Stumped by a College Admission Question


I received an email over the Labor Day weekend from a father named Mike, whose daughter is unsure about how to handle a typical questions on her college applications. Here is the common question:

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 think it’s pretty obvious to me what colleges are asking for. Admission officers want to know if an applicant has at least an elementary understanding of their institutions. 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

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.

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  1. As exciting as it is for high school seniors to start looking at colleges, college is still so far away. A year is a very long time for these kids who just don’t think that far ahead. It’s not real yet. And they haven’t had time to discuss their experiences with their friends. So it’s not a surprise schools are blending together. (It also doesn’t help that college tours are conducted pretty much the same on all campuses.) By next Feb/March when students can see the end of high school their choice of college becomes much clearer. The second visit to a college at this time goes very differently. That’s when they can see themselves in college and start looking around saying –I can see myself here, hey that person looks like s/he would be a friend. Distinctions become very clear.

    1. I completely agree with Jane. That was my experience this past spring with my oldest daughter. Up until that point, I kept worrying that she wasn’t taking the process seriously enough. It wasn’t until it came down to the top two schools and her final overnight visits to each that it seemed like she was really invested in the process and in the end, she made a very well-reasoned decision.

  2. All great suggestions. I would also recommend that the student spend some time putting a list together of what her “ideal” college experience would look like and include things about the campus (size, location, feel), the classes, degree programs, social activities, clubs and organizations she is interested in, dorm life, etc. Then she can rate every school she is looking at against her list of wants. She could use the resources suggested in the post and additional comments to help rate the school on each area. That might help her to see if any of the colleges she has visited really match up to what she is looking for. Then, when faced with a “why do you want to attend” type of question, she can talk specifically about what she is looking for and how the school matches up to that.

  3. I always recommend that my students (I’m a high school adviser) pick up a copy of the school newspaper, or access it on line. What are students ranting about? What seems to matter most to them?

    I also suggest that when students are on campus for a visit, they stop for a coffee or soft drink in the student coffee shop, without their parents. Ask someone what they like about the college, and what they don’t. You’ll get spontaneous, honest answers for the most part, separate from what the programmed admissions reps are saying.

  4. Another suggestion … Because she visited 10 colleges over the summer, she is probably living fairly close to a lot of them. I think overnight visits would help her, too. Even if she does just a few over the course of her senior year (it sounds like she’s a senior in hs), she will get a better sense of who the kids are and what the campus feels like — and maybe gain some deeper insight into her feelings about what she wants/doesn’t want. This may also help her think about her choices beyond the lure of their big names.

    One overnight visit bumped my son’s first choice down a notch or two. Then another overnighter blew his other options out of the water and moved one university from a long-shot to top choice.