How it works: identify one core value that links you to the school and tell a story.
This approach might be good for:
Schools that a) have shorter “Why this College” essays and b) seem to be asking for this type of response
Students who feel approaches #1 and #2 might blend in too much, and are willing to take a risk
Why is this a risky approach?
You’re foregoing listing 5-15 reasons that connect you to the school (and, frankly, that some admission officers like to see)
This approach hinges on a particular story, value, or insight. And if:
your reader is skimming (as many are), or
your story isn’t well-told, or
the central theme or value isn’t clear, or
the insight doesn’t make the reader feel something… the essay may not work.
That’s a lot of ifs! Having said that, here’s an example essay that, I think, does work:
The Why Bowdoin “Why this College” Essay Example
Prompt: Bowdoin students and alumni often cite world-class faculty and opportunities for intellectual engagement, the College’s commitment to the Common Good, and the special quality of life on the coast of Maine as important aspects of the Bowdoin experience. (Word limit: 250)
Reflecting on your own interests and experiences, please comment on one of the following:
1. Intellectual engagement
2. The Common Good
3. Connection to place
On the first dawn of the summer, I found myself in a familiar place: sitting awkwardly in the back of a crowded bus full of rowdy twelve year olds. But this time around, I wasn’t the shy, new kid at school, a position I knew all too well. I was the teacher, implementing a middle school aquatic ecology curriculum I’d developed the year before.
As New Jersey’s Passaic River appeared on the horizon, I tightened the red laces on my Merrell hiking boots and checked my bag: clipboards, lesson plans, and a new water testing kit.
For the entire day, I watched as twenty-five young minds tested the Passaic River’s water. Using the river as a natural learning laboratory, I taught them about pollution and industrialization, urban design and remediation strategies.
That summer, through my work in environmental education, I discovered the power of place. I realized that in a changing world, places really are the best storytellers. By tracking the Passaic’s pollution levels, we toured the tales of its waters, beginning with its use by the Lenape Native Americans, to its unjust usurpation by European hegemons, to the Vietnam War, during which tons of Agent Orange were dumped recklessly.
At Bowdoin, I’ll encounter this again. I find myself doing the very thing I was teaching: investigating the rich stories behind a place. As part of my major in Earth and Oceanographic Science, I blissfully get lost on Orr’s Island, researching everything from the historical ecology to the changing geography of the Maine coastline. And I can’t wait.
Why does this essay work?
This author checks a few “Why us?” boxes by focusing on specifics, showing us he’s done his research, and clearly answering the prompt. But want to know the main thing that sets this essay apart?
The author found a deep connection between one of the school’s core values and one of his own.
I know this flies in the face of the “provide a whole bunch of specific reasons” for your essay that I mentioned in Approach #1. Instead, the author found one really good reason: Both he and Bowdoin are deeply committed to investigating place. This focus was particularly apropos for this student, as he planned to major in Environmental Science. And, as you read this essay you sense that it couldn’t have been written for another prompt.
Because he used a value as the central theme, this essay is primarily about the author. Check out that word count: the essay is 258 words long, but he doesn’t even mention the school until word 202.
This works because he stays connected to the central themes, which are nature and storytelling. In fact, if in your essay we don’t get a sense of the central themes in the first 200 words, we might wonder, “Where is this going?”
Instead, though, we feel as we read this essay that the author is taking us somewhere. He’s a guide we trust. So we relax.
How can you write an essay like this?
1. Find a way in which you and the school are deeply aligned.
Hint: It’s probably a value.
It’ll take some research. And it may be easier to do this with a smaller liberal arts school (like Bowdoin) that has a particular character. Reed College, for example, is proud to call its students “Reedies”–even going so far as to call them a particular species–so, for Reed, you might figure out what being a “Reedie” means to you, then demonstrate why you are without a doubt one of them.
2. Take your time crafting the essay.
What do I mean? I believe a great “Why this College” essay is similar to a great personal statement in that it should demonstrate:
Core values (which this essay does)
Insight (aka important and interesting connections, aka “so what” moments)
Craft (it should be obvious, in other words, that the author has revised the essay over several drafts and knows the purpose of each paragraph, sentence, and word)
And because the Bowdoin essay above essentially focuses on just one important and interesting connection (connection to place), I believe that craft becomes a LOT more important. In other words: this essay would be much less awesome if it were much less beautiful.
What do I mean by beautiful? Read it aloud. Note phrases like, “Using the river as a natural learning laboratory” and “places really are the best storytellers.” The writer even makes water testing kits sound like exciting tools of a real-life adventurer, as essential to the author as an explorer’s compass (and when I read this essay I’m convinced they are)!
How do you get to this point? I think you have to really love the thing you’re writing about. I also think (if I’m being honest) that you have to love to write, or at least to convince yourself you do.
This approach takes time. But it’s worth it. Why? I believe this is the type of essay that, particularly at a small liberal arts college, can truly make a difference. I have only anecdotal evidence–stories from a few admissions officers–to prove it, but in some cases I believe essays like this have tipped the scales in favor of a particular student.
3. Find a way to be vulnerable.
This part is perhaps the most difficult, but most crucial. Let me explain:
I mentioned above that a great “Why us?” essay should demonstrate a) important and interesting questions and b) craft. But there’s a third quality that I think a great personal statement should have, and that a “Why us?” essay can, in rare instances, demonstrate. That quality is vulnerability.
How does the Bowdoin essay above show vulnerability? He lets his geekiness show. (My definition of “geek,” by the way, is someone with a lot of knowledge in a particular area, particularly an area that is not conventionally popular.) He does this by writing about what he loves without apology.
Why is this vulnerable? Because, in doing so, he risks public ridicule. (I mean, water testing? Come on…) But he pulls it off because he doesn’t go too far or include too much jargon. Why is this important? He draws us in rather than push us away. And we’ve all met both kinds of geeks: the kind that draw us in and the kind that alienate us. Be the draw-us-in kind.
Another thing that makes this essay vulnerable: he lists very few (almost no) Bowdoin specifics. And that’s a risk! Did it work? You decide.
Could I create a hybrid approach by focusing on a central theme, but still listing a few reasons?
The Hybrid Approach: Use a Central Theme + Include Several Specific Reasons That Connect Back to You
The Why Swarthmore “Why this College Essay Example
The human body’s greatest asset is its ears. They come pimpled, freckled, mushed, bent, rounded, and pointed. But, despite their differences, they share a single purpose: to listen.
Swarthmore is all about ears. It not only understands the importance of empathetic and open dialogue, but also the ways in which listening can be the first step towards bridging deeply entrenched ideological divides. Whether I’m learning from guest lecturers at the Center for Innovation and Leadership, engaging in dialogue at the Global Health Forum, or exploring my sexuality through the Intercultural Center, I know I’d be at a place that values collaboration, honest discourse, ethical leadership, and creativity invested in the public good. Everything at Swarthmore is about putting those cartilage appendages on the sides of your head to good use.
As a person drawn to audio and visual storytelling, my life has been defined by listening. At Swarthmore, I would continue to foster the quality relationships I’ve created and the love I’ve spread by inviting people to share their stories on my podcasts. Majoring in Film & Media Studies or English Literature, broadcasting at WSRN, and writing for The Review is the next chapter in my life of listening. I would creatively explore how narratives have been told in the past and can be redefined digitally for a new generation of ears. Swarthmore knows that global change starts with an honest conversation. I want to be pioneering new networks of connection. I want to be starting those conversations. (247 words)
Ethan’s note: If you go with this approach, ideally you would find offerings unique to the school (as in the “Why Cornell” essay). But if you can’t, just find reasons that are as specific as possible and connect them back to you (as in the “Why Michigan” and “Why UPenn” essays).