How to Write the Northwestern Supplemental Essays 2019-2020

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Northwestern University is a private research university located in Evanston, Illinois, just a 30-minute train ride north of Chicago. It others offers six undergraduate schools and extensive research opportunities across 90 school-based research centers. There are also several types of study abroad programsincluding field study, cultural immersion and clinical researchand pre-enrollment programs designed specifically for incoming first-years. 


Northwestern accepts both the Common Application and the Coalition Application. It is also a Questbridge College Partner. For the class of 2023, 8.9% of first-year applicants were admitted. 


It’s clear that aspiring Northwestern wildcats must stand out to be accepted, and one way to do that is through your supplemental essays. In this post, we’ll break down Northwestern’s recommended supplemental prompt for all applicants, as well as the essays for the MMSS and ISP programs. Want to know your chances at Northwestern? Calculate your chances for free right now.


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For All Applicants

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. Help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here. (We HIGHLY recommend you complete this essay.) (300 words)

A “HIGHLY recommended” essay is really just a required essay without the labelespecially for an essay that is supposed to show why you and Northwestern are a great fit.


Like an archetypal “why this school” essay, this prompt is essentially asking you why you’re interested in Northwestern and how the school can support your goals and interests (both academic and extracurricular). 


Think about the specific programs, classes, clubs, and other resources at Northwestern that interest you. How do they align with your own academic or professional interests? Is there a program that merges two interests of yours? Is there an extracurricular that you were really seeking in your college search?


For the academic aspects, think about how those will contribute to your future. If you’re interested in political journalism, you might discuss how the Medill on the Hill program would allow you to get invaluable hands-on experience directly from Northwestern’s Washington newsroom. A student interested in environmental policy might discuss their hopes to work with The Sierra Club as part of their required practicum internship and social science research for the School of Education and Social Policy. 


On the extracurricular side, the student interested in politics might want to join the Alexander Hamilton Society, which is a non-partisan group “promoting constructive debate on basic principles and contemporary issues in foreign, economic and national security policy.” The student with a passion for the environment might join In Our Nature, a “paperless magazine that aims to bring the environment to everyone.” You should aim to spend just as much time discussing your extracurricular interests as your academic ones. College is not only about what happens in the classroom, but also the community on campus!


Since the prompt asks you you’ll “make use of specific resources and opportunities,” you need to have some kind of goal or interest in mind. That ultimate goal doesn’t have to be crystal clear, nor does it have to stick for the next four years! It just has to be your goal right now, and you should think about what steps you need to reach that goal. Those steps should align with some sort of unique resource at Northwestern, and you should be able to clearly define how those relate. 


The content of this essay should always loop back to you and your goals. If you think any student could write what you’ve written, then you haven’t written something that’s engaging or compelling yet. The same goes for the Northwestern resources you choose to discuss. If those opportunities are available at many schools, you’ll want to do more research and pick more unique resources, to show that you’re truly invested in Northwestern.


MMSS Program Applicants Only


The Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (MMSS) program focuses on the use of mathematics and statistics in social sciences. Students in MMSS learn how to build and analyze mathematical models. The MMSS program admits approximately 30 first-year students each year and requires strong performance in high school, including a year of calculus.


Why MMSS? (200 words).

Like the standard archetype of a “why this school” essay, this essay is looking for your specific interest in the MMSS program. This will require that you do some research into what exactly the MMSS program entails, and understand how that aligns with your interests. If your interest in the program is genuine, that should shine through in your essay. 


Since you only have 200 words, you don’t have enough space to discuss years and years of interest in math and social sciences. Instead, focus on linking 1-2 personal interests to 1-2 aspects of MMSS that appeal to you. Why did you develop an interest in this intersection of math and social sciences? What parts of the MMSS program interest you most, and why? Is there a specific class or specific professor whose research interests align with yours? Do you have a passion for a specific social science problem that you could use mathematical models to solve? 


Weak: The MMSS program combines math and social sciences, two of my favorite subjects. 


Strong: The econometrics courses in the MMSS program are the ideal way for me to combine my knowledge in statistics with my interest in economic policy. These courses will provide me with the tools to pursue my goal of researching and writing economic policy to protect underserved populations.


The weak example is not good because it is vague and generic, something any student could say about the program. The strong example is better because it points to specifics of the program (the curriculum) and links it to the writer’s personal interests (wanting to write economic policy). The good example is obviously not a complete essay, but is just an example of the specificity you should aim for.


Which social science question or problem interests you most? (200 words)

As with all college essays, specificity and a personal tie will strengthen your answer. The prompt asks you to name a social science question or problem that’s on your mind, but you should also explain why you’re interested in it. Is it based on a personal experience you had? Something you read about in school, or on your own? 


You don’t need to propose any sort of solution in this essayit’s not asking you to solve a problem! You’ll just need to need elaborate upon the issue at hand and your investment in this issue, so that the essay reveals more about you as an applicant.


Here are some examples:


  • If you’re from a minority group or low socioeconomic background, maybe you wondered how stereotype threat impacted you and other students in your school district, and how it continues to impact students across the nation.


  • If you spent a lot of time flyingwhether to travel, to see family, or something elsemaybe you’re now interested in how the rise of low-fare airlines are changing the demographics of flyers, as well as its environmental impact. 


  • If you are a huge sports fan, you might be interested in seeing how the demographics of fans of different sports audiences reflect socio-cultural disparities. 


Bottom line: whatever social problem you choose, be sure you’ve indicated why you’re personally invested in it. 


Describe your current educational and career goals. (200 words)

The most challenging part about this essay is that right now, before you’ve even graduated high school, you might not really know what your educational and career goals are! That’s perfectly acceptable, but you can’t just write that you don’t know. If you are undecided, you can simply say that you’re still exploring your options, but you should still respond with a general idea of what you might pursue, and why the MMSS program is the best launchpad for you. 


Ask yourself: At the moment, what kind of field or industry do you want to pursue? Do you have a specific job title in mind? Think about what your goals are—especially in the context of the MMSS programand what steps you might need to take to achieve those goals. 


Be sure to specifically mention whether you plan to pursue education beyond your bachelor’s degree. If you already have a specific graduate program in mind, it doesn’t hurt to mention that either, especially if it’s highly-specialized.


Here are some examples of ways you could respond:


  • “My interest in social policy has led to my desire to pursue a career in social science research, ideally with the government. My path to that would include postgraduate education, most likely in political science.”


  • “I have always been fascinated by how statistics can be applied to non-numerical issues, such as decision-making. As a result, I would like to ultimately be able to impact the lives of people through my ability to analyze human situations via data. I will likely pursue graduate studies, at least at a master’s level.” 


These are obviously not complete essays, as you want to maximize the 200 words you’re given. Ways you can go more in-depth are to describe the different projects or paths you might pursue, and what motivates you to pursue them.


Be careful not to be too overconfident in your essay. Having lofty goals is fantastic, but goals that verge on unrealistic can come off as a little arrogant to admissions readers. Basically, balance your ambition with humbleness. 


This essay isn’t binding. In three years, if you don’t want to pursue the career you’ve written about, no one will have a problem with that. The admissions committee just wants to know what you’re thinking of currently, so they can determine if the program might be a good fit with your goals.


Describe your extracurricular interests and activities. (200 words)

They key here is that you are describing your extracurricular interests and activities, not listing them. Admissions officers will already have a list of your extracurriculars; here, they want you to go more in-depth.


One good way to do this is to find a common theme among your activities, such as “leadership,” “determination,” or “service.” It’s possible that not all of your extracurriculars will fall under a single theme, but that’s okay⁠—you don’t want to cram all of your extracurriculars into 200 words anyways. The key is to pick a 2-3 extracurriculars that fall under this theme, and show your readers what these activities taught you, and how they relate to that theme. 


Another way you could write this essay is to focus on 1-2 (related or unrelated) extracurriculars and describe them in-depth. As you write about your extracurriculars, you should explain what the activity is, what your role is, and why it matters to you. Show how the extracurricular has shaped you!


Overall, it’s a description, not a list. Think about your authentic interest in these activities, and decide which approach to this essay works best for your unique extracurriculars. 


How did you hear about the MMSS program? (200 words)

This essay is as straightforward as it seems. In 200 words, how did you hear about MMSS? Were you already interested in Northwestern, and then stumbled across the program? Did you find MMSS before Northwestern specifically? Did someone recommend it to you? If so, why? Think about these questions before you start writing. 


You’ve already answered “why MMSS” so don’t waste time re-explaining why you’re interested in the program. If you can say something new about your interest in MMSS that relates to your discovery of the program, however, then add it in!


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ISP Applicants Only


The Integrated Science Program (ISP) curriculum consists of natural sciences and mathematics with an emphasis on how the different fields overlap and connect. The program boasts small classes, extensive research opportunities, and its own student center on campus. First-year applicants should have four years of mathematics and four years of science, as well as three SAT II Subject Tests or AP exams. 


Please discuss your interest in science and mathematics.

The structure and purpose of this essay are fairly straightforward — you want to explain what sparked your self-driven interest in both science and mathematics, and while doing so, convey your passion in both of these fields. Since the integrated sciences program emphasizes the commonalities that the sciences as well as mathematics share, it is important to mention how your broad range of interest within the sciences renders it impossible for you to choose just one to focus on — you love them all!


Remember, the direct nature of Northwestern essays and the popular writing style at the school lean more towards straightforwardness and conciseness; there is no need to over-complicate it. Here is an example of how you could tackle the prompt:


(1) Start off with a quick anecdote about why you became fascinated with the sciences. Perhaps during a research project in biology, you had to apply your knowledge of how chemicals react to determine the effects on the human body if one ingests those chemicals together. That was when you realized the critical nature of understanding the foundation of all sciences when studying any of the sciences.


(2) Then, transition into explaining why you love the sciences you mentioned and mathematics. Reasons include practical application (you love how every device that we encounter today is the product of a combination of different academic sciences), understanding our surrounding environment, etc.


(3) Conclude with how acquiring a broad-based yet advanced knowledge of all sciences is significant to you personally. Consider this: if there is no prestige or any benefits associated with studying the sciences or a career in the sciences, why would you still pursue it as a hobby out of your own accord? What personal satisfaction do you receive from it?


Please briefly discuss your educational and career goals. Do they include graduate study?

Here you want to provide a blueprint of what you imagine life would be like for you after college. Do you want to venture into industry? Pursue research in a niche field? Become a professor? Whatever it is that you are thinking of, remember that the underlying purpose here is to demonstrate why your educational and career goals necessitate you being in the Integrated Sciences Program.


For example, if you wish to dedicate your career to research in the sciences, weave in how studying integrated sciences at an accelerated level would allow you to hone in on the specific sub-filed or application of science that truly attract and motivate you.


Of course, the focus of your essay should still be on the goals themselves. Remember to touch on:


(1) The specific career/educational goal. Instead of writing about research in a general sense, hone in on the problem/issue you would like to address through your research. Perhaps you are interested in bettering lives for cancer patients through research in medicine, genetic engineering, or mechanical engineering.


(2) Any interest in graduate programs. Many in the Integrated Science Program choose to further their study in graduate school in a specific field of science, so if that is something that aligns with your goals, make sure to write about that. Include some specific graduate programs that you may be interested in to demonstrate the sincerity of your intentions.


Why is the Integrated Science Program interesting to you?

Here you want to highlight some (2-3) key components of the Integrated Science Program and explain how they will help you achieve some of the goals you mentioned above, or how they align with the interests or special courses you mentioned in one of the prior essays.


Since you have already described your interest in the integrated sciences and mathematics in the first essay, there is no need to introduce this one with a personal anecdote, simply dive straight into the content. Some interesting features to highlight:


The Structured Curriculum

Explore the curriculum map here to see how the timing and combination of the courses align with your goals and interests. You can also mention here how you like the established framework of the program so you don’t have to worry too much about devising your own, and focus on the actual academic study of these subjects.


The Small Class Size

Classes in this program are held in personal settings where professors interact with individual students. You share a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow students because the program is small and you all take classes together. Explain why this social aspect of the program attracts you. Perhaps you feel like the small class setting will better allow you to establish a relationship with each of your classmates, and allow you to get to know them as both people and scientists. Through these types of connections, maybe you will be able to improve on each other’s ideas and goals.


Research Opportunities

There are advisors and directors readily available to guide you on your research, as a long as you have a passion for it. Whether you know exactly what topic you want to research, or you only know which professor you want to research under, the director and staff on the program are there to help. Describe the skills that research will train in you, and connect them to your future career/educational aspirations.


The is much more the ISP program than this, so we encourage students to keep digging for even more specific resources that might apply to them personally.


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