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“Why this college?” That pesky prompt asks the seemingly benign question, “Why do you want to attend our school?”

The “Why this college?” essay ends up frequently being a lame attempt to tell the college what they think the college wants to hear. Bad idea. It’s unfortunate that this essay becomes a lost opportunity for most students because their essays sound generic and they lack critical thinking.

What are the colleges looking for in a response? They want to know that you have done your homework about their school and that your interest is genuine. It is your job to convince them.

They are also concerned about protecting their “yield” – will you come if they accept you? Yield is one of the factors utilized in college rankings, and writing a solid essay about why this college is a good fit for you gives the college an indication of how serious your interest is in their school.

Best ways to respond to the “Why this college?” prompt:

1. Explore the website thoroughly. Read all about any majors that sound intriguing and check to see if there are any multidisciplinary majors that pique your interest. Conduct your own research on each college’s study-abroad opportunities, types of companies that come to recruit at the career center and “living and learning communities.” These are special-interest dorms (environmental, language-based, etc.). Check out an honors program, if available, and see what perks there might be such as early course registration, honors dorms, etc.

2. Research the student activities tab. Make notes on the clubs and organizations in which you’d plan to participate.

3. When you write the essay, make reference to your campus visit and highlight some of what you learned while you were there or during your college research.

4. Make it unique. Don’t use the same essay for every school and don’t write something any other student could write.

This is the essay that gets many students into trouble because they multipurpose it. They send it to one school and then forget to change out the name of the first college and send it to multiple schools. That’s a real “no-no” in the admissions office because it demonstrates a lack of genuine interest.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.