Many of us high school seniors apply to at least one school that we don't know a whole lot about. Classroom format, opportunities to study abroad, graduation requirements - ideally, we should have done our research beforehand. Especially for private institutions, our gaps of knowledge are only made clear when we are faced with an essay prompt that goes somewhat like this: "attach an essay of no more than 500 words indicating what most influenced you to (insert college)." How do you go about writing this? And what things should you emphasize in your answer? Several experiences of mine in the past two years, I hope, will give you some insight in approaching this essay.
One of my [Web Link assignments] in AP Comparative Government this fall was to compare three different departments in our areas of interest at three different schools. Instead of doing topical research from CollegeBoard.com or from the U.S. World and News Report's college rankings, I evaluated colleges on the basis of: core curriculum requirements, accessibility of professors, and the diversity of courses offered among other criteria. Finding this information was difficult at times because it requires more than clicking around, but sheer determination. In addition, colleges prefer to advertise their famous alumni or their notable distinctions over the years, not the pedantic academic details. All of this boasting is interesting, of course. But when you are figuring out why you want to go to this particular school and writing the "why this college" essay, all of the extra stuff becomes irrelevant. If you look hard enough, you'll find something reflected in every school that exists for you.
Ironically, the school I know the most about, Pomona College, does not ask for such an essay. However, if I did have to write the essay for Pomona, I would highlight the following. My interest in Pomona was first sparked by visiting the campus during spring break and picking up a copy of the school newspaper, The Student Life. This issue just happened to be the April Fool's [Web Link edition]. From reading their paper I came to know three important things about Pomona: 1) Pomona is committed to sustainable development both on campus and around the world. 2) Pomona students take great joy in exercising their freedom of speech. And 3) Pomona students are very smart, but also have a sense of humor. In other words, Pomona is the kind of school I want to be a part of someday. There was no way I would have read that particular edition of the newspaper from doing surface-level research with a college guidebook. That I would later talk to a professor or arrange for an interview doesn't surprise me at all. My interest in Pomona was not stimulated by an extensive overnight stay, or by a pro-Pomona upbringing. Instead, my passion for this school and my reasons for going there grew out of a ordinary, but personal experience. As a result, writing the "why Pomona?" essay would be easy and even fun for me to do.
Another school I'm applying to, but do not know nearly as much about is George Washington University. I know that this school is strong in my major, political science, is located in the heart of Washington D.C. and unlike Pomona, is a university and not a liberal arts school. But that's pretty much it. So there doesn't seem like much I can speak to at first. However, by just doing some basic research on the school website, I've already learned some interesting things. The George Washington newspaper, for example, is one of the few college newspapers that covers national news stories such as the 2008 election celebrations. Also, the University Honors Program at G.W. allows students to learn through a case-study approach where professors are facilitators more than are lecturers. Both of these perks relate to my interests. I did not even have to step on campus to discover these things, yet my essay is all the better for it.
Explaining why you want to go to a college is a much different story than simply wanting to go there. While the majority of the college application essays we write are about who we are, this essay attempts to establish the link between student and school, rankings and SAT scores aside. As I said before, if you are really interested in some school, then writing this should score you big points. You just may spend the next four years of your life at a particular college or university. Finding out what drives you to be there is well worth the time and effort.