How to Crack the "Why This School?" College Essay: 5 Tips for Success

A Dartmouth College graduate and admissions coach shares a five-step plan for tackling the most generic yet tricky college essay prompt: "Why this school?" Learn how to make your candidacy stand out to the admissions committee.

Celeste G.

By Celeste G.

Posted November 21, 2023

“Why Dartmouth?”, “Why Princeton?”, “Tell us why you want to come to our school in 100 words or less.”

If you’re applying to college this year, odds are you’ve probably had to answer one of these questions on each one of your applications. Showing how ‘sold’ you are on a particular school can be tricky. While you don’t want to come across as overly generic, there’s also a fear that omitting the most well-known aspects of the particular college could show that you haven’t done your research.

When I wrote my “Why Dartmouth?” essay back in the fall of 2018, I remember feeling a deep sense of conflict over whether I should touch on Dartmouth’s academic caliber or center my short response around a club I had heard about that I thought captured Dartmouth’s sense of community well. My internal dialogue went something like this:

“I’m sort of interested in Econ and I know Dartmouth has a strong department, but, since it’s such a popular major, everyone’s going to write about that. I’ll look like every other applicant if I make that the subject. But if I don’t write about Econ and focus on the Diner Tour club instead – which does sound super cool and something I think I could spin a good metaphor out of – are they going to think I don’t care about school? That I’m just interested in coming to Dartmouth to join a club that travels to local diners every Thursday morning?”

To spare you the suspense, I chose Diner Tour over Econ. To this day I still believe that it was the strongest essay in my application, even though it was only 100 words. Below is the five-step approach that I used to craft that essay and the process that has helped many of my clients tackle this short-form beast.

1. Leave out academics.

This one might be the most controversial, but I truly believe that the 100-word “Why” essay is not the place to talk about what you want to major in. The rest of your application – including your grades, courses, extracurriculars, recommendations, longer-form essays, and the Common App section where you specifically select what you want to study – should paint a clear enough picture to infer that. If that’s not the case, it may be a good idea to review how your application reads as a whole.

2. Write about something specific that genuinely caught your interest.

My first piece of advice to students is to think back to your campus tour or even just the first time you browsed the school’s website. Is there anything that stood out? Perhaps a particular physical spot, activity, club, tradition, or even a short interaction between students that you witnessed? Drill down on something specific, even if you don’t know why exactly it spoke to you yet. You can figure that out as you write!

3. Make use of the metaphor.

This is the part where you tie your specific small nugget to what attracts you to the school in general. In my case, I saw Diner Tour club as a microcosmic example of Dartmouth's strong ties both internally and with the local New Hampshire community. It doesn’t need to fit strictly under the definition of metaphor; simply aim to use a small example to illustrate a larger point.

4. Make it personal.

Adding a little bit of personality is always important. While it can be tricky in such a short form, even including just a sentence about why your chosen person/place/thing from Step 2 stood out to you can bring a lot to the table. This may take some reflection and is even something you may want to go back and add at the very end of your writing process. Coming back to my example, I linked Diner Tour to my family’s weekend trips to our local diner called The “G-Lodge” and how this specific club at Dartmouth stood out to me as a potential space to create a home away from home.

5. Show what you can bring.

Again, even if only briefly, it’s important to include a mention of what you can bring to X College, especially after spending a whole 80+ words talking about what it can offer you. This doesn’t need to be something all that profound, just a brief reminder that admitting you would be a mutually beneficial transaction. In my essay, I simply mentioned that, by joining Diner Tour club, I would be contributing to the Dartmouth values of keeping a close-knit community and carrying on tradition. I also noted that, based on some of the community engagement initiatives I had seen back at home at the G-Lodge, I could bring new ideas to the club of ways to support local restaurant businesses in the Hanover area.

In sum…

While there’s no hard and fast framework for creating the perfect essay, I’ve found this template particularly useful for the tricky “Why [X College]” question type. It’s important to note that your individual case may be different. Perhaps writing about a specific academic program does make sense in the context of your application, but I encourage you to try this method and enjoy the reflective process that it encourages.

Celeste G. graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Economics and English before joining Bain Capital as a Global Research Associate. She brings differentiated, meaningful insight to the often life-changing process that is navigating college admissions, and would love to help you stand out to the AdCom of your dream school. Book a FREE intro call with Celeste G. today!

Read these next:

Browse hundreds of expert coaches

Leland coaches have helped thousands of people achieve their goals. A dedicated mentor can make all the difference.

Browse Related Articles