Understanding, Framing, and Conquering the Most Common Supplemental Essay Prompt: “Why Do You Want to Attend Our College?”

August 26, 2022
College Admissions
College Essays

Many universities pay significantly close attention to an element of college applications often overlooked by students: why, and to what extent, a student is interested in attending a particular school. This is especially true for schools in the higher echelons of selectivity, generally those with acceptance rates of 30% and below. For colleges accepting applications primarily through the Common and Coalition App portals, supplemental essays represent the only school-specific part of the evaluation process. Every other aspect, from extracurriculars to recommendation letters, is part of a standardized system.

So, when looking at supplemental essays through this lens, it is easy to see how important these college-specific essay responses can be. And while there are a multitude of supplemental essay prompts and requirements depending on the university, one stands out in terms of both its frequency and the level of insight it can provide admissions officers in making meaningful distinctions between applicants. It is the prompt asking, “Why do you want to attend our college?”

This question may seem simple and straightforward enough, but there are many important steps to take and factors to consider when researching, outlining, and writing a response. We’ve outlined some of them here to help students and parents better understand how to navigate this question.

Start by Clearly Defining Your College Interests and Requirements

The first step on the path to writing a compelling response to the “why our school?” supplemental essay prompt is to have established a well-defined list of college criteria that you can effectively align with particular schools. Whether it be coursework, specialized degree programs, location, or the quality of career services support, students need to know what their academic and extracurricular priorities are in order to formulate a deliberate and targeted college list.  A well-planned college list is essential to an effective admissions strategy and will also serve as a solid jumping-off point and guide for this supplemental question.

Do Your Homework

Once you’ve established your priorities and decided to apply to a given school, you can take one of the next most important steps in responding effectively to the question of “why?": conducting thorough research on the school’s website. Most students understand this is imperative, but what is less understood is the type and level of detail necessary for crafting a strong response.

Students often believe brief references to courses, the campus, and their interest in a certain degree are sufficient in demonstrating a sincere interest in a school. This type of response, however, offers nowhere near the level of depth or breadth expected from admissions officers, who are reading and evaluating to see exactly how much time and thought students put into their response. In this case, doing your homework means engaging in deeper, more deliberate reflection and research to identify the most enticing characteristics of a school and why they are meaningful to you.

When discussing coursework and research, focus on which unique academic opportunities distinguish a given school from others with similar offerings. Outside of academics, if community service and involvement are important considerations, for instance, become acquainted with the programs and initiatives the college provides. If it is a robust internship and career support program that is important to you, identify some of the particular aspects of these services you find most appealing. Regardless of what features drive your interest, your homework should be done thoroughly enough to glean precise, detailed information from a school’s website that you can use strategically in your essay.

The Importance of Specificity

The need for specificity isn’t limited to the individual qualities a school possesses that align with your interests and future goals. It’s also important to articulate precisely why they compel you to seek admission. There are literally thousands of universities in the U.S., many with a litany of similarities between them. So, while it can be challenging to home in on the very distinctive qualities and opportunities each possesses, you must avoid falling into the trap of writing in vague, general terms that offer little to no true insight into why a given school is of such great interest. The extra effort you put in so that you can discuss the correlation between the distinct elements of a given school’s programs and services and your own interests will be worth it. This kind of specificity is essential to an effective and compelling supplemental essay that will impress admissions officers and persuade them you are the right fit for their school.

In Summary

Supplemental essays play an important role in the admissions process. With the increased volume of applications to more selective colleges over the last several years, your responses to these prompts can go a long way in distinguishing you from other applicants. Be prepared to answer the question of why you are interested in a particular college, most likely several times over. Allocate a fair amount of time to doing meaningful research that provides you with a strong sense of the school’s specific features, programs, and opportunities.

In your response explain with nuance, serious contemplation, and detail how these elements of a school align with your own interests and goals and the ways in which you will make the most of this synergy.  Remember to be true to yourself, avoid generalities and clichés, and focus on the specifics of what makes you a great fit for the school. When possible, highlight attributes on which the school prides itself. By showing admissions officers in a thoughtful way why their school is special to you, in turn, you will convince them that you are the type of special student they are seeking.