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“Why do you want to come here?”

As students rush to meet application deadlines, it is some version of this seemingly benign essay prompt that frequently induces a creative “paralysis by analysis” that brings progress to a screeching halt.

The “Why do you want to come here?” question is a common short-answer essay prompt (supplemental to users of the Common Application) at selective colleges that is often—and easily—overlooked until the application preparation is winding down. Then, it looms larger than life for the student who is eager to wrap up the process.

On the surface, the question doesn’t seem that difficult. Surely, the college in question is highly reputable, is no doubt situated on a bucolic campus and, by all measures, boasts a first-rate faculty. What’s not to like about the place?! Superlatives can’t do justice to the “amazing” institution.

Students who respond in like manner, however, miss the point as well as an opportunity to make a meaningful impression. As they gush about the beautiful campus, or the school’s proximity to the city, or its top ranked academic program, applicants are effectively stating the obvious. They reveal little of substance about themselves and, perhaps more troubling to the readers of their applications, they fail to reveal a deeper understanding of the college. Their responses might as well have been lifted from the college’s promotional literature.

Conversely, discerning readers of the prompt recognize that there might be more to the question than meets the eye; hence, the paralysis. Their instincts about the question are correct, but the answers are not always obvious.

The fundamental purpose of the “Why…” question is to determine the synergy that exists between the student and the institution. Despite its rather simplistic nature, the question is really trying to get at the student’s potential for self-actualization within the context of the academic environment of the college in question. In other words, what do you know about yourself—your academic interests, goals and learning style—and the capacity of the college in question to support and encourage you?

In the abstract, the question requires a measure of self-awareness that is uncommon for most 17-year-olds. It gains complexity when framed in the context of a nuanced academic environment, thereby forcing the applicant to think critically about herself in the process.

Admission officers at highly selective institutions will learn a great deal from responses to the “Why…” question about a student’s maturity and depth of understanding relative the educational process. They will also be able to draw strong inferences about the student’s level of investment in learning about the school and its institutional culture.  Students who have not engaged in meaningful reflection, or who only have superficial exposure to a given institution, will be especially challenged when it comes to addressing this question.

To break the grip of “paralysis by analysis,” think synergy. How can you reveal the connection between yourself and the institution? Frankly, this question is as much about you as it is the institution. What do you want to accomplish during your four years as an undergraduate? Beyond acquiring a degree, what questions burn inside you in search of answers? What unknowns do you want to explore? What talents, interests or perspectives would you like to develop further? This is where you can convince the reader of your application that you possess a seriousness of purpose. You’ll need to come up with at least one or two possibilities in order to get started.

Next, make the connection between your goals and objectives—and the institution’s capacity to support you in meeting them. Is this an academic culture that is consistent with your learning style? What do you know about the curriculum? Have you found specific courses that intrigue you? Draw upon exposure you have had to the institution or its members in order to support your presentation. Reflect on earlier visits to academic departments as well as conversations you might have had with professors or students. How have they persuaded you that the synergy does indeed exist?

As you can see, creating a compelling response to the “Why…?” essay prompt requires more than an awareness of a college’s reputation. Citing the superlatives is easy. If that is all you are able to muster in response to the question, you have effectively told the admission officers that yours is a superficial and, perhaps, whimsical interest that cannot to be taken seriously. And, if that is the case—if you continue to struggle to find a substantive response to the prompt—to might be wise to rethink your application to that college.

If, however, you are able to recognize the synergy—and can prove the synergy—you will make your application much more compelling to the institution in question.

Do you have questions about getting into U.S. colleges and universities? Send them to Peter Van Buskirk at: bestcollegefit.ac@gmail.com.

(Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, is author of “Winning the College Admission Game” and “Prepare, Compete, Win! The Ultimate College Planning Workbook.” For more tips on the college admission process, visit his website: www.bestcollegefit.com.)