Don’t “Write the Brochure.”

It’s around now that many HS seniors start tackling those pesky short-answer essays, generally on the theme and variations of, “Why do you want to go here?” What those colleges are really asking is, “What will you bring here?” The tricky part is finding a balance between showing them that, and also answering the question they pose.

Why do you want to go there, anyway? Do you know?

Here’s what often happens. Students are more than a little stressed with senior year classes and the many additional tasks of the college application process, and they draft a quick answer about what a great college town Austin is or how Northwestern’s music school has brand-spanking-new buildings.

I call this, “writing the brochure.” Please don’t do it. Colleges know how wonderful they are. So, phrases like “diversified student body,” “fantastic professors,” and “small, personal classes” sound as if they’ve been lifted out of pretty much all college brochures or websites, and tell the college nothing about you.

What you need to do is research each individual college. If you can visit, that’s a plus, but it’s not always practical. So, how do you research your colleges? You look at their course offerings in the fields you are particularly interested in, and write down one or two really interesting-sounding courses. You look up professors and see if they’ve written books on the subjects you love. Some students even write to those professors to tell them of their interest — although you might want to consider this only for your top-choice schools.

You also check out the school newspaper, school sports teams, the school calendar, and the different clubs offered. All of this information is available online, both at the colleges’ own websites and at many other college advice sites. Look for the things that really grab you, that get your pulse racing. Now do you know why you want to go there?

In writing the essay, one approach is to start with a passion, an activity or a class you love right now, perhaps writing a little anecdote about a moment that shows your love for this subject or hobby, and then go on to say how excited you were to learn that Brick and Ivy University offers a math club for sports statistics geeks, or that the author of your favorite book on equatorial marine mollusks is actually a professor there! In this way, you show them more about yourself, you show them you’ve done your homework, and you show them how interested you are in their college.

By pointing out the very specific opportunities that match up with your unique interests, you can ace this essay. Just don’t write the brochure. The college has already written it — and so have thousands of other applicants.