Why Our School? When You Can't take a Tour.

One of the essays students I have worked with struggle with the most is the "Why Our School?" essay. For international students, this challenge is particularly daunting because the time and expense of coming to a campus tour may be out of reach for many. Differing holiday schedules may make a traditional tour impossible. How do you answer this question if you have never really been on campus?

Take heart: the tour is only one part of answering the "Why Our School?" question. Being in a place physically can certainly give you a sense of it, there is no doubt. (And tours gain you points in the "demonstrated interest" calculation.) However, essays that begin with a florid version of "I just had a feeling when I was on campus...." are not content-rich enough to make it seem that you know what they are selling and will likely send your application into the "meh" pile. 

You have to understand why the schools ask the "Why Our School?" question in the first place. It comes in as many versions as there are schools, but the heart of the query - and what they are looking for in the answer - is your understanding of the intellectual community they are intentionally creating - and how you will contribute to it.

How do you figure that out? One word: Research. Tours are good, but a 30-minute tour by a student host is no substitute for good research. 

What does good research give you? Done right, it should leave you with an understanding of and ability to express what is unique about the nature and texture of the academic community on that campus. Just be aware: the intellectual environment is separate and apart from the setting, geography, weather, living arrangements, and social and extracurricular activities available. 

How do you figure out what the characteristics of the academic and intellectual community the institution aims to create are? Through reading, analysis, and synthesis of many sources of information about the school, from many different stakeholders. These should include several sources such as:

1. The website. Read the school's website completely. With a pen in your hand, note the words that are used multiple times. As I do this for my own alma mater, The University of Chicago, a set of words emerge...inquiry, collaboration, debate, question, critical thinking. These are core values of the school and describe it pretty well. Another school, the University of Wisconsin- Madison, results in visionary, energetic, engagement, service - which (just on the surface) is congruent with what I have heard about that school. The way an institution talks about itself isn't random: it's based on its own understanding of itself and its aims. 

2. The Motto. Seriously. Look up the motto of the school. Figure out how it is put into practice.  Nota Bene: try not to refer to it in your essay unless you really want to be cliche. I've seen it done about a million times badly. 

3. The Student Newspaper. Find the student newspaper online. Most of them have both digital and paper copies these days. Beware - some schools will have two or more, each with different political leanings. Read the articles for several weeks. What sections are robust? What makes headlines? What causes controversy? What results in letters to the editor? This will give an excellent picture of what qualifies as "news" to the community. 

4. College Review Websites. Check all the college review websites for student opinions. Caveat emptor: take the opinions written therein with a grain of salt. Some will be sour grapes, writers may make broad and sweeping statements that aren't strictly reflective of reality. Consider your source but if you start to hear patterns in the words, use your judgement about whether or not that is what you want. 

5. YouTube. YouTube has millions of both official and "independent" tour videos. It also has tons and tons of "Things University of X students say" videos and other humorous content that gives you a sense of the culture. Look in the background of the student videos to see what real students look like. 

6. Major News Outlets. Search your school's name in a variety of news outlets and search engines and see what happens there that makes local, regional, national, and international news. Is it academic? Criminal? Political? This is a wonderful way to get a bead on what is currently relevant and top-of-mind on campus. 

7. College Guides. College guides such as U.S. News & World Report, Fisk, Peterson's, Princeton Review, and the like often have both capsule reviews for schools and lists of similar "cohort" schools. 

8. Social Media. Check out your school's Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblr and other channels. Look for social media accounts for student organizations you might join or for the departments and fields that interest you. All of them will give a sense of what is going on at the school in real time. 

With a thorough review of all these sources, you can build a composite picture of the school you are applying to and can better articulate how you fit in there. 

Additionally, you should be able to demonstrate an interest in a particular discipline or department. The departmental websites will have lists of faculty and their courses taught. Their syllabi are often available online. Look into faculty research and published papers. Many are available, in abstract, online. Look for interdepartmental collaborations and research centers and initiatives. Knowledge of these specifics and being able to comment on how they will advance your education and proven areas of interest will go a long way to both differentiating you from the masses of applicants that did NOT do this work, and building a case for your reader of why you will take the best advantage of the opportunities available to you if you are admitted.

Schools want to admit students who will be happy there, will stay, and will make meaningful contributions to the community. The first step of demonstrated interest is letting them know you know what they are offering and that you want it.

A tour can tell you a lot, but it is nowhere near the whole answer.

Alexander Paschka