How to Write the Northwestern University Essays 2020-2021

Northwestern University is a private research university located in Evanston, Illinois, just a 30-minute train ride north of Chicago. It’s got a beautiful lakefront campus and glimmering views of the city.

 

Specifically, it’s well-known for its programs in journalism, political science, and chemistry. If you love hands-on research, Northwestern’s probably your place: across its six undergraduate schools, there are 90 school-based research centers and 50 more at the university level.

 

 And globetrotters take note: 40% of Northwestern students study abroad through multiple programs, including field study, cultural immersion and clinical research. As if that weren’t enough, you also get the fun of being an NCAA Big Ten school and all the sports games (and free student tickets!) that come with it.  

 

Northwestern accepts both the Common Application and the Coalition Application. It is also a Questbridge College Partner dedicated to expanding opportunities for low-income students. 

 

Overall, Northwestern is a sought-after and highly competitive institution: for the class of 2024, 9% of first-year applicants were admitted. You should also check out Northwestern’s pre-enrollment programs designed specifically for incoming first-years, and apply if you’re interested!

 

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.

 

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For All Applicants (optional)

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.

Let’s be honest: an “optional” essay is really just a required essay without the label—especially for an essay that is supposed to show why you and Northwestern are a great fit. This is an opportunity you should take advantage of: more space to sell yourself and highlight your achievements.

 

You’re probably familiar with this kind of prompt, which we call the archetypal “Why This College?” 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. (We highly recommend checking out CollegeVine’s breakdown of the “Why This College?” essay above, as it goes into a lot more detail and will help you out with other schools as well). 

 

As you’re brainstorming, you should consider both the tangible and intangible aspects of Northwestern and how they align with your goals, subjects, and values. You should be setting up a “Force Dyad” with yourself and Northwestern as attractive poles. Compile a list of 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?

 

It’s worth it, but not required, to plan your essay in a T-chart format: 

 

Me Northwestern
Tangible -Specific academic interests

-Concrete steps I want to take to increase my expertise

-And fields I would like to combine

-Places I want to study 

-My career path

-Professors, courses, programs, labs, facilities, departments

-Recent achievements of Northwestern faculty or programs

-Extracurricular attractions

-Resources in Northwestern or the surrounding Chicago area

Intangible -My philosophy of study

-The kind of community I want to be immersed in

-My larger societal goals

-Attitudes I value in the world

-Northwestern’ mission and philosophy

-Aspects of Northwestern’s community

-Northwestern’s socially-oriented priorities

-How Northwestern practices and fosters the attitudes I value

 

This exercise will give you a clearer, larger picture of your connection to the school, and allow you to talk about the connections fluidly and naturally. 

 

How should I research this? 

 

  • Always have the school website open, and always make a few more clicks than you initially think you’re going to need. School websites can be mazelike, so allow yourself a lot of time. Check out faculty profiles, lists of current undergraduate work, connected programs, and any volunteerism done through different departments. 

 

  • Additionally, lots of departments, research centers, or undergraduate schools have e-newsletters you can subscribe to, or publications you can find online. This will present you with the most recent contributions and discoveries of Northwestern staff and research.

 

  • This is also a great opportunity to politely email departments and professors, asking about their perspectives on Northwestern programs, or asking to be put in touch with current students. This will give you a better view than looking at the website, and will also demonstrate to admissions that you went the extra mile to assess Northwestern’s environment. 

 

Be highly specific and granular. This applies to both your interests and your future goals. It’s not enough to be interested in a general subject, like “journalism” or “politics.” You have to pinpoint exactly which facets of your areas you want to really delve into. Instead of “journalism and politics,” you could instead discuss how the Medill on the Hill program would allow you to get invaluable hands-on experience directly from Northwestern’s Washington newsroom, and how this will help your goal to one day work as a TV writer covering developments in LGBT politics on a national level. This is much more targeted, and paints a better picture of you as a student and aspiring professional. Remember: it’s easier for them to admit someone with a detailed plan than someone with a fuzzy outline. If you’ve already done the work visualizing and planning your time on campus, that’s less mental work for admissions, and a faster track to a “yes.”

 

Don’t skimp on the extracurriculars! While the classroom is important, Northwestern wants to know how you will engage with the community on campus. For example, 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, because this will illuminate your character quirks and ability to think creatively, outside the syllabus and grade transcript. It’s worth it to choose extracurricular activities that expand on your goals and academic interests. If I were writing about In Our Nature, for example, I would cite my love for integrating complex topics in marine biology with creative nonfiction techniques, and my desire to pursue scientific writing as a profession. 

 

Chisel out your goals with the attention of a sculptor. 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. And as previously stated, a concrete and specific goal looks better (and is easier to write for) than a generalized, nebulous goal. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a major or a career nailed down – you just need to find a specific attraction to learning, or a specific mode of analysis you want to apply. You can achieve specificity in a number of ways: philosophy, how you want to engage others, a community you want to help, etc. For example, a student who’s still undecided between history and biology might find a specific commonality in her approach to research: “I believe in research that involves significant hands-on exploration, whether that’s recreating 17th-century shipbuilding techniques or collecting samples from a forest, is the best way to understand one’s subjects in a grounded, equalized, and fully immersive way.” This applicant is undecided, but specific in her approach to learning and the kind of learning environment she wants. 

 

Please note: applying with a goal doesn’t mean you’re committed to it all 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 complement each other.  

 

Speaking of goals: GOALS! 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.

 

When you’re answering these prompts, the same principles apply: be specific and goal-oriented. Additionally, you should go into greater depth about your intellectual interests, complex topics, and experiences you’ve had in rigorous settings, like AP classes and summer programs.

 

MMSS Prompt 1: 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. Check out the MMSS website, and find some articles from their newsletter, student achievements, and alumni paths that appeal to you. 

 

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. Pinpoint why you developed an interest in this intersection of math and social sciences. Discuss any particular models, computer programs, data sets, or comparisons that have sparked your imagination and problem-solving. Cite 1-2 parts of the MMSS program which interest you most, and why. Find a specific class or specific professor whose research interests align with yours, and how they could help you learn or discover. 

 

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

 

Cool story, bro. This writing is ineffective because it’s generic. Any student could say about the program. You’re basically just restating the title of the program at this point.

 

Strong: Last summer, I volunteered with an organization that helps tenants in legal disputes, and became increasingly interested in how I could use community-wide data to identify patterns of leasing issues in at-risk areas. The econometrics courses in the MMSS program are the ideal way for me to combine my knowledge in statistics with my interest in the economic policies of local government. These courses will provide me with the tools to pursue my goal of researching and writing how we can better structure leasing law and real estate development to protect underserved populations.

 

This comprehensive 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) and biography (inciting experience). The good example is obviously not a complete essay, but is just an example of the specificity you should aim for.

 

MMSS Prompt 2: 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 essay—it’s not asking you to solve a problem! You’ll just need to 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 certain group or background, maybe you wondered how stereotypes impacted your treatment by your school district, and how these subtle patterns can be revealed in educational statistics across the nation.

 

  • If you spent a lot of time flying—whether to travel, to see family, or something else—maybe 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 probing 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. Consider starting your essay in medias res: plunging your reader headfirst into a pivotal experience you had.

 

MMSS Prompt 3: 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 write “I 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 relatively focused idea of what you might pursue, and why the MMSS program is the best launchpad for you. 

 

Ask yourself: 

 

  • What field or industry do you want to pursue? 
  • Do you have a specific job title or function in mind? 
  • Think about what your goals are—especially in the context of the MMSS program—and what steps you might need to take to achieve those goals. 
  • Are there certain communities you’d like to help?
  • If there are any skills you’d love to learn, list them here, and how they’d improve you as a researcher. 

 

Also, 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. Programs like the Minerva Research Institute, which connects social scientists to military leaders at the Pentagon, would provide me with means not only of conducting research, but influencing national decisions for the benefit of international social health. My path towards this 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, and I would love to gain firsthand experience in psychological research trials. I will likely pursue graduate studies in computer science 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 or spacey to admissions readers. Basically, balance your ambition with humbleness and a healthy scoop of realism. 

 

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.

 

MMSS Prompt 4: Describe your extracurricular interests and activities. (200 words)

The 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 okayyou dont want to cram all of your extracurriculars into 200 words anyways. The key is to pick 2-3 extracurriculars that fall under this theme, and show your readers what these activities taught you, and how they relate to that theme. 

 

If they’ve taught you lessons which you can apply to your academic interests, even better! This can tie your essays together into a more cohesive picture, and show you can think out of the box. “Water polo made me the statistician that I am” is thought-provoking, and a great set-up to keep your reader guessing. 

 

Remember that “extracurricular” and “activities” doesn’t have to mean “clubs” or “after-school groups.” It can also apply to jobs, family life, or hobbies. What really matters is that you’re able to discuss how your experiences have molded you as a person and how you’ve overcome challenges. 

 

Here are some sample formats for this essay: 

 

  • Combine two seemingly unrelated activities, and explain how they really go together
  • Discuss some instances in extracurriculars that have shaped your academic performance
  • Talk about your extracurriculars and how they connect you to a larger community
  • Write about a meaningful lesson you’ve learned
  • Reveal a hidden interest that’s not on your Common App
  • Pick an activity that’s challenged you in some way, or transformed your understanding

 

Overall, remember: 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.

 

MMSS Prompt 5: How did you hear about the MMSS program? (200 words)

This essay is as straightforward as it seems. 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. 

 

It might also be interesting to describe the moment you discovered it in a brief anecdote or slice-of-life. If you found it late at night, chugging away to Lofi Study Beats whilst combing the internet for social sciences programs, that will show a lot about your dedication (and good music tastes). If you open your response with your mom calling you downstairs to talk about “a new program” she found for you, this can be a great way to smuggle in an endearing family collaboration. 

 

You’ve already answered “why MMSS,” so don’t waste time re-explaining why you’re interested in the program. And don’t feel obligated to squeeze all 200 words out of this one if there’s no real way to dress it up. If you can, however, say something new about your interest in MMSS that relates to your discovery of the program, 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.

 

Note: the application to ISP is separate from your general Northwestern application, and can be found on the ISP site. 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. Oof! You handle the STEM stuff, and we’ll help you with the writing, OK? 

 

ISP Prompt 1: Describe any projects, special courses, jobs, or awards of yours that are related to science and mathematics.

The structure and purpose of this essay are fairly straightforward — you want to elaborate on your activities related to science and math. There is no need to over-complicate it, but the goal is to show your depth of interest. 

 

First, state how each activity shaped who you are or helped others. 

 

For example, say you volunteered at your local science center. You might write:

 

Science center volunteer: During my 4 years at the science center, I led experiments for kids and answered questions about exhibits. I could now make baking soda volcanoes and tell you how fossils form in my sleep. I realized, however, how the cost of entry to the museum could be a barrier to some families, and proposed an initiative to offer a free community day once a month. A fellow volunteer and I, with the blessing of our supervisor, outlined a plan to offset the lost entry fees through local business sponsors. We presented this plan to the museum board, and were given permission to proceed. Since then, we’ve had seven community days, and have been able to share science with all who want to learn, regardless of income.

 

This example is simply told, but also clearly exhibits the student’s ability to teach and engage with the community. It’s also a great example of how you should….

 

Focus on rewards, not awards. The answer above describes a significant achievement, but it also doesn’t come across as bragging – the student shows he’s more concerned for the kids and the success of the community days than for his track record, resume, awards, or being the “first” to do something. It’s about emotions, ethics, and linking STEM to wider community concerns. If you’re discussing an award, talk less about the rank or achievement itself than the work that went into it, or how it inspired you to take your skills to the next level. Did you have a chip on your shoulder, or something you wanted to prove? Talk about what it meant to your family or school, or if you have any plans to help others at your school achieve it, too.

 

Highlight interdisciplinary crossover. Since the integrated sciences program emphasizes the shared ground between math and science, feel free to mention how you have a broad range of interest within STEM. This is why you’re applying to ISP: you can’t choose just one subject, since you love them all!

 

Some more ideas for formatting this essay:

 

  • Combine two seemingly unrelated activities, and explain how they really go together
  • Discuss some instances in extracurriculars that have shaped your academic performance
  • Talk about your extracurriculars and how they connect you to a larger community
  • Write about a meaningful lesson you’ve learned
  • Reveal a hidden interest, or elaborate on a bullet point on your Common App
  • Pick an activity that’s challenged you in some way, or transformed your understanding

 

Overall, remember: 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.

 

ISP Prompt 2: Please briefly discuss your educational and career goals. Do they include graduate study?

Here you want to provide a fairly detailed blueprint of what you imagine life would be like for you after college. Do you want to venture into a specific industry? Pursue research in a niche field? Become a professor? Whatever it is you want, remember that the underlying purpose here is to demonstrate why you need to be a part of the Integrated Sciences Program. Hammer home the fact that it’s the perfect avenue for you. 

 

Remember to touch on:

 

  • Your 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. “Medicine” or “physics” won’t be good enough here. Much better is a well-filed, targeted statement that allows us to visualize your future. For example, “Bettering lives for cancer patients through research in genetic engineering or mechanical engineering” is light-years beyond “medicine.” Mention any kind of laboratory work you’d like to do, if hospital shadowing or volunteering at a clinic is important, etc. 

 

  • 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. 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.

 

ISP Prompt 3: Why is the Integrated Science Program interesting to you?

“Why” is a cloudy, abstract, shifting word with a lot of gravitas. By using it here, Northwestern is issuing you a challenge: you need to take this vast question and bring it back into the material world. This means giving concrete reasons for your application that are unique to you. Everyone can bring their own “why” to the table, and that’s exactly what ISP wants – a unique offering, a potluck dish that only you can bring. 

 

Note that ISP is mentioned explicitly. Well, look who finally decided to involve themselves in the prompt? If you look closely, the first two prompts have been focused on “you”: your past achievements, and your future goals. Now ISP wants you to talk about ISP, so you should concentrate a bit less on yourself and more on the resources and strengths of the program. Do plenty of research on ISP’s website: check out their newsletter, spitball topics you’d like to research for ISP 398, identify a faculty affiliate whose research interests intersect with your own, discuss why you’d benefit from the peaceful, intimate environment of the ISP House. Allow yourself a good hour to comb through ISP’s website and Google, and take notes. 

 

Also, take note of the word “interesting.” ISP didn’t use the word “appropriate,” or “beneficial,” or “logical.” Although you should 100% discuss the appropriate, beneficial, and logical reasons for applying to ISP, you should also ask yourself: what is my interest? What intrigues me? What draws me emotionally? ISP is looking for scholars with curiosity and drive beyond the mundane. Communicate this about yourself by identifying an intangible pull. And speaking of intangible…

 

Brainstorm with the tangible vs. intangible T-chart. Remember this from the “Why Northwestern”? Oh yes, she’s back! You can adjust her to fit the more narrow parameters of your ISP application.

 

Me Northwestern
Tangible -Specific academic interests

-Concrete steps I want to take to increase my expertise

-STEM fields I would like to combine

-My career path

-Why I enjoy research

-Why I require small class sizes for my academic goals

-Professors, courses, programs, labs, facilities, departments

-ISP faculty or programs

-Why ISP’s mentorship is a good fit

-ISP’s structured curriculum

-ISP’s small class sizes

Intangible -My philosophy of study

-The kind of community I want to be immersed in

-My larger societal goals

-Attitudes I value in the world

-ISP’s mission and philosophy

-Aspects of the ISP community

-“Current student” profiles and what these reveal about ISP

-How ISP practices and fosters the attitudes I value

 

You should find a theme or shared element to “glue” the essay together. If you can find an unconventional thru-line for your emotions, your scholarly interests, and ISP, you can really knock this essay out of the park. 

 

Exercise: think about your scholarly topic. Got it? Good. Now think about what emotions are triggered inside you when you engage that topic, and how ISP’s philosophy would complement this. Then reconnect it to the science topic. Now list all the resources and courses in ISP that would foster your study in the topic. Do you notice how all the tangible and intangible things are starting to blend together into one beautiful, giddy mess?

 

For example, I could begin my essay by talking about my interest in primate psychology, and discuss evidence that chimpanzees perform best in small to mid-size groups. Then I could talk about my emotional connection to my studies: I function best in intimate, consistent cohorts, where there’s less pressure for competition and greater opportunity to get to know my colleagues. Then, I could transition to how ISP’s small cohort is the perfect primate setting, and the perfect place for me to explore my passion – a meta-monkey house, if you will. 

 

Here, the shared theme of “primate groups” makes the items more compelling together than they would be listed separately. It’s like being Robin Hood: you can hit three moving targets with three arrows, but hitting three targets with the same arrow? Jaw-dropping. Chef’s kiss. We’re mixing our metaphors, but you get the point.

 

ISP Prompt 4: How did you learn about the Integrated Science Program?

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

 

It might also be interesting to describe the moment you discovered it in a brief anecdote or slice-of-life. If you open your response with your mom calling you downstairs to talk about “a new program” she found for you, this can be a great way to smuggle in an endearing family collaboration, or talk about your family and their involvement in your educational journey. 

 

You’ve already answered “why ISP,” so don’t waste time re-explaining why you’re interested in the program. And don’t feel obligated to squeeze all 200 words out of this one if there’s no real way to dress it up. If you can, however, say something new about your interest in ISP that relates to your discovery of the program, then add it in!

 

ISP Prompt 5: Do you know any current or past students of the program?

If you don’t, no worries! There’s no need to answer this prompt. If you do, consider briefly mentioning positive things this student has said, or what they said that commended the program to you. 

 

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