How to Write the University of Wisconsin Madison Essays 2020-2021
The University of Wisconsin at Madison is one of the nation’s best public institutions. It ranked 46th in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 National University Rankings. 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.
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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. Want to know your chances at UW Madison? Calculate your chances for free right now.
UW Madison Essay Prompts
- Highlight your authentic reasons for wanting to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
- 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 is writing a generic essay that could just as easily have been written about the University of Minnesota at 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 their university. They also want to ensure that students are passionate about their chosen major, not just pursuing the one that will lead to the highest paying or most prestigious jobs after graduation.
With this prompt, your goal is to give admissions officers concrete reasons why UW Madison is an especially good match for you, as well as specific reasons why you love your major. Consider beginning your essay with a story about how you discovered UW Madison and decided to apply. For example, you could write the following introduction if you decided to apply to UW Madison after visiting the campus:
I wasn’t used to the snow. In fact, this was the first time I ever experienced a snowfall. It doesn’t really happen where I’m from—a small town in Mississippi. Then again, so much of what I saw at the University of Wisconsin at Madison during my snowy campus visit doesn’t happen where I’m from either.
Then, highlight unique aspects of the university that appeal to you, and be holistic with what you talk about. Study the UW Madison website in detail, watch videos of campus tours and student reviews, and visit if possible. Find the names of one extracurricular and one part of campus where you can imagine yourself spending lots of time. Then, weave them into your writing. The strongest essays are deeply personal, so connect the campus to yourself. Here is an example:
I am passionate about volunteer work and community service. Throughout high school, some of my fondest memories have been spent serving food in soup kitchens and volunteering at clothing banks. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, I know I would be able to continue pursuing my passion for community service because of the integration between the university and the surrounding town. The University of Wisconsin at Madison feels incorporated into Madison’s culture, rather than having a closed-off, guarded, and separate campus. The connection between the campus and the community would enable me to be a member of a Badger Volunteers team through the Morgridge Center for Public Service. This program would provide me with new opportunities to give back to the community and help others.
The activist culture in Madison excites me. Living in a small town, I have had few opportunities to attend political rallies. Since I grew 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 hope to join the Unitarian Universalist Campus Ministry, where I would be able to continue my activism while also building friendships and continuing to explore my religion.
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 never had the opportunity to try these sports in humid and hot Mississippi, so I would love to explore new activities in a different environment.
This excerpt clearly shows the student’s specific interest in attending the University of Wisconsin, and highlights the kind of authenticity you want to show to admissions officers. 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.
Next, think about your chosen major or academic interest. Imagine yourself as a student working toward a specific degree:
- What interesting classes would you take?
- Which professors do you hope to work with?
- How would the 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 demonstrates 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 obtain an education in what he is passionate about.
If the student was undecided about a major, they could take a similar approach. But Instead of writing about one interest, they could pick 2-3 of their potential interests, and discuss how UW would support those.
Finish the essay with a succinct conclusion that ties back to your introduction. Summarize how you know that UW Madison is the school for you because its campus matches your personal values and its academics satiate your intellectual curiosity. End with a phrase that relates to the school’s philosophy, e.g. “Most of all, I would like to attend UW Madison because I want to join the Badgers in their commitment to make a difference.”
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 an 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.
While this prompt has some parallels to the first one, it is different in its specificity. It is asking for one moment that had a large impact on your life direction. Start by brainstorming some of these moments. Examples may include:
- helping a family member battle pancreatic cancer, which inspired you to become a medical researcher and never lose hope;
- building a stirling engine in physics class, which made you passionate about thermodynamics;
- getting lost in the woods, which resulted in your desire to lead and help others who are lost;
- and losing a chess tournament, which taught you greater perseverance, not only when it comes to playing chess, but also when pursuing your other goals.
You’ll notice that these examples demonstrate challenges, and we recommend that you choose a significant challenge in your own life to write about. However, if you do choose to write about a success, make sure that it was achieved after setbacks and hard work.
Discussing challenges is a powerful way of conveying your character. They show your ability to reflect on disappointment and improve yourself, which makes you a highly appealing candidate. While writing about overcoming a challenge, be open and allow your reader understand your thoughts as much as possible. Be sure to discuss your feelings, state of mind, and mental approach at each moment in order to craft an effective narrative.
Begin your essay by recounting your challenge as a story. Imagine yourself as the main character and paint a picture with words. To write an essay about getting lost in the woods, you would tell a descriptive account of how you got lost, what it was like to move through dense, thorny foliage, and how you were found. This part should take up about a third of the essay.
The next third of the essay should explain what you learned from your experience, whether it was a success or a challenge, and whether it represented a turning point in your life.
This would be the portion of your essay where you would talk about how you learned the power of teamwork as you were building your stirling engine with classmates. You would tell a story of the difficulties you encountered—the numbers didn’t make sense at first, there was a leak, you dropped the engine and had to start over again, etc. Highlight the setbacks and unforeseen obstacles you faced during this process, regardless of whether your experience was a success or a challenge.
When trying to determine if your experience was a turning point for you, ask yourself these questions:
- Did my experience give me a new personal value?
- Did I gain a new academic, extracurricular, or professional interest?
- Did it change one of my strong convictions?
If you answered yes to one of these questions, say that your experience was a turning point. If not, mention that while your experience was not a turning point, it was influential in your personal or academic development. To explain how it was influential, imagine who you would be today without your experience.
Maybe, before helping a family member battle pancreatic cancer, you were quick to give up when something became too difficult. However, this experience taught you to be more persistent and optimistic in the face of even the most daunting challenges. Additionally, even though you previously had not been interested in the medical field, you have been inspired to become a medical researcher and work towards a cure for cancer.
Finally, structure a logical narrative about how your experience has impacted your educational goals at UW Madison. Since you’ve already discussed a possible major, it could be helpful to elaborate on your mindset going into college and what you hope to accomplish for yourself and others on campus.
For example, you could talk about how losing the chess tournament has made you more open minded. Now, you aspire to try as many new experiences as possible, because every loss is a learning opportunity in the quest for knowledge.
Lastly, conclude with a sentence about how UW Madison, with its [resource related to your newfound direction], will help you continue to foster the path you have been on since your turning point occurred.
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