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Crafting College-Specific Admissions Essays

After wrapping up visits to college campuses this summer, many high school seniors are thinking about what schools they liked and why. The application for some requires students to translate those thoughts into an essay that answers the question: "Why do you want to go to X university?"

This is a tough assignment. What are colleges really looking for? What kind of research should students do? When applying to several schools, how can students be authentic in conveying that X college is the one for them?

For some answers, I turned to an expert: Sarah McGinty, an educational consultant in Boston and author of The College Application Essay published by the College Board first in 1986 and updated most recently in 2003.

While I considered the question, "Why X college?" as cliche, McGinty hailed it as one of the most ancient, venerable, and really great questions a school can have on an application. "They have every legitimate right to ask it," she says. "They don't want to admit you if they can't provide what you are looking for in your education."

All essays require students to know themselves and know what they want. "You have to start looking in before looking out," says McGinty. However, these institution-specific essays demand a second level of research. Students should spend some time on the school's website to find some of the classes that interest them and unique activities that they can weave into an essay.

Begin with academics, McGinty advises writers. Don't open with a comment about the weather or the beauty of the campus. Focus on what it is that the school offers academically that is a match with your interests and vision for the future.

Then mention what else appeals to you about the school. "These should be differentiating features," she says. Ideally, prospective students visit the campus to learn what makes it special. Another secret resource is a recent graduate from your high school who now attends that college. Email them about how the high school prepared them for college, what they like about the campus, and what they would change.

Finally, be careful. Get a second set of eyes to proof your writing, says McGinty. Each of these essays should be unique, so don't make the mistake of writing in the name of the wrong school or mention something on the campus the school doesn't offer.

As for sounding genuine, students just need to make the case that a particular school is right for them—it doesn't have to say it is the only school for them, adds McGinty. If students reflect on what they really want in a school and a certain institution fits that criteria, that match should come across in the essay.

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