3 Tips For Acing The School-Specific College Essay Prompt

Also known as, "Is ANYTHING unique?"

Northwestern University

You’re really psyched to go to Northwestern. It’s your dream school. Then, in their application supplement, you read this college essay prompt:

“What are the unique qualities of Northwestern—and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying—that make you want to attend the University?”

…And you think, Good question. Why do you want to attend Northwestern? What are the “unique qualities” that attracted you? Oftentimes it’s hard to come up with an answer – after all, “I love their mascot” and “Stephen Colbert went to Northwestern!” aren’t quite essay-worthy responses.

But it’s not as easy as glancing at their website to find a better reason. Every school says they offer “unique” features that really aren’t unique at all. “World-class faculty,” “a comprehensive liberal arts education,” “a commitment to shaping tomorrow’s leaders” – forget unique; what school doesn’t boast those kinds of characteristics? If you try to pass those off as the unique qualities that make you want to attend, the admissions committee will not be impressed. (It’s rather unfair.)

Just because they’re making false claims, however, doesn’t mean you have to. Here’s a guide to finding the “uniqueness” in any school.

First, dig deeper. Top-notch libraries, brilliant faculty, a beautiful campus – these things are not special. But maybe you’re interested in botany (hey, it could happen) and School X has one of the world’s best botanical libraries. Maybe you want to be a playwright and David Mamet is in charge of the theater program. Or maybe the school you want to go to is situated in the Rocky Mountains, on the shores of a crystal-blue lake, underneath an ever-present rainbow. Now we’re talking.

Second, remember that unique doesn’t mean awesome. It means one-of-a-kind. Let’s say you researched your dream school and found out that they have five a cappella groups. And let’s say your love for your dream school is only rivaled by your devotion to a cappella. That’s great – but it doesn’t tell your school the answer to the question “why THIS school, and not another one?” Lots of schools have multiple a cappella groups. If you point out great features but don’t show why they’re better than those at other schools (e.g., five award-winning a cappella groups that perform at the White House every year), schools will be unimpressed with the research you’ve done and unconvinced that they’re really your top choice.

Finally, keep in mind that this is your essay. Northwestern – or any school – doesn’t just want to hear the front page of their website parroted back at them. (Or any page of their website, for that matter.) So don’t just list “It’s so cool that Northwestern has this, I love that Northwestern has that.” Explain why these features are valuable or exciting to you in particular, from your perspective. Only talk about the research labs if you want to use them, and don’t bring up the super famous professor if you really have no idea what she teaches. Stick to your personal interests, and if your reasoning is sincere and intelligent, the actual content you praise is less important.

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