Let’s do a hypothetical exercise. Imagine you’ve just begun dating someone. Things are going well. At a certain point, a question bears asking.

“What do you like about me?”

In this scenario, there are two potential answers:

“You are 17 years old. You are from Long Island. You are attractive.”


“I want to be with someone whose passions align with my own. On top of all of your amazing qualities, we have similar values. We both care about family, environmental activism, and excelling in school. I feel like you will make me a better person, and I will do the same for you.”

This is an easy question, but which answer do you believe more?

First of all, if your significant other goes the route of option one, you may want to run a CAPTCHA test to make sure they’re not a robot (“Which of these images has a crosswalk?). Then you’ll likely want to end that relationship.

Option two is clearly a more satisfying answer. Why? Because first of all, it goes deeper than simple facts. Second, it shows that the person likes how you are together. It’s certainly a much more compelling argument for a relationship than option one.

Selecting a college is a bit like dating — except the relationship you have with the college you pick is lifelong. You’ll have your own checklist of non-negotiables: location, selectivity, majors. But the same is true for colleges. If you both satisfy one another’s requirements, you may have a beautiful relationship ahead. But in between selecting your college list and the application, you have one maddening roadblock: the “why” essay. The actual wording varies, but the real question these schools are asking is, “Why us?”

If you could be honest about your checklist in the “why” essay, it would be a pretty easy essay. You like the location, or it has a great brand name and a strong major in your intended field. Except you can’t. Those reasons read too cynical, and more importantly, they’re the same as everyone else’s. So what SHOULD you write in the “why” essay? Follow our steps below.

1. Make it about you.

In most situations, co-opting free space to talk about yourself is not the best move. The college application is an exception. In the “why” essay, you’ll have anywhere from 150-650 words to talk about why YOU are a good fit for the school.

2. Follow a simple equation. Sentence 1: FACT ABOUT YOU. Sentence 2: RELATED FACT ABOUT SCHOOL. Sentence 3: YOU + SCHOOL.

First, bring in a fact about yourself that you want to highlight. Then, connect it directly to a strong piece of research on the school.

Example: “In my merchandising courses at FIT, I learned all about the real-world, financial aspects of fashion. In browsing through lookbooks at Brown’s student organization Fashion@Brown, I became inspired by its powerful connection to creativity and innovation. I know that I could bring a practical eye to the organization, but more importantly, I feel it will empower me to have more fun with fashion.”

3. Try the replacement test.

“Michigan’s beautiful campus and active student body will be a wonderful place for me to pursue my college education.”

Remove “Michigan” from the above sentence. Could this apply to other schools? If so, get more specific. The more specific your research, the better! Find course syllabi through the registrar; search for research projects that are connected to your interests through departmental websites.

At its core, the “why” essay is just one more opportunity for you to sell yourself to colleges. It needs to be well researched, yes. But for a “why” essay to do its job, it must not only be well researched, but also provide more information on you and demonstrate how you will be a positive addition to campus. Once you do that, your job is done.

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