Why Northwestern? How to Write the Northwestern Essay

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The Northwestern acceptance rate is 10.7%, and it accepts the Common App.

There are many reasons you might want to go to Northwestern – from the dynamic culture to the competitive sports teams to the Evanston campus adjacent to Lake Michigan.

  • It’s also a stone’s throw from Chicago, and, of course, there are the elite academic programs. Not surprisingly, it’s a top-20 university.  

You can give yourself a better chance of getting accepted to Northwestern with a well-crafted supplemental essay.

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:

Why Northwestern?

Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.

Northwestern says that fitness for the school is a “story you tell us about how you see yourself thriving on campus.”

If you’re applying, chances are you can see yourself thriving on their campus.

This essay gives you the chance to make tell them this story.

You can break this essay down into three parts:

  1. A brief but affecting story that demonstrates your interest
  2. A montage of what you’ve done to cultivate this interest
  3. An explanation of how the resources at Northwestern will help you develop this interest

Note the singular “interest,” not “interests.” To make this 300-word essay tenable, you want to focus on one interest.

Like all personal statements, this essay will involve some brainstorming. It will also ask you to do some research.

After you’ve brainstormed and researched, you’re ready to write the story, the montage, and to speculate about what the school might do for you.

Tips for each of these five steps – brainstorm, research, story, montage, and your speculation about Northwestern – are described below.

Brainstorming for the Northwestern supplement: Why Northwestern?

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

  • What am I curious about?
  • What kinds of questions interest me the most?
  • How do my curiosities relate to my interest?
  • Where did my interest begin?
  • How have I cultivated this interest?

The common thread throughout this essay is your interest, so you’ll want to begin by thinking about where this interest comes from.

  • Maybe you were the kid who preferred to make elaborate domino lines rather than playing the game, and the simple process of cause-and-effect was more compelling than game strategy.
  • 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.
  • Maybe you went with your dad to ball games and were more interested in human behavior and culture than the outcome of the game.

Whatever your interest is, the important question is why, not just what.

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.
  • 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 the sociology.
  • Important: Think about why you love the trombone, or something else, and how this talent will grow and flourish at the school.
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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?
  • 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-20 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 interest.

Northwestern is also big on interdisciplinary studies, so an interest 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” of your interest

Your story should do the following:

  • Describe the origin of an interest, and a sense of your curiosity
  • Offer a vivid and descriptive anecdote from your life that describes the origin of this interest.
  • Tell Northwestern what makes you “tick” in a way that your Common App does not.

After you’ve decided on an interest to focus on and researched the school, you want to spend some time thinking about a vivid, specific moment when this interest “came alive” – a “this was the moment when…” origin story for your life.

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 an interest in both telling stories and science in the fourth grade when my teacher had us keep mealworms to observe their metamorphosis. I became obsessed with this process, and wrote a story about a group of walking, talking mealworms who are taking a plane to Europe. The plane crashes in Egypt and they begin crawling across the Sinai Peninsula. One by one the mealworms slow down as they turn into pupae. Insofar as a fourth grader can be meticulous, I painstakingly described the metamorphosis of each mealworm. Eventually, they became beetles and flew to Europe on their own wings. I’d look at my little plastic dish of mealworms in sawdust and feel filled with inspiration. I look back on it as a moment when I realized how I was so compelled by telling stories related to biology. I wanted to build narratives about nature in a way that was vivid and alive, unlike Wikipedia.

Write a montage of ways you’ve cultivated this interest

Once you’ve written this short, compelling “origin story,” you want to create a brief montage of your activities and accomplishments here – what contributions, however modest, have you made to this field?

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 butterflies called the painted ladies. I haven’t written as much biology-inspired fiction, but I continue to read authors like Annie Dillard who help us see nature in startling new ways.

  • Maybe you figured out a way to weld plastic to make your robotics project more flexible.
  • Perhaps you participated in an overseas service trip and designed English lessons for rural Colombians.
  • Maybe you simply have developed a fascination about your interest.

This is great. It shows Northwestern that you have potential to develop this interest as a major or double major.

  • Mention accomplishments related to your interest but refrain from offering an “embellished resume.”

The school just wants to a picture of how you’ve begun to pursue and/or practice your interests – a few achievements and accolades that promise to become a major or a double major.

Describe what you might do at Northwestern

In the last part of your essay, you want to focus on Northwestern’s resources and explain how your profile fits. 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?

The kid 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:

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.

The gal that plays the trombone could say:

I would thrive in an environment where I could consider ways in which my interest in music composition relates to sociology and communication. I feel that Northwestern would afford me the opportunity to adopt this multidisciplinary approach.

Here, as always, specificity is key.

Final Tips for “Why Northwestern?”: Writing an Effective 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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