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11/24/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

How to Rock the "Why College X?" Essay

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This post was written by Alex Melnik, a freshman at the University of Southern California. It was originally published on The Prospect, a student-run college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website. You can follow The Prospect on Facebook and Twitter.

Supplements. You either love 'em or you hate 'em (probably the latter). In case you didn't know, supplemental essays are short essays, usually ranging from 250 to 500 words, that some colleges require in addition to the Common App essay. Questions vary for each school, and questions may vary from the most quirky, as is the case with the University of Chicago, to the more traditional, "Please describe a job or activity you have done." But the most common prompt is probably the dreaded "Why School X?"

In my opinion, these kinds of essays are the hardest for two reasons: Firstly, especially if you've found yourself truly enamored with a school, it can be difficult to articulate your love in 250 words. Secondly, it's hard to stand out. Chances are, many people have read the same glossy admissions brochure or U.S. News profile, so it's likely that there will be certain phrases and details about the school that appear commonly.

With that being said, here are my two golden rules when it comes to writing the "Why School X?" essay.

1. Be Personal

With that being said, it is perfectly acceptable to mention these details, as long as you make it personal. Here's an example: Let's say you're applying to a school in D.C. Rather than simply stating, "I want to go here because it's the capital and the monuments are pretty," talk about your ambitions. What will being in D.C. do for you specifically? Personalizing your essay reminds the reader that you are in fact a (hopefully interesting!) person. It also makes it easier for him or her to picture you at the school if you illustrate your personality in your writing.

2. Be Specific

So you want to go to this school in D.C. because you're interested in working in the capital or have an obsession with museums, but why do you want to go to this specific D.C. school over the several others in the area? This is a time to show off your research and genuine in the school by being specific. "I want to go to your school because it has an internship program with this company, and because it has this interdisciplinary major that no other school offers, and because this professor who teaches this class wrote my favorite book which I keep under my pillow." Okay, maybe not that specific, but you want to demonstrate that your reason for applying stems from more than just the prestige of the school.

Touring a school is one of the best ways to make your essays more personal and specific; however, there are some useful alternatives in case you can't make it to campus before applying. Looking at a school's online publication, talking to current students, viewing pictures of the school, and scrolling through a list of classes or a syllabus are some of the many useful methods to consider.

Here are some other specifics to think about and mention in your essays:

Size

Is the school extremely small? Huge? In the middle? For me, I looked for a school that was large enough where I felt like I could continuously meet new people, but not so large that I'd feel lost in a sea of ants. If a school you are interested in is large but has small class sizes, or is small but allows you to take classes at other schools (like the Claremont Consortium or Five College Consortium), that is definitely something to note.

Type

Is it a liberal arts college or a university? The main difference is that LACs don't have graduate schools. LACs also tend to be smaller and have a different "feel" than large-scale universities. This article breaks down the differences well.

Location

Is the school rural, suburban, or urban? TP writer Priyanka Srinivasan describes, "I debated going to college in Ithaca and New York City, ultimately choosing the latter because of the school's interaction with the area (i.e. NYC has a huge lack of funding for public education so it's very interesting and educational for myself to be able to help out, and of course the internship/job selection is massive)." Ultimately, each environment has its perks. As mentioned in the D.C. example, if you're going to talk about location, be specific and personal!

Academics

Are there General Education requirements? A good selection of majors? If you're a prospective computer science major applying to a school with a prestigious computer science program, be specific about why you think the program is so good. Do students get more one-on-one time with professors? Are there any unique research opportunities?

Activities

This is a great time to be specific! Many schools have lists of all the official clubs at the school. Feel free to peruse the list; chances are, there'll be some clubs you're already involved with in high school, as well as some new ones that catch your eye.