The “Why This College” Supplemental Essay Prompt: 7 Tips for Responding

Bonus Material: Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

Many U.S. colleges and universities now require students to answer supplemental essay prompts.

These are in addition to the college essay or personal statement.

A common supplemental essay prompt asks students to reflect on why they’ve chosen to apply to a specific school.

This can be one of the most challenging prompts to respond to! Many of our students turn to us for advice in crafting a compelling and competitive “Why This College” essay.

We’ve compiled that advice in this post.

Readers also get access to our Supplemental Essay Spreadsheet, which includes essay prompts and relevant information for the top 50 selective colleges in the U.S. Grab it now.

Here’s what you’ll find:

  1. The “Why This College” Supplemental Essay Prompt
  2. 7 Tips for Responding to this Prompt
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s Supplemental Essay Spreadsheet

1) The “Why This College” Supplemental Essay Prompt

Every college is likely to ask this question differently, but here are some examples of what this prompt might look like:

  • Why UVM?
  • How will the University of Michigan’s curriculum support you in pursuing your interests?
  • Tell us why you decided to apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Word limits are likely to vary with this question. For example, some only give students 50-150 words to respond to the “Why This College” prompt. Others might allow students up to 650 words to respond.

Why do colleges ask this question?

In general, this essay prompt is designed to:

  • Give admissions officers more insight into what specifically has attracted you to this school
  • Help them figure out if you’re a good fit for their student body
  • Provide details about how you might contribute to that college’s communities (academic or otherwise)

You can use the following 7 tips to write a response that ticks all of these boxes (and more).

2) 7 Tips for Responding to the “Why This College” Essay Prompt

1. Start by building a must-have list

If you don’t already have a college must-have list, now is the time to build one.

What is a must-have list? It’s a list of everything you’re looking for in a college. Here’s an example must-have list:

  • Study abroad opportunities
  • Mid-sized student body
  • Proximity to a city
  • Excellent career resources
  • Strong psychology department
  • Undergraduate research opportunities
  • Interdisciplinary curriculum
  • On-campus housing
  • Diverse, spirited student body
  • Emphasis on community service

Most students have an idea of what they’re looking for in a college, but might not have these ideas outlined in a coherent list. Building this list, however, will be helpful for creating an outline for your “Why This College” essay response.

Try to be as specific as possible in crafting this list. It doesn’t matter how long it is, either!

2. Compare this list to what a college offers

Now hold up your must-have list to what this college specifically offers. 

If “study abroad opportunities” are at the top of your list, for example, what specific study abroad opportunities does this school offer? If you are eager to participate in undergraduate research, what will that look like on this specific campus?

It can be helpful to build a table for this part. We’ve constructed a sample table based on part of the must-have list above for Tulane University:

My Must-HaveWhat Tulane Offers
Study abroad opportunitiesExtensive for psychology majors: from New Zealand to Israel
Mid-sized student body, proximity to a city6,968 undergraduates, urban setting (New Orleans)
Strong psychology departmentB.S. in Psychology; interdisciplinary majors available; Psi Chi and Psychology Club; renowned faculty; research-based
Undergraduate research opportunitiesUndergraduate research assistantships in Psychology department (strongly encouraged); Honors Thesis
Emphasis on community serviceUndergraduates must do public service in order to graduate

3. Be specific

It is vital to cater specifically to the college when crafting your response. This means doing your research so you can mention specific study abroad programs, faculty members, classes, etc.

Compare the two sentences below to see the difference between a general response and a specific one. Notice how the specific sentence also offers information about the student’s own relationship to community service.

Too GeneralSpecific
I love Tulane’s community service opportunities.Given my passion for serving my community, I am excited that Tulane requires undergraduates to complete public service in order to graduate and look forward to participating in CACTUS.  

Where do you find these specifics? 

You should be able to find all details on that college’s website. If you want more information about something, feel free to email a specific department or staff member.

4. Identify why you want to study a certain subject

Some colleges also require you to describe why you’re interested in a certain major. For this reason, it can be helpful to think about why you want to study a specific subject as you go about your research.

This is also a great chance to provide some backstory or narrative. You might wish to describe how that fourth grade Science Fair, for example, solidified your passion for Physics. Or perhaps your proximity to your local library inspired an interest in community engagement.

Of course, you don’t want to spend too much time providing this backstory. But it can give colleges more insight into you as a scholar and individual, which is always valuable!

5. Use active language 

Some students aren’t sure what language they should use when responding to this prompt. Understandably–it can feel weird to outline everything you love about a school in a professional essay! 

We tell all of our students to use active language when writing this essay. Here are some examples of what we mean:

  • I appreciate X College’s emphasis on…
  • I look forward to participating in…
  • I am intrigued by…
  • X College’s urban setting is ideal given my…
  • The X Department’s curriculum will best prepare me for…
  • X College’s values align with my own…  

6. Lead with your must-haves

A great way to begin the paragraphs in your essay is to lead with your must-haves.

Here’s an example thesis statement that shows this in action:

Given my preference for hands-on learning, a strong Neuroscience Department, and research-based education, I am confident that X College will best prepare me for a career in medicine. 

Notice how this statement leads with what the student is looking for in a college–hands-on learning, a strong Neuroscience Department, and research-based education–and concludes with a gesture to that specific school.

7. Avoid telling the school what it already knows

It’s easy to write what we call “educational statements” that give the school information it likely already knows. 

Here’s an example of one of these statements, which doesn’t tell us anything about the student:

Community service is built into Tulane’s curriculum.

How do you avoid these statements? Make sure they are part of a statement of opinion or interest, as in the following:

I appreciate the fact that community service is built into Tulane’s curriculum and look forward to deepening my relationship to volunteering throughout my academic studies there.

Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

We recommend downloading our Supplemental Essay Spreadsheet, which includes the supplemental essay prompts for the 50 most selective U.S. colleges and universities.

With this spreadsheet, you’ll get:

  • The supplemental essay prompt(s) for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges / universities
  • Word limits for each prompt
  • Application deadlines for each (early and regular)

These are only a few of the tips we offer students navigating essay response in their college application journey.

We also encourage students to check out the following posts:

Good luck!

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.