I received an email over the Labor Day weekend from a father named Mike, whose daughter is unsure about how to handle a typical questions on her college applications. Here is the common question:
Why do you want to attend this college?
After visiting 10 schools this summer the schools are beginning to blur to her. At a few she gets a fuzzy feeling that she would like it, but she is not absolutely in love with any of them. Do you have an opinion what colleges are looking for in an answer to this question? – Mike
Here’s my Response:
I think it’s pretty obvious to me what colleges are asking for. Admission officers want to know if an applicant has at least an elementary understanding of their institutions. It’s not a trick question.
If Mike’s daughter only possesses, at most, a “fuzzy feeling” about a school, I am wondering why she is applying. Too much is riding on the outcome to rely on vague feelings that she formed after spending two or three hours on a campus.
Treating All Schools the Same
I happen to know that the schools on this girl’s list are almost entirely elite institutions on the East Coast. Unfortunately, I think students who are aiming for these types of schools treat these institutions as if they are homogenous.
Elite or not, every school has institutional priorities. All colleges possess strengths and weaknesses. Each of them has a personality.
The high school senior needs to research schools on her list and decide which ones would represent a good match. After she does her research, answering this application question will be easier.
6 Ways to Research Colleges
Here are some things that I would suggest she do to explore colleges:
1. Spend time on a school’s admission website. This will give you an idea of what a school wants you to know and what makes it proud. Sure it’s propaganda, but it can also be helpful.
2. Spend time on a school’s academic web pages. Check out the online homes of individual departments that interest you.
3. Check the institutional research home of each college. You can sometimes find lots of great information about schools on these online sites, which most families don’t even know exist. Here is an example of a one such site at Swarthmore College, which is on the list of Mike’s daughter.
4. Talk to current students and ask them what they like and dislike about their school and why they ultimately selected their college. Ask what they would change if they could about their college. If you know what major you would like to pursue, also seek out students currently enrolled in that major.
5. Check composite Rate My Professors rankings for schools and check professor rankings within a department.
You’ll get more ideas about researching schools from the second edition of my book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.
And finally, here is an old post that I wrote about the issue Mike raised: Two Important Questions When Applying to College.
What Do You Think?
If you want to share suggestions, please use the comment box below.