How to Write the Northwestern Supplemental Essay 2020-2021: The Incredible Guide

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Northwestern University is a private research university in Evanston, Illinois. There are many reasons you might want to go to Northwestern. It boasts Big Ten sports teams, leading research opportunities, and a beautiful campus in Evanston, Illinois that is adjacent to Lake Michigan and just miles from Chicago.

And, of course, there are the elite academic programs and renowned faculty. Not surprisingly, Northwestern is a top-ten university. In 2020, Northwestern accepted only 9% of applicants!

Northwestern accepts the Common App. In addition to the Common App essay, Northwestern offers applicants the chance to write a supplemental essay that asks, “Why Northwestern?” Taking the time to write a well-crafted response to this essay will give you a better chance of being accepted to Northwestern.

So… why Northwestern?

Let us help you write the best Northwestern supplemental essay.

What are the Northwestern supplemental essay requirements?

In only 300 words, the admissions officers want you to think creatively about your fit for the school, and they want to see a sparkling example of your best prose.

Here’s the prompt:

While other parts of your application give us a sense of who you are, we are also excited to hear more about how you see yourself engaging with the larger Northwestern community.

In 300 words or less, help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.

This essay prompt is asking you two big questions: how you will engage with the community at Northwestern? How will Northwestern serve you?

That might seem like a big question to answer in only 300 words, but with some time and effort devoted to the brainstorming, writing, and editing processes, it doesn’t have to be all that intimidating! 

If you’re applying, chances are you can see yourself thriving on their campus. This essay gives you the chance to tell them exactly why and how: it’s a chance for you to tell a story.

You can break this essay down into three parts:

  1. A brief but affecting story that demonstrates an important aspect of who you are 
  2. A montage detailing the ways that your passion has played a role into your life to this day
  3. An explanation of how specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities at Northwestern will enrich that aspect of your life along with a forward-looking prediction about how you intend to engage the resources Northwestern has to offer to better yourself, both in college and beyond

Note the singular “aspect” of who you are, not “aspects.” To make this 300-word essay tenable, you want to focus on one aspect of yourself.

Like all personal statements, this essay will involve some brainstorming. It will also ask you to do some research – you have to know some things about Northwestern if you are going to try to convince someone that you would thrive at Northwestern!

After you’ve brainstormed and researched, you’re ready to write the story, the montage, and the explanation connecting your passion to Northwestern’s resources.

We have broken down this process into five steps. Tips for each of these five steps – brainstorm, research, story, montage, and your explanation about Northwestern – are described below.

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Brainstorming for the Northwestern supplemental essay: Why Northwestern?

Here are some questions you can use to guide your brainstorm:

  • What makes me, me?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What am I curious about?
  • What could I never give up?
  • What do I want to be when I grow up?
  • How have I cultivated my interests and passions?
  • What is something important about me I haven’t yet written about in my Common App essay?
  • What was the most meaningful experience of my life?
  • The common thread throughout this essay is YOU.

Maybe a close call in the hospital as a child has inspired you to pursue a pre-medical route of study so you can attend a medical school, become a doctor, and help patients like your doctors helped you.

Perhaps you were a swimmer and were just as interested in the physics of drag, buoyancy, and thrust as you were about winning the race, pushing you towards a passionate desire to make physics accessible and exciting to people of all ages.

Maybe you went with your dad to ball games and discovered you were more interested in human behavior and culture than the outcome of the game, and now you can’t wait to explore the connections between sociology, statistics, and sports.

Whatever your passion is, the important question is not just what, but why and what it is pushing you towards.

For example:

  • If you play the trombone, it’s not enough to enumerate your performances and achievements.
  • Think about what made you pick up the trombone in the first place, and what you plan to do with your passion and experience.

Maybe the trombone, an assertive instrument, speaks to your desire to be heard clearly.

Maybe it dovetails with your interest in human communication. And, perhaps, Northwestern would provide an environment where you could pursue interests in both music and sociology.

Important: Think about why you love the trombone, or something else, and how this talent will grow and flourish at the school.

Research Northwestern

Answering “Why Northwestern?” means you need to evaluate specific aspects of the university.

Here are some questions to ask as you research:

  • What courses and programs at Northwestern relate to my interest?
  • What are some of the classes or professors that pique my interest?
  • Are there specific student organizations I want to join?
  • Is there an organization I might want to start?
  • In what specific ways could the school help me realize my goals?

After you’ve brainstormed, you will want to take a good, long look at the school. Learn a little about its culture and its academics.

You may know that Northwestern is a top-10 school near Chicago with an active Greek culture, first-rate academics, and competitive Big 10 sports teams.

If you look a little deeper you’ll find that the school has stellar journalism and theater programs, a huge endowment, and a flexible quarter system. You’ll want to look at the specific programs and classes that relate to your interests and passions.

Northwestern is also big on interdisciplinary studies, so anything that spans more than one academic subject is a plus.

  • For example, if you’re into robotics, you’ll find that the school has an interdisciplinary lab on neuroscience and robotics. Maybe you’d think about how your interest in robotics is really rooted in an abiding curiosity in humanity and the quirks of the human mind. If so, imagine yourself in a class at the McCormick School of Engineering. 

This is where the question “Why Northwestern?” comes into play. You need specific details that relate to Northwestern in your essay. Constantly asking yourself this question will keep you from including generic details.

Write an “origin story” about an important aspect of who you are

Your story should do the following:

  • Describe the origin of an important passion of yours that is crucial to who you are.
  • Offer a vivid and descriptive anecdote from your life that describes the origin of this part of yourself.
  • Tell Northwestern what makes you “tick” in a way that your Common App does not.

After you’ve decided on a passion to write about and researched the school, you want to spend some time thinking about a vivid, specific moment when this passion “came alive” – a “this was the moment when…” origin story for your life. This vignette is how you will open up your essay.

You may want to try writing two or three vignettes to see which one works.

Here’s an example of a vignette that might work:

I realized that I had a passion for both telling stories and science in the fourth grade when my teacher had us keep caterpillars to observe their metamorphoses into butterflies. I became obsessed with the process. At home, I couldn’t stop thinking about my caterpillar. I wrote a story about a scared caterpillar in his pupa who was comforted by his family members who had already become butterflies. I ended up writing and illustrating a picture book telling this story! Looking back, I realize that that was the moment when I felt compelled to pursue the intersection between storytelling and biology; I wanted to create narratives about nature that were vivid and accessible, unlike my fourth grade science textbook.

Write a montage as to how you have continued to pursue your passion

Once you’ve written this short, compelling “origin story,” you want to show Northwestern the highlight reel of your passion ever since that fateful origin moment. Showcase your proudest accomplishments and most meaningful experiences.

To the story above, I might add the following:

I would later write science stories for my school newspaper, and I won an award for my story about a butterfly called the Painted Ladies. My English teacher introduced me to authors like Annie Dillard who help us see nature in startling new ways. By combining my skills from my AP Language and Composition and AP Biology classes, I have spent the year analyzing Dillard’s scientific accuracy and analyzing whether scientific accuracy helps or hinders in communicating science to non-scientists for a research paper.

Of course, biology isn’t everyone’s passion. Maybe you taught yourself how to create visual effects prosthetics in your film class and are now pursuing a career in movie effects.

Maybe your experience applying for college as a first-generation student has ignited a passion for leveling the playing field for high school seniors.

Perhaps you volunteered at your community center for one summer and have since developed a passion for designing equitable curriculum for underserved communities.

Regardless of the details, the most important thing is to showcase your passion and commitment. It shows Northwestern that you have potential to develop your passion as a major, organization president, or student leader.

Mention accomplishments related to your interest but refrain from offering an “embellished resume” (a resume is separate – you can find some help with that here!). The school wants a picture of how you’ve begun to pursue your passion and learn about your WHY, not a list of accolades.

Speculate about what you might do at Northwestern

In the last part of your essay, you want to focus on Northwestern’s resources and connect your own passion to Northwestern’s campus. Go back to your research and ask the following:

  • What is one class or program that speaks to my interests?
  • What sorts of questions would I ask – what would I pursue – in this class?
  • What is my dream major or double major at Northwestern?

A student who is into robotics might mention the type of class he’d love, and introduce some of the questions he’d pursue and classes he might take as a student. He might say:

My experiences have proven to me that I would flourish in a class where I could study and understand the history of bio-inspired robotics, and feel I could pursue fresh and innovative questions about ways marine mammals could influence the field. I am confident I would thrive working within the McCormick community!

The student passionate about creating equitable curriculum might write:

My experience at the community center has shown me clearly that I thrive in settings where I am given freedom to research independently and then work collaboratively. I am so excited for the opportunities Northwestern offers to work with the local community and Chicago Public Schools populations.

Here, as always, specificity is key.

Final Tips for Writing the Northwestern Supplemental Essay

You want your story to be around 100 words, you’ll want to devote about 50 words to milestones and achievements, and another 150 words about what could happen at Northwestern.

Before you click submit, here are some final words of advice:

  • Avoid sentences that could be substituted for another school’s “Why” essay. This could come from anyone who shares your interests. Keep it as specific as possible. The admissions officers know what makes Northwestern great, so tell them why it’s great for you.
  • Don’t say that Northwestern would be the “perfect” place for you. They know that perfection is an impossible ideal. Instead, emphasize how you would thrive or flourish in their environment.
  • Your Common App essay should give the school a good picture of who you are and your worldview, so your supplemental essay should not be a rehashing of your Common App essay. This is a chance to tell a story about your interests and curiosity, and to pair this to how you might thrive at Northwestern (there’s that word again).
  • Revise your essay.
  • Remember, your Common Application will give Northwestern a picture if you can contribute to the school. This is Northwestern’s opportunity to see if it can contribute to you.

Conclusion: Writing the “Why Northwestern?” Supplemental Essay

Begin with a story about your interest, continue by describing ways you’ve pursued that interest, and conclude with ways you could thrive at Northwestern.

Remember, you want to answer “Why Northwestern?”

Keep it specific, focus on crafting a story, and don’t give too much background detail.

As long as the focus is on you, and you’re providing active details into your journey and what you would do on campus, you’re on the right track!

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