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If you’re applying to a number of schools via the Common Application, you’ll most likely see a supplemental essay prompt that asks something along the lines of “Why do you want to attend NYU [or whatever school]?” Some variations on this prompt would include “What specific courses of study at [NYU] have inspired you to apply?” Or, “The [NYU] student body is bright and diverse. Why are you motivated to join them here at [NYU]?” In other words, “Why [NYU]?”

Being the hilarious college counselor that I am, I have often wanted to advise my clients to respond this way: “Why NYU? Why not?” However, I think such a concise, brilliant reply would no doubt result in the shortest distance possible between your application in the admission officer’s hands and the “DENY!” pile. So, I don’t offer that knee-slapping insight to frustrated essay writers.

I do have a few thoughts, though, about the best way to handle this (WARNING: SAT word ahead) ubiquitous essay prompt. It all falls under the umbrella of one word: specificity. (Maybe I should have posted another SAT-word warning for that one.) In any event, your response will require you to do some Web research. The result will be a “Why [put your college name here]?” essay that will set you apart from the other unimaginative, even lazy applicants against whom you are competing.

I’ve heard some others explain their approaches to the “Why?” prompt. One well-meaning teacher instructed her students to use the college’s mission statement as the pivot point for a response. She told her students to align their own ideals with each point of that particular school’s mission statement. Have you ever read a mission statement? They are some of the most pretentious, committee-devised examples of drivel out there. Here’s an example:

“[This particular college, which shall remain unnamed] aims to develop independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, characterized by a zest for reasoned and civil debate, committed to understanding the diversity of the human experience, able to express ideas with clarity and grace, committed to life-long learning, equipped with ethical and civic values, and prepared for lives of leadership and service. The College is committed to providing an intellectually rigorous undergraduate education within the context of a supportive, diverse residential community. Our curriculum integrates the traditional liberal arts with selected pre-professional studies. Our faculty are passionate about teaching, value close relationships with students, and are committed to the pedagogical and intellectual importance of research. All members of our community are committed to educating the whole person through experiences within and beyond the classroom …”

Yikes! I didn’t even quote the whole thing! The original first sentence is 56 words in length! How about “the pedagogical and intellectual importance of research”? What the heck is that?! Talk about SAT words! Anyway, picture yourself trying to “align [your] own ideals with each point of that particular school’s mission statement.” An exercise in futility, for sure.

Well, you won’t get any of that kind of advice here. Click the “More” link for the right way to answer the “Why?” prompt.

Step 1: Go to the college’s Web site. Then, search for the section that addresses your particular area of academic interest. Let’s say that you’re interested in biology, perhaps to pursue a premed track. (By the way, if you happen to be undecided about a major, you can always pretend to be excited about one. Your goal is to get in. You won’t be held to anything you say about a major in your application. You can always change from the organic chemistry references in your application to Undergraduate Studies (a favorite among football players at DI schools) after you enroll.

Step 2: Okay. You’ve found the college’s biology section. Now, start looking for some course information. Once you’ve found that, pick out a couple courses that look good to you. These would b courses that would pique your interest. Example: “BI-105   Biological Diversity and Ecology (Fall; Yearly; 3.00 Credits; N) The first of two introductory courses for students pursuing a program of emphasis in biology or in related areas such as biochemistry or environmental science. Topics covered include Mendelian genetics, evolution, ecology and the diversity of life.”

With this specific information, you could write something like, “I’m particularly focused on the relationship between biological science and the environment. [NYU’s] BI-105   Biological Diversity and Ecology course is of special interest to me.” Depending on the word limit for your response (most are in the 250-word range), you could add another course, or even two.

Step 3: Faculty mentions. Now it’s time to get specific about faculty. Go to the faculty listing of your college’s Web site. There you will find links to professors’ biosketches. These are very helpful (and specific). For example, let’s continue with your biology/premed-track “Why?” response. So, after searching for biology-related faculty, you find Dr. Thomas Chou’s background blurb.

Thus, your response could continue something like this: “I note that Dr. Thomas Chou’s focus lies in understanding the behavioral adaptations and cellular modifications an organism makes in response to environmental challenges. This is the area I would like to pursue, possibly even later, in a graduate school program.” Well done! Now you have achieved specificity in both the areas of courses and faculty. You could even cite a second faculty member, if word limits allow.

Step 4: Physical resources. The final phase of your “Why?” response involves addressing your school’s physical resources. Let’s say that you’ve dug deeper into your college’s Web site’s biology section and found that they have a mechanobiology lab. You could wrap up your statement with something like, “Also, my interest in global environmental cellular reactions leads me to view [college’s name]‘s mechanobiology lab as a prime site for me to study the the fundamental nature of how cells sense and respond to mechanical stimuli, and to employ the principles revealed by these studies to seek new treatments for vascular disease and to develop tissue constructs for drug and toxicity screening.” All this (granted, a little puffy) verbiage can be produced by adapting text from the Web site’s descriptions.

Summary: Can you see the difference between be specific about a college’s courses, faculty, and resources and how they apply to your educational goals vs. talking about a mission statement or gushing about what a great city New York (or Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, etc.) is? I sure hope you can.

So, class, one more time. What’s our special Word of the Day? Specificity!

Go for it!