to. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be able to write one “Why?” essay and then just replace the name of the college for every school that asks this question.

5) Focus on what you know. If you need a jump-start, ask yourself: What have you loved about high school? How does this college help you continue to build on it? What do you want to change for the next step? How will this college help you do that?

6) Think about why you want to go to college overall. Whoa. That can be an even harder question to tackle. But it’s an important one. If you don’t have an answer to it – or at least one that you can easily put into words – let me suggest scheduling an appointment to talk this through with your college counselor.

And, seriously, after all this…if you still can’t write the “Why ____ College?” essay, be honest with yourself. You just might not really want to go to that school. And that’s ok too.


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