Why Are You Applying Here?

The Most Common Supplement Prompt

Here at Hillside, we’ve seen a lot of students’ efforts to respond effectively to the most common supplement-essay prompt, which will ask you, in some fashion, the following question: Why are you applying here?

First, let’s look at that question again with the right emphasis: Why are you applying here?

In other words: What are the particular reasons you have decided to devote your time and energy to applying to this particular college or university?

When you encounter this question, it’s important to reflect first on the reasons college admissions offices pose it to applicants. Put yourself in the position of an admissions officer who is reading application after application, aware that many of the applicants are applying to several different schools. You’re compelled by a great number of the applications you’ve reviewed and by the Common App essays included. To get to the next stage in the process of determining whether or not to grant acceptance, you’re needing to get (1) a clear understanding of individual applicants’ real levels of interest in your college and (2) a vision for how each student would, if admitted, engage with the remarkable opportunities your college offers. And so, the direct question “Why are you applying here?” becomes very useful to you — or, rather, it becomes useful to you when applicants have made it useful to themselves.

The essay prompt is not useful when an applicant sees it as easily answered with enthusiasm alone, with general or boilerplate reactions. If another applicant could write the same response to the prompt, nothing has been gained (nothing has been examined!).

The question becomes useful when it leads students to get specific about the different attractions they feel toward a particular school, and in turn students begin to see the question as a genuinely motivating opportunity to reveal more about themselves. Inside the attractions is important information for the construction of a credible and engaging bridge between an applicant and a particular college.

Yale says:

“As we carefully and respectfully review every application, two questions guide our admissions team: ‘Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?’ and ‘Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?'”

Research, or What’s Cool About that School?

If you’re making the considerable effort to apply to a school, you should know as much as possible about what’s potentially there for you. College admissions officers want to know that you know what you’re doing in applying; they want to believe in your interest (check out Tufts’s Deal Breaker #2!). You therefore must be informed. Yes, this means research.

The idea of doing research is likely not inspiring, especially after your focused efforts on composing your Common App essay — not to mention attending to all the other demands of the college-application process. If you’ve visited a school, however, you may have already made a good start in gathering potentially useful essay-building material. You will be helped if you took specific notes during your visit on features of the school that especially interest you.

Northeastern says:

“We would like to know that the student did her homework and that her interest is genuine, her opinion is educated. A student should take some time to reflect on why she wants to attend a certain school: Was it how she felt on a tour, or something she read in a publication that resonated?”

The most important part of the work of college-specific research is to pay attention to where you lean in and feel genuine curiosity while you are discovering details about a college’s programs, courses, professors, etc. That feeling — that spark of attraction and/or curiosity — should be your guide. The interesting applicant is the interested applicant. You are interested and attracted for reasons that are special to you. This piece from Tulane Admissions gives some approachable examples of details that have resonated with admissions readers.

In any online research about a particular school, go several clicks inside the school’s site in order to get well beyond the general ways in which a school advertises itself. Every college’s website is deep, but many applicants, feeling pressed for time or just tired of the application process, skim the surface and end up writing supplement essays that are common and therefore forgettable. The responses, however impassioned, make the mistake of telling the college what it already knows about itself. The college learns little about the applicant. The supplement essay becomes a failed opportunity.

Instead, aim in your research to arrive at specific details about student opportunities, remembering that what you choose to highlight as an attraction contributes to an image of you; the more specific the attractions, the clearer and more individual a picture you provide of yourself — and the more credible your reasons for applying sound. Hillside also recommends that you read a recent copy of the main student newspaper and of the college magazine, again paying attention to where your interest deepens.

New York University says:

“The worst answer, everyone agrees, is to say I want to study here because you have a great major in X. You need to talk at a more granular level, about your specific area of study, or a faculty member you want to work with. We want to see how you’ll contribute here for the next four years.”

Our Suggestions

The following is a research guide, a collection of suggestions. The best practice is to build a separate document for each school to which you are applying in order to compile your research in an organized fashion. You need not collect information for every bullet point below. Follow your genuine curiosity, enjoy a feeling of discovery — and always save the URL where you found compelling online details and language.

  • Write down the exact names of majors and minors that appeal to you. Spend time reading the details. What directions for future study are especially compelling? What particularly attracts you or interests you about the language used to describe the majors or minors? Grab that language!
  • Write down the exact names of three specific courses that you would love to take (presumably because they appear to build on experience you’ve had or they offer opportunities you’ve never had to this point but have sought). Again, note particular language in the course descriptions that attracts you. What academic opportunities do you find that you perhaps never imagined or considered?
  • Write down the exact names of two professors whose courses and/or research appeals to you. Read each professor’s bio. Naming a professor with whom you’d honestly like to study can be particularly compelling, demonstrating both that you’ve done your homework and that you carry a specific vision for a part of your experience at the college. If the professor has published material that appeals to you, gather language about it that is of interest or just makes you curious.
  • Write down the exact names of particular clubs, residential groups, and extracurricular opportunities that appeal to you. These will be especially useful if their appeal is based on related experience you have had. For instance, if you see that a club’s endeavors or the design of a residential program offers you the chance to extend and expand on a kind of engagement you’ve had in high school, you’re on to promising material.
  • Copy compelling information about community events — speaker series, symposia, conferences — that you can see yourself actively participating in, if not leading someday. What can you discover about the history and the substance of these events? What is possibly planned for the future?
  • Compile notes and memories from conversations you’ve had with people who have direct connections to the school — alums, professors, current students, and of course admissions representatives. Be sure to have the full name of each person who provided you with interesting insight or information. Some wonderful supplement essays have been written out of the conversations students have had with those in the know.

Sharing Your Vision for Yourself

Once you have done this research, you’ve done the hard part. What’s left is to consider the particular experiences you have had that connect with the college-specific material you’ve isolated. For instance, tie that biology experiment you loved to the fascinatingly similar (if much more sophisticated) research Dr. So-And-So is doing in the Biology department at the college. (Wouldn’t it be cool to contribute to that research?)

Or demonstrate how that conversation you had with a set of students you met on a college overnight exemplifies the kind of dialogue you find yourself seeking now and begins to answer the questions you’ve been carrying about the optimal student atmosphere for you. (Wouldn’t it be great to be surrounded by such conversations?) Build that informed vision for yourself at the college and share it. Showing how your past informs a specific vision of your future at the college in question is the bridge that admissions officers seek and want to believe in.

Resources for Writing Additional Supplement Essays

You may also be asked to address other supplement prompts. Hillside recommends: