#The High School Experience

We all know campus visits are an important part of applying to collegethey can give students and families a “feel” for a school and provide insight that is not possible to gain elsewhere. 

But what most students do not consider when visiting colleges is how their visit can help them take their admissions essays from standard to stellar.

Numerous colleges require what’s called a “Why College” essay. These essays essentially ask you to explain why that particular school is a great fit for your needs.

While that sounds straightforward enough, there are many variations of these questions. Paying attention to these prompts and tailoring your essay accordingly is key. 

It’s a good idea, when planning a college visit, to look up whether that school has a Why College essay and to keep that prompt in mind when preparing for a visit. If you don’t know which essays colleges require, reach out to us!

For the purposes of this blog, a few examples of Why College prompts include:

University of Pennsylvania 

  • How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying.

University of Michigan 

  • Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?

Syracuse University

  • Who or what influenced you to apply to Syracuse University?
  • Who is the person you dream of becoming and how do you believe Syracuse University can help you achieve this? 

Northwestern University

  • In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.

Details make a Why College essay stand out. You need to be able to show a college why you are interested. But most students stop at simply telling a school that they are interested in broad generic terms. 

Some of the key errors:

  • Regurgitating copy from marketing materials
  • Describing a college’s own programs to them
  • Reciting statistics and rankings
  • Recapping superficial observations, like “everyone was smiling”
  • Listing facts from Fiske or U.S. News and World Report

Campus visits can be a key step in enhancing the Why College essay because they can help you paint a more vivid and personal picture of how you see yourself fitting in on campus.

Below are tips on how to maximize your college visit – whether or not you are preparing for the Why College essays you will have to write.

Research Beforehand

Arrive on campus with a plan. What academic programs and student groups do you want to learn more about? Maybe send an email to a student club leader if their contact is available so you can set up a coffee to learn more.

What professors do you want to meet with? Again, send them an email in advance to set a time to visit a class or office hours.

What landmarks and sites on campus do you most want to see?

One student of ours wrote about meeting with Dr. Beth Wee at Tulane to learn more about the different engineering paths he could take. What stuck out? The fact that Dr. Wee allowed a meeting with an advisee to go twenty minutes long, delaying the student’s own meeting. Dr. Wee’s dedication to her students and generosity with her time attracted the student to Tulane.

Another student wrote in his “Why Carnegie Mellon” essay (back when they had one) about wanting to see the penguin-patterned guardrail of the Pausch Bridge lit up at night. He used that vantage point to paint a deeply personal picture of the campus as it seemed to him in that moment.

Take Good Notes… on Everything

Apart from helping you compare and contrast schools as you decide where to apply and attend, thorough notes will be invaluable when you sit down to explain why you want to attend a certain college.

Jot notes down in a notebook. (Avoid your phone so you don’t get distracted by texts and other apps.) Stay engaged in the visit – you never know who you may meet and who may notice you not paying attention.

Of course, you should take note of anything that sticks out as important or relevant to you personally. What student organizations and activities do you see yourself participating in? What majors and academic programs attract you most? What unique learning opportunities does this school offer outside of the classroom?

Take notes on all the little things, too: the names of your tour guide and any professors, students, and admissions officers you meet with; fun facts; and quirky little things you like or dislike about the school. Small details like these may seem insignificant, but over the course of your entire essay, they convey a vividness and authenticity to your experience.

A Note about Academic Plans

Academics tend to make up the backbone of most “Why College” essays, so focus your note-taking on these areas as they relate to your goals and mission statement for your college education and experience. 

If you are undecided about your academic plans, remember that you do not have to have a clear major to have academic interests. There is no penalty for being undecided. Admissions officers are looking for students who are intellectually curious and excited, even if they are unsure about their career path. 

Other avenues for undecided students to consider are asking admissions representatives and students about what support systems, resources, and programs there are for students who are still figuring out what they want to pursue for majors and minors. (For instance, Northwestern prides itself on its quarter system, which is great for students who want to explore more classes.)

If you do have a prospective major, reach out to that department before your visit to see if you can sit in on a class, meet with a professor, or visit a research lab.

And of course, continue your research at home!

Go Beyond the Tour and Info Session(s)

Visit a building that your tour does not go through – assuming you are allowed in! Try a popular lunch spot on campus. 

Whenever possible, speak with current students and take note of those specific interactions and conversations—how a student responds to your questions can convey a lot about the atmosphere and the community of a school. 

Don’t be shy! Many students (especially your tour guide!) are eager to share their experiences with visitors. If you would be more comfortable doing this without mom or dad, ask for some space to explore. 

Prepare a List of Great Questions 

Starting conversations with students, professors, or admissions representatives is easier if you set yourself up for success by preparing a mental list of good questions to ask. 

If your question could easily be answered from a quick Google search, then that is not a good question.

To come up with good questions, research the school beforehand and consider your priorities—what aspects of campus life are most important to you? From asking about specific internship opportunities to investigating the details of dorm life, these conversations will give you a more holistic feel for the school and provide excellent fodder for a potential Why College essay. Or, ask questions that only that person can answer: What are the highlights of your experience? What do you wish you knew when you were applying? 

Just as important as asking your own questions is listening to questions from others on your tour. You are not going to think of everything – and you don’t have to! Let other people’s curiosity inform you, and you may just be surprised by what you will learn.

Your “Why College” essay will not necessarily revolve solely around your tour, but your firsthand account of your own time on campus will add valuable insight to your writing.

The primary goal of your campus visit should be to get information about how interested you are in the school. At the same time, if you can leverage it to improve your application essays, even better!