A Puzzling College Application Question

I received an email over the Labor Day weekend from a father named Mike, whose daughter is unsure about how to handle a couple of typical questions on her college applications. I’m sharing Mike’s first question today and I’ll direct my next college blog post to his second question that involves declaring a college major.

Question No. 1:

Why do you want to attend this college?

After visiting 10 schools this summer the schools are beginning to blur to her.  At a few she gets a fuzzy feeling that she would like it, but she is not absolutely in love with any of them. Do you have an opinion what colleges are looking for in an answer to this question? – Mike

Here’s my Response:

I decided to write this post because I had a visceral reaction to Mike’s first question.

It’s pretty obvious to me what colleges are asking. Admission officers want to know if an applicant has at least an elementary understanding of their institution. It’s not a trick question.

If Mike’s daughter only possesses, at most, a “fuzzy feeling” about a school, I am wondering why she is applying.  Too much is riding on the outcome to rely on vague feelings that she formed after spending two or three hours on a campus.

Treating All Schools the Same

Because I have written about Mike’s college admission involvement before (Thanks Mike for generating posts for me!), I happen to know that the schools on this girl’s list are almost entirely elite institutions on the East Coast. Unfortunately, I think students who are aiming for these types of schools treat these institutions as if they are homogenous.

Elite or not, every school has institutional priorities. All colleges possess strengths and weaknesses. Each of them has a personality.

The high school senior needs to research schools on her list and decide which ones would represent a good match. After she does her research, answering this application question will be easier.

6 Ways to Research Colleges

Here are some things that I would suggest she do to explore colleges:

1. Spend time on a school’s admission website. This will give you an idea of what a school wants you to know and what makes it proud. Sure it’s propaganda, but it can also be helpful.

2. Spend time on a school’s academic web pages. Check out the online homes of individual departments that interest you.

3. Check the institutional research home of each college. You can sometimes find lots of great information about schools on these online sites, which most families don’t even know exist. Here is an example of a one such site at Swarthmore College, which is on the list of Mike’s daughter.

4. Talk to current students and ask them what they like and dislike about their school and why they ultimately selected their college. Ask what they would change if they could about their college. If you know what major you would like to pursue, also seek out students currently enrolled in that major.

5. Check composite Rate My Professors rankings for schools and check professor rankings within a department.

6. See what other students have said about their schools on Unigo and College Prowler.

You’ll get more ideas about researching schools from the second edition of my book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.

And finally, here is an old post that I wrote about the issue Mike raised: Two Important Questions When Applying to College.

What Do You Think?

If you want to share suggestions, please use the comment box below.




Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Hi Lynn,
    Good article! Many kids struggle with those “why this college?” essays! However, there’s another important step to writing these essays, and it needs to come BEFORE students start pouring through websites looking for something to write about. Namely: students need to step back and do some thinking about their interests and goals for their college experience in general, unrelated to any specific college. How do you hope your college experience will differ or be the same than high school? What excites you about learning? How do you learn best? How do you hope to grow and change over the next four years? How have your expectations about college changed now that you’ve been able to visit and explore a number of colleges?

    Once a student has done this sort of soul-searching, they’ll have some framework for going back and revisiting college websites with an eye for specifics that truly matter to THEM, personally, which always makes for a more thoughtful, effective answer to the question “Why are you applying here?”

    A last tip: When I review student essays of this type, I insert a different college’s name in the essay, and imagine that a different student wrote it. If the essay still makes sense, then it’s a sign that the student needs to dig a little deeper internally and find ways to avoid vague generalities about the college.

  2. Journalist Andrew Ferguson wrote a wonderful and funny book called “Crazy U – One dad’s crash course in getting his kid into college.” Based on the college tours he went on (which do tend to all blend together), he suggests that you can learn a lot about the school from looking at the bulletin boards in the student centers.

  3. I would add check out the student newspaper, many are online. They’ll have editorials on issues that concern the students but aren’t included on the student tours. We found out about strained town-gown relations, concerns about academic standards and commitment, drinking issues, and some truly mindless concerns which made us wonder it the writers didn’t have anything better to do.

  4. Also how about focusing on the school of the major you are interested in?

    Some let you double major…

    My daughter likes engineering and each school is different on what concentrations they offer.

    Visit or phone the departments.

    Visit with local professionals in your area of interest.

    Attend roadshows in your town.

    College fairs

    Also admissions officers when they visit your high school.

    Go for an overnight

    Check out which extra-curricular activities you want to be involved in.

    How about an interview when better prepared?

    A point of contact can help you understand the school too.

    Maybe the 10 you visited are too similar? Branch out…

    I think you can feel the fit and hopefully the opportunities (offers) will match that.

    Just my thoughts…