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College Admissions: The Similarity Between Online Dating Profiles and ‘Why This College?’ Essays

Monday, November 03, 2014


Photo credit: iStock

If you listen to the lingo of college admissions officers, you will often hear references to finding students who are a “good match” for the college. That sounds a lot like dating language to me, so I find it easiest to explain how to write a great “Why this college?” essay by comparing it to online dating.

Why do schools care about this matchmaking process? They want students who will arrive and thrive. Colleges are under pressure from the government about their student retention rates, and admissions officers want to feel confident that an accepted student will persist and graduate (preferably within four years). Ideally, schools would like to fill their campuses with students for whom that school is a top choice. This leads to an upbeat atmosphere on campus. Part of the way colleges are judged in the rankings is based on their yield rate: the percentage of applicants who are offered a spot in the class that actually choose to come. Unfortunately for many colleges, it gets harder and harder to predict which students are seriously interested because the Common Application has made it easier to apply to more schools. Any given student can only attend one school, so if she is accepted to seven, she will bring down the yield rate at six of those schools. To judge an applicant’s level of interest, many schools ask some version of “Why this college?” as their supplemental question.

To write a great answer, think of this as an online dating exercise. The basic formula is this:

Here’s me.

Here’s you.

Oh my, we are a perfect match!

Here’s me. In the first portion of a “Why this college?” essay, you might tell a short (true) story about yourself. Since college is primarily an academic endeavor, it is great if this story can relate to your areas of academic interest. If you have a specific field or major you are excited about, this is the spot to give an example that proves your interest. If you have no clue what you want to study in college, this is your chance to prove that you are multi-interested and a seasoned explorer of academic ideas. 

Here’s an example:

“As policy intern for Jefferson Smith’s mayoral campaign, I researched and drafted policy papers on covering our reservoirs and water pricing. For almost every topic I researched, every meeting with city officials I attended, and every campaign finance event I attended, I noticed that campaigning and policy seemed to revolve around one thing—money. This sparked my interest in economics. Along with my study of political science, an advanced understanding of mathematics and economics will help me achieve my dream of working in D.C as the Secretary of the Treasury or Chairman of the Federal Reserve.”

This student has set the stage for why he wants major in political science and minor in economics or math, which he can then relate to the offerings at the college.

The good news is that this initial portion will be useful for all of the “Why this college?” essays, since you are the constant part of the answer.

Here’s you. In the second portion of the “Why this college?” essay, you will use the information you gathered in your School-specific Research Sheet. Think of this portion as two paragraphs. 

The first paragraph relates directly to your “Here’s me” section and has an academic focus. You might mention classes you are eager to take, professors with whom you hope to do research, and anything else academic that caught your notice. Be as specific as possible. Every sentence in this section should apply to this school only. For example, if you want to study astronomy, instead of mentioning that you are excited because University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a planetarium, say you are excited about the Morehead Planetarium, where dozens of astronauts studied celestial navigation. Does this take deep research? Yes! That’s the point. You are proving to the admissions office that you really understand this school and know why you want to be there.

In the second “Here’s you” paragraph, you acknowledge that there is more to college life than just academics. This is where you can tell admissions readers about the other aspects of the school that matter to you. You should mention if you have talked to one of the school’s athletic coaches (name him or her and the sport), have a friend who attends and loves it (name him or her), or know a successful alumnus (name him or her). You can mention a specific club you want to join or a school tradition about which you are excited. Once again, be as specific as possible so that this portion of your answer could not be copied and pasted into the “Why this college?” answer for any other school. For example, tell Grinnell College that you are super-excited for mattress sledding or let Willamette University know that you hope to pull together a dorm band to play at Wulapalooza. Don’t waste this space telling a school something it already knows about itself—sunny weather, access to professors, ability to do undergraduate research. While these characteristics may be true, they apply to far more schools than just the one you are writing about.

Oh my, we are a perfect match! This is your short conclusion that reinforces the “fit” between you and the school. The more school specific you make it, the better. Rather than telling Gonzaga University that you can’t wait to be a Bulldog, tell them that you can’t wait to sit in the McCarthey Athletic Center to watch the basketball team play. Or—even better—say that you hope to become a photographer for the campus paper The Gonzaga Bulletin and be on the floor visually documenting those exciting basketball games.

Jodi Walder is the founder of Portland, Oregon-based College Admission Coach LLC, which helps students identify and gain admission to right-fit schools where they will thrive academically and personally. Contact her at [email protected].


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