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Colleges want to know why you are applying. Here's how to respond to this important question!

Original post made by Elizabeth LaScala on Sep 19, 2010

Question: I am having trouble with a question that it seems all the private colleges on my list ask: "Why do you want to attend our college?" What are the colleges looking for when they ask this question? I am worried and confused. – A high school senior from Danville

Dear Worried and Confused:

You have identified one of the most common and important essay questions colleges ask. You are smart to notice that the essay prompts can take many forms, but they are all asking pretty much the same question. Generally, the college wants to know why you are applying and how well you would fit into the school's unique environment. There is no guess work here. You must put in the time to research each school carefully, so you can write a clear and well articulated response in your own voice. Here are some tips about how to research colleges and compose an authentic response to this important question:

1. Gather some objective information about the college from at least one good sourcebook or online resource. For example, get hold of a copy of College Handbook 2011 (www.collegeboard.com) or Princeton Review's Complete Book of Colleges (www.princetonreview.com). Online resources include Peterson's (www.petersons.com). There are many others – check out bookstores or Google for more. Check out at the retention rate (this is what percent of freshmen return for sophomore year—a high rate shows the college has done a good job selecting its freshmen class from the applicants), graduation rate (you want this to be high as well), financial aid data and other statistics to get basic information about the school.

2. Go to the college's website and research aspects of the college that are important to you. For academics, browse through the course offerings. Schools often have an online catalogue and you can review it to learn what options for classes exist and how exciting they seem. Compare the depth and breadth of course offerings to other schools you are considering. For extracurricular activities, visit the student life or clubs section to see what activities are on campus.

3. While on the college's website, go to the undergraduate admissions section and request that they send you information – this gets you onto their mailing/emailing lists and is a great way for you to find out about new programs. Make sure to specify things that you are particularly interested in – i.e. programs, majors, etc. Ask if they have any current students or alumni from your high school or your area that you may contact to ask questions. Sometimes the college advisor at your high school can help in the same way—by putting you in contact with a student who has graduated and is currently attending the college.

4. Check out the campus activities calendar (as opposed to academic calendar) and see how lively and interesting these seem to you. Many student clubs will have websites – visit those that are of interest and see how active they are. For sports, visit the athletics web pages and learn about sports that interest you.

Finally, the best way to get to know schools is to visit in person. But I understand this is not always possible and so do the schools. Also, you may have already visited and still find the essay question hard to respond to now that you are faced with the actual application. That's why I emphasize research you can do from home. Try your best to relax and respond to the question as though a good friend were asking you why you want to attend a particular college. Write a highly personalized response, not one any student could have composed from simply reading the website. Have real reasons backed up by real research and you will no doubt do a great job! Good luck!

Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admissions advisor. Her goal is to help the freshman college applicant as well as the transfer student and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or elizabeth@doingcollege.com.

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