Former Admissions Officers Offer Advice on Researching the Why School Essay

Padya Paramita

Former Admissions Officers Offer Advice on Researching the Why School Essay

Different colleges have various characteristics that they look for in incoming students and supplemental essays are often what they use to determine a good fit. The most common prompt among these is the why school essay, which as the name suggests, wants to know exactly why you want to attend that particular college. Don’t underestimate the “why school” prompts that await you. To help you write an essay that can demonstrate your fit accurately, we asked Former Admissions Officers from Dartmouth, Duke, UChicago, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, UNC, and more, about what they think are immediate giveaways that a student hasn’t researched their why school essay.

Some Immediate Giveaways

“It’s really a giveaway when an applicant [hasn’t done appropriate research for their why school essay] when they:

  • Speaks in generalities, never saying anything specific about the school
  • Refers only to the “famous” professors cited in the recruitment brochures, and no one else
  • Says they have ”always” wanted to go there
  • Mentions something in an entirely different geographical area” 

- Former Admissions Officer, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

Answer the Prompt

“The most common mistake students make is to not answer the question posed, or respond accurately, to the why school essay prompt. Students sometimes get so caught up in trying to impress the reader, that they forget to highlight the specific things mentioned in the essay prompt. That is a real indicator of attention to detail and could be interpreted as a genuine lack of serious interest in the institution. Colleges ask those particular questions to test the ability of a student to respond in an intelligent and robust way to the essay prompt.” - Former Assistant Director of Admissions, Georgetown University

“The first thing is if the response doesn’t answer the prompt. For why school essays, if I am reading and could drop in any other school that is a red flag. Also, when a student writes about only the most well-known programs at a school and does not provide anything more specific about those programs.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

“The biggest is when the essay doesn't align with the why school essay topic. I'm always on the lookout for repurposed essays when reading applications. And even when an essay does align with a prompt, weave in school-specific details in a way that it doesn't look like you've just done some cutting and pasting of a school name, courses of interest, etc.“ - Former Admission Officer, Top 5 National University

Make Sure Your Why School Essay Doesn’t Lack Examples

“Another indicator would be if a student fails to connect the college to their thesis for the supplemental essay through the use of examples of courses, professors, clubs, activities, or other relevant information. The assumption is that students have researched the institution and made a careful choice to apply for admission. To that end, familiarity with specific details is not just expected, but in the better institutions, required. Some of the supplemental essays are very direct about this aspect of the essay but others are quite subtle about it.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 25 National University

Be Specific

“A red flag is when the why school essay is too broad and doesn't go into any real specific details. It's easily "transferrable," meaning it could be "true" for many other schools. The most common things are discussed: location, size, reputation, etc. These essays are really important in ascertaining how much a student is invested in the process.” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 10 National University

Avoid Inaccurate Statements!

“One of the biggest indicators is a lack of research to back up claims made or obvious errors in facts that are included. A student may think that they have stated things accurately on their why school essay but if a quick check reveals otherwise, that is a red flag because it shows carelessness and complacency. It is generally quite easy to confirm information from multiple sources before using it, so not much leeway would be given to a student who did not bother to verify the accuracy of their facts.” - Former Admissions

Officer, Top 25 National University

“Students who want to major in something that the school doesn't offer or refer to semesters when the school is on the quarter system is any immediate red flag. Getting stuff like that wrong is just sloppy!” - Former Admissions Officer, Ivy League School

Don’t Copy/Paste From the Website

“If the why school essay is mostly "website knowledge" or the information is too vague, not talking about specific reasons to the schools as to why the student wants to attend, that’s a red flag,” - Former Admissions Officer, Top 5 National University

When you’re answering why school essay, it is essential to help admissions officers picture you on campus. Specifics and details are so important here. Carefully read through the red flags our Former Admissions Officers have talked about and avoid them in your essays. Check out the tag “FAO Advice” for more blogs in this series.

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