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Why College, and Why ‘THAT’ College?

By Robert A.G. LeVine

High school seniors feverishly complete their college applications, hoping to be offered admission to their dream schools. In many applications, a popular supplemental essay asks applicants to explain “why” they are a good fit for the college. This essay is perhaps even more important than the main personal statement that applicants fret and toil over for months. Unfortunately, most applicants have no idea how to answer that question.

The concept of “demonstrated interest” is a critical yet poorly known aspect of the colleges’ evaluations. Although most people realize that admissions is highly competitive among applicants, few realize how competitive it is among the colleges. Many universities have trouble filling their classes, and some Ivy League schools have only a 50 percent chance of having their admissions offers accepted by prospective students. As a result, admissions representatives are highly attuned to whether an applicant is truly interested in their school. They do not want to make offers to applicants who consider the college to be a backup choice.

“Why” essays should not merely recite words and terms listed on the college’s website. They should not try to give every possible reason for attending the school. They should focus on the applicant’s real reasons for wanting to select this university for one of the most important life moments of growth. For applicants who select colleges based upon reputation or rankings, real reasons are elusive.

To write an effective “why” essay, applicants need to spend focused time researching a college deeply. Look not only at what they teach, but consider how they teach. Colleges do not teach in the same way that high schools teach. Understand their philosophy about education, not just the subjects they offer. If they do not require that students select their majors immediately, find out how they designed the curriculum that will be used before students dive deep into their majors. Take a look at how they developed an overall educational environment, not just whether a department is considered strong by some outside news media.

In short, before writing the “why” essays, an applicant must understand not only his or her own strengths and preferences, but also how the strengths and methods of the university could merge with them to make a good fit.

To do this effectively, students should first know the answer to a simply question: Why go to college at all?

It is amazing how often I meet students who have no real idea why there are going to college. Our American society strongly emphasizes a college education, thus making it seem like an assumption or requirement for our youth, not an intelligently considered option. Are you going to college merely as a gateway to graduate school? Are you going to collect a diploma for use in seeking a job? Are you going to learn things, or to learn methods and perspectives? Are you going for the purpose of enjoying “the best years of your life” by partying and traveling abroad?

When applicants have a reasonable understanding of the value of college to them, and of the reason why particular colleges make sense for them, then “why” essays can be extremely effective influencers in the application process.

When drafting these essays, style should follow content. A good “why” essay should include at least four pieces of information. Do you have a direction? Why do you have that direction? Do you have any experience in that direction? Why does our university make sense for your direction?

With personal answers to those questions, drafting the “why” essay is not difficult. My final recommendation is to write in your own voice. Each admissions representatives reads thousands of these essays every year, so try not to bore them by sounding too polished or stuffy.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email or visit



On Growing Up and Letting Go

By Anu Varma Panchal

All over the place, they were doing it. A mom I volunteered with at the kids’ school admitted that she did it annually with childhood friends in a cabin by a lake. Another friend told of a group of women who did it on cruise ships. The evidence popped up on my Facebook feed featuring blissed-out women in Napa Valley, Cancun, Las Vegas — even the Himalayan foothills.

That’s it, my friends and I said firmly. Enough of this martyred oh-we-couldn’t-possibly nonsense. It was time to experience it first-hand: The Ladies’/Moms’ weekend getaway, big sister to the Girls Night Out. And finally, we had a legit reason to go — my 40th birthday, which I was generous enough to donate to the cause. This milestone has apparently become the new frontier of extravagant celebrations, and who were we to flout social conventions?

We picked a destination, broke the news to our families and noted the dates in our calendars. The Efficient One amongst us organized plane tickets and hotel rooms. After the initial elation subsided, panic hit and hand-wringing ensued. Would our children survive without us? Would we, without them? Would their dads respond to the joys and crises of their lives with appropriately calibrated levels of joy, interest and outrage? Was it really OK to get away from our homes for a weekend without business, work or family justification?

Countless blog posts, navel-gazing HuffPo articles and even scholarly papers assure us that the answer is a resounding “yes.” It is wise and even necessary for parents to make time to check back in with the individuals we were before we began defining ourselves by our familial roles.

Aviator and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in 1955 in her beautiful book of essays, “Gift from the Sea,” that mothers are the only workers who don’t get paid time off. “They are the great vacationless class,” she writes. “They rarely even complain of their lack, apparently not considering occasional time to themselves as a justifiable need.”

Sixty years later, Lindbergh’s views appear to hold true — ironically more for those my age than in my parents’ generation. Leisure was a grace that my parents granted themselves generously, not something to be snatched furtively as I so often do today in my child-centric life. Both my parents made time for afternoon naps, good books, the niceties of tea time and long walks. They unapologetically worked, played their music in the car, visited their friends in boring houses where there were no kids our age, and made travel plans without consulting our schedules or entertainment prospects. Yet, my sister and I thrived in that atmosphere, in the reflected serenity of two fulfilled people that was more of a warm glow than the scorching spotlight that is so often the intense parenting focus today.

The intensity of that focus may be as oppressive for us as for the little ones under it, we realized once we had finally, this past August, pulled off four days in Boston. During a beautiful long weekend, my three friends and I sauntered around the gorgeous city, taking in museums and shops and restaurants and looping through long, uninterrupted conversations. We lingered over restaurant meals without having to help with the word search on the kids menu or crawl under the table to find the yellow crayon or attend to someone’s urgent bathroom need just when our entrée arrived. We slept wonderfully, unhindered by the stress of things left undone or to-do lists for the next day. We decompressed and unwound and let go of much of the control we tried so hard to hold in our daily lives. Why on earth, we asked each other, hadn’t we done this before?

When I returned to intact children, signed planners and a tidy home, I realized that (a) I’m not the only parent in this family who can hold down the fort (b) I had done all of us a favor by allowing myself the freedom to be an individual first, a lesson I hope my daughters are able to imbibe.

The only real problem is that I may have picked up a habit I can’t kick. A gorgeous fall weekend at the end of September found me swanning around New York City with my sister, merely calling home in a desultory fashion once a day to check in. OK; maybe twice. Or thrice. But the point is that this time, I didn’t even sweat it, and neither did my family. I guess at the age of 40, I’ve finally grown up enough to let go a little, and maybe that permission is the best gift we can all give ourselves.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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