College Essay Guy Logo

Earlier we discussed what to avoid when writing your "Why This College" college application essays. Today, let's get positive and talk about what should be in there by using some examples.

DO: Think of this as a "Why we are perfect for each other" essay.
Imagine you're on a date and the person sitting across from you leans in to ask, "So, why do you like me?" You can't just say, "Because you're hot." You're gonna need to be a little more specific. How do you do this? Here’s how:

DO: Fold a piece of paper in half to create two columns, then at the top label one "What I want" and the other "What they have."
As you're researching the school, bullet-point 10-15 specific, concrete reasons why you and the school are a great match for one another.

So, for example, if the school has a music and medicine program, put that in the right column. Next to it, in the left column, say why that's the perfect program for you. Or maybe you're interested in studying Chinese? Put that it in the left column and then look for something related to learning Chinese that the school offers--either academically or extracurricularly (an actual word but don't use it in your essay)--and put that it in the right column. How does this help? It takes your essay from:

"Michigan's well-known legacy, its fantastic football team and spectacular location in Ann Arbor are just a few reasons why I believe UM is the place for me." #supergeneric


"I look forward to Academic Argumentation (225) and Professional Writing (229), as I believe these courses will provide me with a firm basis in journalistic writing technique and improve my abilities to write analytically and develop well-supported arguments. Furthermore, the Professional Writing course will teach me how to write in a concise, straightforward style, a skill vital to a journalist." #likeaboss 

See what he's done there in this Why This College example?

DO: Mention specific classes, professors, clubs and activities that you will actually be excited about being a part of.
And don't BS it. Imagine yourself on campus as a freshman. What are you doing? What conversations are you having? How are you involved? I want to say "You can't get too specific," although I'm sure you could if you try... On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being "I want to be involved in all the campus activities!” and 10 being "There was a particular student's dorm window I looked in during the campus walking tour and I saw her reading a Microecon book and drinking a Strawberries Wild from Jamba Juice--my favorite--and I thought--" (Slow down, creeper. And how did you know what flavor it was??) Anyway, keep it at like a 7 or an 8. And make sure all your details are relevant and appropriate. Here's a good gauge to know what’s relevant and appropriate. Ask:

  • Am I showing that I've done my research?
  • Am I demonstrating my intelligence?
  • Am I connecting what they have to with what I have?

If you’re doing all three, keep it in. If you’re not doing any of these, consider cutting. And I know I said that third thing already, but it's worth repeating: often students only say why the school is awesome. But remember that this essay is not about why the school is awesome. The school knows it’s awesome; the admissions readers spend a lot of their time telling students like you why it's awesome.


DO: Remember this is another chance to show a few more of your skills/talents/interests/passions.
Make a list of 10 things you definitely want the school to know about you. Ask yourself: are all these values/qualities in my main essay or another supplement? If not, the "Why This School" may be a place to include a few more details about who you are. But remember: connect it to some awesome opportunity/program/offering at or near the school.

Okay, I said I was finished but here's one more: If the school doesn't have a particular program/opportunity you're looking for, don't freak out. Look at this not as a dead end, but as an opportunity.

Pondering The Mysteries of College Essays

Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the Amazon bestseller College Essay Essentials, the #1 book on college essays. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.

Raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia, Ethan studied at seventeen different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). Ethan is also certified in Myers-Briggs® and hypnotherapy.

He is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, SACAC, OACAC, HECA and IECA (feel free to Google those) and lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

1.) Can you tell us a little of how you came to be “The College Essay Guy”? Sure! I studied screenwriting in college at Northwestern and after graduating I got a job as a college essay coach and realized many of the principles of screenwriting applied to college essay writing. So I started teaching my students screenwriting principles and voila! Some of them wrote really amazing essays and were accepted into some great schools. I enjoyed counseling so much that I went out and got two counseling certificates, started working on a book, started posting content from that book online and after my friend read some of my content she said, “You could be like THE college essay guy.” So I saw that no one else already was and I thought, “Oh. I guess that’s me.”  (Ethan can be found at

2.) Can you share any success stories? Yes – I had a student named Ahra who was really shy growing up until she joined her school’s Debate Club, which helped her come out of her shell. Eventually debate helped her not only develop personal confidence, but it also improved her personal relationships and she went on to win an international award. She used the narrative structure to tell her story, and, thanks to her awesome grades and SATs, she’s now at Stanford. Another student of mine, Julia, had no idea what she wanted to study, but knew she loved scrapbooking. So she used scrapbooking as a focusing lens to write an awesome essay that tells about lots of different aspects of her life. She just graduated from Amherst.

3) What is your philosophy for the essay writing process?  I believe we’re all storytellers. Telling stories is how we make sense of our lives, how we give shape to the chaos. And what I particularly love about the college essay is that it requires students to take stock of their past, present and future–which is a lot–and to turn it all into a one-page statement. It takes time, but it’s totally possible and the experience can be fun, therapeutic, and in some cases life-changing.

4.) Can you give us a few quick tips? Sure.  First, in the vast sea of college prep activities, some people overlook the college essay. It’s true, GPA and course load (tough classes) are what colleges tend to care about most. Then, generally speaking, standardized test scores. But if your GPA and test scores are close to someone else’s, the essay can make the difference. Parke Muth, former associate Dean at UVA, has written more about this here. Second, some students make the mistake of thinking a personal statement can be written in one night. I find it takes on average 15-25 hours to write a really fantastic personal statement.

5.) What is the best college essay story you’ve ever heard and why? The best college essays stories I’ve read are the “I Shot My Brother” essay, about a student who shot his brother, and the “Dead Bird” essay, about a student who tried to save a dying bird. Here are four qualities of these amazing essays (and notes on what students can steal from them).

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