Ask Why?

By Elizabeth Marksteiner

Why? Schools like to measure ‘what’s. Data is quantitative; so and so many applications to this or that country, so and so many to ‘good universities.’ Why, in contrast, is qualitative. Ideally, it is personal, honest, possibly awkward. In university advising, it is a critical self-reflective piece that gets lost. And it is not just in that role, but all. When was the last time you stopped to be honest with yourself and ask why you are doing what you are doing?


University applications that demand some writing, inevitably have some kind of ‘why’ question. Why do you want to study here? Why do you want to study this? Why do you think you’re a good fit? The format varies depending on the country and the course the student is applying to. But essentially the question boils down to the same thing: are you sure about this? Show me you know what you’re getting into! That self-reflection is critical. 

Pity the poor student. They are trying to juggle the aspirations of their peers, the school, and their parents. Ah, the well-meaning parent! Parents generally want to do the ‘right thing’ for their child. And the student generally feels an obligation to their parent. Working with students, I can immediately tell, as can universities, whether the parents wrote that ‘why’ piece. They think they’re helping. They’ve written job applications after all. Identifying that authorship with a student and asking them why this happens, the student invariably asks: “how do I tell my parents that it’s my application; that the university wants to hear why I want this?”

Voila! Bingo! Asking why is the key to ensuring that it is the student in charge. Why do YOU feel you ought to head on this path? It is a difficult question. It needs asking.

I had a sharp reminder of why asking ‘why’ is so critically important this time last year. An ex-student asked to meet on a medical leave of absence. Within weeks of getting on campus it was evident that this was the wrong UK course (and unlike the US, not easy to switch majors….) I realised I had spent far too little time questioning ‘why’ the student was making the choices they were making. My work had been focused on the ‘what’ – essays, recommendations, tests, but not nearly enough time asking ‘why?’

Talking about ‘why’ things hadn’t worked out was cathartic, for the student, and for me. But in asking ‘why’, the student comes to a clearer self-understanding of ‘why’ they are doing this. Unfortunately, it’s time-consuming. It is also very much the under-valued ‘counselling’ piece of ‘college counselling.’

Final point. I had a student who was working diligently on an essay for his university application, having done extensive reading and research. But a couple of drafts in, I asked ‘why do you want to do this?’ It was as if the student had never been asked this question before. Methodically responding to my tasks, the self-reflection had disappeared and suddenly the essay was dull, not authentic. 

A student that says: “I feel I ought to” or “I don’t want to disappoint my parents” is talking about a choice that is no longer theirs. School leaders, give your counsellors enough time to ask the ‘why’ of a student. Counsellors, take a moment to ask ‘why’ the student is on this path. Be persistent. That ‘why’ makes for, not just a better application, but a better outcome – if you dare to be honest with yourselves.


Elisabeth Marksteiner was College Counselor at the International School of Zug and Luzern in Switzerland for 12 years before establishing her own company, EKMEC in 2017. Recently repatriated to Cambridge, Elisabeth currently serves on the board of the International ACAC. You can follow her blog at

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