Guide to Essays and Interviews • Undergraduate

How to Ace the ‘Why College’ Supplemental Essay?

POSTED ON 09/22/2023 BY The Red Pen

A student writing ‘Why College’ essay

In addition to the Common Application essay, several universities in the US require college-specific essays, commonly referred to as supplemental essays. While prompts may vary, the most common supplemental essay topic is a version of why you want to study at a particular college and are known as the ‘Why College’ essay. Below, we help you understand these essays and show you how to write them well. 

What is the ‘Why College’ supplemental essay?

Admissions officers use the ‘Why College’ essay to assess your knowledge of their institution beyond its brand name. They want to ensure you are a good fit and see whether your interests align with the school’s strengths. Through this essay, they ascertain how you will contribute to campus life and whether you’d engage with college traditions. They also want to see how their institution will help you meet your goals and aspirations—will the school contribute to your future success? Is the university’s rigour suitable for you? 

How to approach the ‘Why College’ supplemental essay?

The essay has a strategic purpose. It allows you to demonstrate interest, reveal how you will utilise a college’s resources, and showcase your eagerness to enrol in a specific university. Demonstrated interest helps colleges estimate the admissions yield or the percentage of students who will enrol after securing admissions. Usually, admission is offered to those more likely to enrol. Here are a few things you should do before attempting this essay:

1) Research

The ‘Why College’ essay can quickly veer the writer into generic territories. Therefore, you must thoroughly research a college. Here are a few tips: 

  • Start with the college website: While browsing, ask yourself what makes you want to apply to a specific college—is it their campus, vision, or a particular course? Your reasons might differ depending on what each college offers. While preparing your college list, look at course requirements, faculty members, laboratory resources, and internship opportunities. 
  • Embark on campus tours: Visiting is the best way to explore a campus. Sign up for virtual campus tours if you cannot visit in person. Though you may be writing only one essay for a particular college, we recommend you take online tours at five different colleges to have some points of comparison and know what matters to you. 
  • Chat with students and read their testimonials: Students can reveal insights that college websites do not provide. Read as many student testimonials and chat with current students to get an objective view of the campus culture and unspoken rules.
  • Contact the admissions office: Most admissions offices welcome questions from aspiring applicants. Keep a set of questions ready and avoid asking about information readily available online. For example, instead of asking whether the university has an engineering programme, ask what makes their programme different or how easy or difficult it would be to do a non-major course, such as music and drama while pursuing an engineering degree. 
  • Find the major requirements: Consult the department page for the major requirements to know what your four years will look like. A thorough understanding of the academic major will help you elaborate on why you wish to pursue a specific course. 
  • Streamline your research: Create a grid and include everything you’ve researched—courses, faculty members, clubs and other opportunities. Correlate these to why you want to study at the college, what you can contribute to the institution and how specific offerings connect with your goals and interests. 
  • Subscribe to college newsletters: Some colleges, such as Columbia University, have specific publications that showcase what’s happening on campus and the research work of graduating students. 
  • Read alumni magazines: A quick Google search will help you access alumni magazines like Harvard Magazine. Reading these magazines will give you deeper insight into the college. 

2) Recognise the prompt

Don’t expect to see the ‘Why College?’ label in the essay prompt. Each university has its way of asking this question, and you’re supposed to recognise this shape-shifting question in its many forms. Let’s examine three prompts: 

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? *Max 550 words “ – University of Michigan.

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words)University of Southern California.

Please complete the following statement: “I am applying to Tufts because…” (50-100 words)*Tufts University.

All three colleges want to know why you have chosen them over others. One difference is in the number of words required to write them. However, the University of Michigan wants you to also elaborate on your choice of a specific college and curriculum. In contrast, the University of Southern California wants you to write about how you will pursue your particular major. Tufts University, on the other hand, very directly and briefly wants you to state why you want to attend the university. 

2) Personalise your essay:

Giving your ‘Why College’ essay a personal angle will make all the difference. Ask yourself why you want to pursue a specific subject—to get a job, start a venture, conduct research or solve a problem. Weave in experiences that align with your future academic interests—have you interned at an organisation or spent last summer starting a business? Did you finally get to work on a research project? Eventually, tie it all together and write about how the college can help you achieve your goals. Here are a few things you can include in your essay: 

  • Location: Universities, especially the ones in metros such as New York City, can be an opportunity to write about how living in a particular place can contribute to your growth. You can talk about the plethora of internship opportunities available or any other relevant feature of the location. For example, you may say: “Studying at the heart of Silicon Valley provides a unique opportunity to gain work experience from the world’s most renowned firms and innovative start-ups.”
  • Modules/Courses: Including details about courses you are particularly interested in studying and stating any previous experience related to that module could be a great addition to your essay. You can then elaborate on how those courses will aid your future endeavours. For example, you may say: “Courses like CS 470: Senior Project would offer real-world experience in the technological and commercial sector, where I can determine the viability of my ideas and hopefully further my reach.”
  • Facilities: Universities usually have state-of-the-art resource centres, such as laboratories, film and theatre production equipment or gymnasiums. Find out if the university has facilities for your choice of subject. For example, you may say:UMass Innovation Institute offers me the opportunity to collaborate with industry professionals developing cutting-edge technologies to automate industries. This collaboration will benefit me as I intend to bring the same advancements to my family’s steel manufacturing unit.”
  • Faculty: University faculty often includes field experts and luminaries. Attending their lectures and studying under their guidance can propel your learning experience to the next level. Furthermore, professors are usually involved in ongoing research. You can include in your essay how you hope to make meaningful contributions to their research based on your prior knowledge and current interests. For example, you may say: “I would be excited to collaborate with Dr. Jory Denny and pick his brain on robotics and artificial intelligence. His expertise in these fields will help me understand the mechanical aspects of smart prosthetics.”
  • Minor: Besides your major, some universities offer you the option to pursue a minor. If you plan on including a minor, mention your reason for doing so in your essay. For example, you may say: “As a classical dancer, dancing has been an intrinsic part of my identity. The rare opportunity to minor in dance is one of the many reasons I am excited to attend Boston University.”
  • Student clubs/organisations: Clubs are integral to college life. Outside the confines of a classroom, clubs can help you grow holistically amongst like-minded peers by developing skills like communication, teamwork, and creativity. Universities offer numerous clubs such as singing, contemporary dance, rock climbing, volunteering, and entrepreneurship. Mentioning which club you wish to join (and why) gives admissions officers insight into your character. For example, you may say: “As a mixed medium artist, I often try to encapsulate the plight of women in the society around me. I am excited to share my ideas and knowledge with my fellow artists at Brandeis Drawing Club and engender a discussion on women-centric themes.”
  • Community engagement: Community engagement is ubiquitous in colleges and universities. It will be one of the first things to tap into if you like to engage in social impact work and intend to do so in college. For example, you may say: “I organised my school’s ‘Adopt Don’t Shop’ drive. I would like to participate in similar animal welfare initiatives through the Waltham Group at Brandeis and promote adoption among my peers.”
  • Unique feature: If something is offered exclusively at a university and you wish to explore it, include it in the essay. For example, you may say: “As a student at Barnard College, I can take classes such as differential math, architecture and philosophy, giving me the advantage of a flexible liberal arts curriculum.” You can also include class size, scholarships for students, study abroad programmes, inspiring alums, college missions, internship opportunities, campus visits, or interactions with admissions officers. If your essay reads like a list of the college’s features, trash it and begin afresh. 

What not to do while you write the ‘Why College’ essay? 

1) Don’t write a puff piece: 

The ‘Why College’ essay helps admissions officers decide whether you’re a good fit for their institution. Telling them how great their institution is may come across as brown-nosing. For example, Instead of elaborating on their state-of-the-art laboratories, write about how you will use them for your academic quests.

2) Don’t turn your essay into a list of college resources:

Colleges know what they provide. Therefore, citing a long list of resources to show you’ve done your research is pointless. Instead, pick a resource and make it about you. For instance, if the Songfest tradition at the University of Southern California fascinates you, use it as your peg while giving the admissions officer a glimpse of yourself as a student at their university. 

3) Don’t be generic: 

The worst ‘Why College’ essays are the vague ones. Avoid statements such as, “I want to study at your college because of the world-class collection at the library.” Instead, if you are interested in linguistics, find out if the library has a collection of books on linguistics unique to this college and mention the same.

You may read our detailed guide on how to write supplemental essays and the ultimate guide to undergraduate courses in the US. If you need any help in researching and brainstorming, please contact us. Our essay specialists look forward to assisting you.