How to Write the University of Wisconsin Madison Application Essays 2019-2020

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The University of Wisconsin at Madison is one of the nation’s best public institutions. It ranked 49th in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 National University Rankings. It also ranked 15th on the 2019 Top Public Schools List. Furthermore, UW Madison receives high marks for quality of life and is noted for its especially liberal culture.


UW Madison is selective with an acceptance rate of just over 50%, and admissions officers will look closely at your essays, especially if you’re on the academic threshold of their average admitted student statistics. While drafting these essays can be daunting, CollegeVine is here to help! Read on for a guide to tackling UW Madison’s supplemental essays.  

UW Application Prompts

There are two prompts associated with UW Madison’s application. Depending on how they apply, applicants must answer one or both of them. UW Madison allows prospective students to use the Common Application or the UW System Application.


If you apply with the Common Application, you just have to submit the supplement essay (in addition to your Common App essay). If you apply through the UW System Application, there is an additional prompt you must respond to.

Common Application (and UW Application) Supplement Prompt

Tell us why you would like to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided please describe your areas of possible academic interest. (80-650 words)

This is a classic “why this school” and “why this major” supplement essay prompt. An effective essay for this prompt will achieve the following goals:


  1. Highlight your authentic reasons for wanting to attend the University of Wisconsin – Madison
  2. Highlight your authentic reasons for wanting to study your major of choice.


The word authentic above is very important – one of the biggest mistakes students make in this type of essay prompt for UW Madison is writing a generic essay that could just as easily have been written about the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, or the University of Michigan. This is the single biggest pet peeve for admissions officers, as they strongly prefer students that have specific reasons for choosing universities. They also want to ensure that students are passionate about their chosen major, not just pursuing the highest paying or most prestigious one.


So with this prompt, your goal is to give admissions officers concrete reasons why UW Madison is an especially good match, and specific reasons why you love your major. Be as specific as possible. Vague statements like “UW Madison is a diverse institution” convey a lack of focus, research, and effort. Imagine yourself as a student working toward a specific degree. What interesting classes would you take? Which professors do you hope to work with? And how would these unique opportunities at UW Madison enhance your background and serve your career interests?


Your specified major should logically stem from your background. Use your prospective major to structure a logical narrative, even if you aren’t fully committed to pursuing it. For example, a student that CollegeVine worked with during the 2016-17 admissions cycle covered the following themes in their essay.


The student lived in Minnesota and in middle school became passionate about history education. In high school, he volunteered as a docent at a local museum and started a research project on the history of Norwegian and German immigration to his hometown. He also served as student representative on the local school board, and led the charge to redesign his school’s history curriculum to make it more engaging for other students.


This student intended to major in history at UW Madison. He planned to take classes with Professor Smith, a noted expert in immigration history. And outside of his major, the Center for Pre-Law Advising would help him achieve his dream of being an immigration lawyer by helping him gain relevant experience


This thematic structure highlights several elements of a successful response to this prompt. In particular, the student is presented as having specific and deep ties to his chosen major and career path, and specific ways in which he will leverage UW Madison as a setting to achieve that.


The strongest essays are also deeply personal. Ultimately, your goal is to show your personality, rather than telling readers about it. Avoid phrases like “I’m a thoughtful person” or “I’m a gifted pianist.” These observations are shallow and may come across as arrogant. Instead, you could describe how you became passionate about your interests and why you’re drawn to them. For example, “I view painting as a window into the human condition” shows your depth of thought and implicitly shows your personality to the reader.


Here’s an excerpt from an essay responding to this prompt that a student submitted in a successful application to UW Madison.

Since then, I have known that the University of Wisconsin at Madison is a good fit for me. I love how integrated the university is into the town; it feels incorporated into Madison’s culture, rather than having a closed-off, guarded, and separate campus. I love the activist culture in Madison–my mom always talks about the demonstrations and rallies that took place when she was a student there, and I think that culture is still evident given how many political rallies are held in Madison. Growing up in the Unitarian Universalist church, I was raised to value activism and social justice, and it is important to me that I go to college in a place where people are well-informed and care about affecting change in the world around them.


I also love Madison’s surroundings – I would love to join the Wisconsin Hoofers so I could take full advantage of all the outdoor opportunities in and around Madison, especially skiing, hiking, and watersports on Lake Mendota. I have been participating in and running a ski club at my school for the past few years, and being part of a ski or outdoor club is something that I would like to continue in college.

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This excerpt clearly shows the student’s specific interest in attending the University of Wisconsin, and highlights the kind of authenticity that you want to show. It is particularly effective when the applicant connects her own background to the culture of activism at UW Madison as that highlights her personality and positions her to create an authentic connection to UW Madison’s admissions counselors.

UW System Prompt

Tell us about your academic and personal achievements. What have you learned from your success and/or challenges, and how will this influence you as you pursue your college education? (300-500 Words Recommended)

Students only have to answer this prompt if they apply using the University of Wisconsin System Application. UW Madison also accepts the Common Application, which CollegeVine strongly recommends. 


However, some in-state students might use the UW System Application if they are applying to other University of Wisconsin campuses. This guide therefore includes a brief overview of the second prompt. As with the first essay, you will be well-served by highlighting your character, emphasizing specific details, and demonstrating thoughtfulness.


This prompt is somewhat difficult because it has some parallels with the first one. It’s critical that you don’t seem repetitive with your first essay here. Given the prompt, you might want to focus more on your achievements. While this is an effective strategy, avoid listing achievements or highlighting them in the style of your resume. Admissions officers have access to your resume, and this essay is used mainly as a mechanism to get to know you, not as a repeat of your resume.


Discussing challenges is a powerful way of conveying your character. This shows your ability to reflect on disappointment and improve yourself, which makes you a highly appealing candidate. For example, Jenny got cut from the basketball team her first year, but she used her disappointment to commit to training harder. By her senior year, Jenny was the starting point guard who now hopes to mentor female athletes in college.


However, if you choose to write about overcoming a challenge, be sure to let the reader get into your mind as much as possible. Discuss your feelings, state of mind, and mental approach at each moment and you’ll have a much more effective narrative.


Finally, structure a logical narrative about how you’ll pursue an education at UW Madison. Since you’ve already discussed a possible major, it could be helpful to elaborate on your attitude and conduct in college. For example, Jenny could draw on the lessons she learned from basketball to discuss how she would remain motivated as a student. Since UW Madison is a large university, it would be wise to discuss how you plan to independently pursue your goals.


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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work. Learn more about our consultants