“Why Carnegie Mellon [or any other school you are applying to]?"

Look at the following prompts from some of this year’s supplements to the Common Application:

“…explain why you have chosen Carnegie Mellon?”

“Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences [Cornell University]?”

“Write about subjects and learning situations that interest you most, and how you intend to use your autonomy here [University of Rochester]?”

 They are all asking pretty much the same question:  What do you expect to gain by attending our school?

Before you attempt to answer, it is a good idea to know a few things. First, what are your objectives (goals) for college?  Saying you want to become a doctor is an objective, but it isn’t specific enough. What things are you hoping to get out of your four years in college to become a capable doctor?

Let’s look at this a little differently. Assume, when you graduate, that you want to attend Stanford Medical School. What does Stanford seek in its medical students? Obviously, the premedical coursework is science intensive, that’s a given. Stanford, though, is also looking for candidates who have done research throughout their undergraduate careers.  Further, almost all the successful candidates have medically related work experience.  You also need to speak well (your medical school interview will be high stakes), and write well. Of the 6,567 applicants applying to Stanford Medical School, 463 will be interviewed: that’s 7%.  Finally, 86 will matriculate; less than 1.3% of the total applicant pool will be admitted.  The writing sample on the MCAT needs to be superior.  Further, Stanford recommends that applicants take college English, humanities, and social sciences (the Stanford Pre-Med website strongly suggests that medical school applicants major in a subject outside of biology or chemistry—that’s good information to have). 

When you translate this information into your undergraduate needs you come up with:

  1. Solid grounding in the natural sciences: inorganic and organic chemistry, Biology, Physics
  2. Solid writing and communication skills
  3. Solid undergraduate research experience, preferably in a project that was published and you had a substantive role in
  4. Some medical work experience    

Now go into your target school’s website and determine how you’re going to attain these goals from its curriculum and offerings. The more you specify what you want to do at the school, the better. It means that you must read the school’s website, and possibly some well-informed guides (my favorite is the CollegeGuide.org from ISI because it not only clearly explains the curriculum, but details specific strengths and weaknesses. It is an invaluable source.)

If you’re writing about Boston University, then you might mention you hope to be part of the MMEDIC program (an honors program that offers pre-clinical experience in preparation for Medical School). That would help you with #1 and #4 above. You also might mention that while at Boston University you plan to do a great deal of research at their facilities on Cummington Street, which addresses #3 on your goal list. Lastly, in relation to writing and communicating more effectively, it might not be a bad idea to mention that you’re excited by the core curriculum offered at Boston University (and it is actually one of the better ones) and that from the extensive first-year writing class, you expect to infinitely improve your writing and speaking skills (that takes care of #2).

How well-received will such a response be by the admissions department? Even if the essay shows limited imagination, it does show that you took the time, and have the interest, to do extensive research about the university. That is critical because few students do. Second, you have your goals for the next 8-10 years. You have created a blueprint to follow. Invaluable, especially if you are trying to become a doctor.