Unpacking the Northwestern University Supplemental Essay 2023-2024

Noel Kim

Renowned for its highly specialized colleges, Northwestern University attracts students from all over the world who wish to study a multitude of disciplines from communications to engineering. Whether you’re applying to the Medill School of Journalism or the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, putting your best foot forward in the supplemental essays is key to getting that acceptance letter. To guide you through the process, I’ve outlined the prompt, the dos and don’ts for answering it, and more tips to help you tackle the Northwestern supplemental essay 2023-2024.

Northwestern Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

When you apply to Northwestern through the Common Application, you have to select one of the six undergraduate colleges within the university as your primary institution: 

  • The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences 
  • The School of Communication 
  • The McCormick School of Engineering & Applied Science
  • The School of Education & Social Policy
  • Bienen School of Music
  • The Medill School of Journalism

While the prompts remain the same for all the schools, make sure to research what makes each of them special before making the decision to apply to the college of your choice. As for the supplemental essays, InGenius Prep counselor Andrew Hazen, who worked as an Admissions Officer at Northwestern, adds, "As a whole, here is my golden rule of essay writing: Many students see supplemental essays as an opportunity to share an additional personal anecdote or another means to share their accomplishments. While these details can inspire a response, they may not directly answer the given question. Make sure that your response includes a clear, substantive answer to what is being asked in the supplemental essay prompt.”

Question 1 (Required)

The following question is required for all Common Application and Coalition with Scoir applicants (optional for QuestBridge applicants). Please respond in 300 words or fewer:

We want to be sure we’re considering your application in the context of your personal experiences: What aspects of your background, your identity, or your school, community, and/or household settings have most shaped how you see yourself engaging in Northwestern’s community, be it academically, extracurricularly, culturally, politically, socially, or otherwise?

This question is asked in one form or another across a large number of institutions because it holds immense value in understanding the applicants' perspectives and their potential contributions to the university community. However, what sets this prompt apart is its specific focus on how you envision yourself engaging with Northwestern's community. 

To answer this question effectively, you must first understand Northwestern's unique community dynamics and values. Reflecting on this is the first step to success. Andrew also adds, "This question asks both a great deal of personal reflection, but also about how your personal experiences and identities play into the campus community at large. There may be an “I” in “community” but don’t take that to mean this story is about you." 

Reflect on how your individual experiences and identities intersect with the larger fabric of the campus community. Consider how your background, upbringing, and interactions within your school, community, and household have shaped your perspective and potential contributions to Northwestern's academic, extracurricular, cultural, political, social, or any other aspects of its community.

Remember, as Andrew mentioned, there may be an "I" in "community," but it does not imply that your response should purely revolve around your personal story. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to showcase how your unique experiences can enrich the Northwestern community as a whole. By emphasizing the connections between your individual journey and the broader campus environment, you can demonstrate how your perspectives, values, and aspirations align with Northwestern's ethos and contribute to a diverse and inclusive educational experience.

Question 2 (Optional)

The following questions are optional, but we encourage you to answer at least one and no more than two. Please respond in fewer than 200 words per question:

A. Painting “The Rock” is a tradition at Northwestern that invites all forms of expression—students promote campus events or extracurricular groups, support social or activist causes, show their Wildcat spirit (what we call “Purple Pride”), celebrate their culture, and more. What would you paint on The Rock, and why?

Before answering this prompt, research the tradition of painting The Rock to understand the context and significance of this cherished Northwestern tradition. For instance, did you know that it is customary for students to guard the rock 24 hours in advance

Then, take a moment to reflect on what this question is truly asking – If given the chance to express something to your community, what would it be? Andrew adds, “Expression comes in many forms: support, celebration, awareness, warning, or observation, to name just a few possibilities.” Challenge yourself to think beyond the obvious and reflect on your values, passions, and aspirations. What message would you like to share with your fellow Wildcats? Reflect on the significance of that message and how you could transform it into a tangible reality with a simple bucket of paint! 

B. Northwestern fosters a distinctively interdisciplinary culture. We believe discovery and innovation thrive at the intersection of diverse ideas, perspectives, and academic interests. Within this setting, if you could dream up an undergraduate class, research project, or creative effort (a start-up, a design prototype, a performance, etc.), what would it be? Who might be some ideal classmates or collaborators?

For this prompt, Andrew notes, “Interdisciplinary culture lies near the heart of the Northwestern academic community. This emphasis on interdisciplinary learning creates a rich and dynamic environment where students are encouraged to explore the intersections between different fields of study and collaborate on innovative projects.”

There are two key aspects of the question -- “what?” and “who?”  For the first question of "what”,  think about your interdisciplinary interests and how you could combine the two interests into one undergraduate class, research project, or creative effort. For example, you could come up with a class that combines elements of computer science and environmental studies, exploring how technology can be used to address pressing environmental issues. Or perhaps, you could combine your interest in psychology and business through a research project that examines the impact of consumer behavior on sustainable practices – the possibilities are endless!

Now, let’s consider the question of "who?" Andrew notes, “As is the case in the professional world, success is often a team effort, and knowing teammates and their skill sets is important. Think upon what you need to know, who is a subject matter expert, and how they can fit in the overall vision.”  Consider how you would assemble a diverse team of collaborators, each bringing their unique perspectives and expertise. Andrew also adds, "Bonus points if you consider incentives and how you can align goals as a team!"

C. Community and belonging matter at Northwestern. Tell us about one or more communities, networks, or student groups you see yourself connecting with on campus.

If you couldn’t tell by now, Northwestern is all about community. With around 500 organizations, from academic and research-focused groups to sports teams and cultural organizations, any student can find a home at Northwestern. 

Research and identify the specific student organizations and communities that resonate with you – the more specific you can answer this question, the better! Perhaps you are excited by the opportunity to work alongside esteemed professors and fellow students who share your passion for discovery and innovation. Alternatively, maybe you see yourself thriving in the realm of athletics. Northwestern offers a diverse range of intramural and club sports teams, providing an avenue for you to connect with like-minded individuals. 

Whichever community you choose, the key is to demonstrate that you have taken the time to explore the various communities and organizations on campus and that you have a genuine connection to a specific group. Whether it's through research, sports, cultural organizations, or any other avenue that aligns with your passions and aspirations, explain why this specific community is the perfect home for you. By showcasing your knowledge and enthusiasm for a particular organization, you can illustrate how you will contribute to and benefit from the Northwestern community.

D. Northwestern’s location is special: on the shore of Lake Michigan, steps from downtown Evanston, just a few miles from Chicago. What aspects of our location are most compelling to you, and why?

Another way of approaching this question is by asking yourself, "What unique opportunities can I, as a student, explore and immerse myself in here that I wouldn't find elsewhere?" 

Chicago's unparalleled combination of geography, culture, politics, and community offers an extraordinary canvas for students to paint their college experience. Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Northwestern students have the privilege of enjoying stunning waterfront views and engaging in various water-related activities. From sailing and kayaking to simply strolling along the lakefront, the natural beauty of the lake provides a serene escape from the bustling city life. Additionally, being just a few miles from downtown Evanston and a short train ride away from Chicago, students have the best of both worlds—the tranquility of the Evanston campus and the vibrant energy of the city.

Chicago itself as a city offers an unparalleled interdisciplinary experience. Students can delve into a multitude of interests and passions, seamlessly blending the academic rigor of Northwestern with the vibrant opportunities the city provides. For example, if you are interested in the arts and humanities, Chicago’s renowned art scene, world-class museums, and iconic architecture offer endless sources of inspiration and exploration. Reflect on how the innovative theater productions in the Loop or the Art Institute of Chicago allow you to immerse yourself in a rich cultural tapestry, and witness firsthand the transformative power of art. 

Chicago's politics also make it a unique and compelling location for students. As the birthplace of community organizing and activism, Chicago has a long history of social movements and political engagement. From participating in grassroots campaigns to attending rallies and protests, students have the opportunity to be at the forefront of social change and make a tangible impact on the issues they care about. Reflect on the city's political landscape, with its diverse communities and complex challenges – and how it would offer a valuable learning environment, especially if you are interested in public policy, social justice, and advocacy.

As you think about the aspects of Northwestern’s location that captivate you, consider how the city's geography, culture, politics, and community can uniquely enhance your academic journey at Northwestern. Reflect on the interdisciplinary nature of Chicago and how it aligns with the interdisciplinary nature of Northwestern, as well as how you envision yourself immersing in the city's vibrant tapestry – ultimately creating a college experience that is truly one-of-a-kind.

E. Northwestern is a place where people with diverse backgrounds from all over the world can study, live, and talk with one another. This range of experiences and viewpoints immeasurably enriches learning. How might your individual background contribute to this diversity of perspectives in Northwestern’s classrooms and around our campus?

For this prompt, Andrew notes, “Knowing your voice and perspective is a skill that will take you far in life. No one can know another’s point of view truly, but understanding others, as well as your own, is part of the learning process. Think of it this way: what can I speak to or share that no one else can? What are perspectives or viewpoints from which I’m wanting to learn? Answering these questions will help you know how you as an individual can participate in the overall Northwestern community.”

Explore the unique aspects of your individual background. What sets you apart from others? What experiences have shaped your worldview? Maybe you come from a multicultural family, where you have been exposed to different languages, traditions, and customs. Your ability to navigate between different cultural contexts can offer valuable insights and bridge gaps between diverse groups of people. Or perhaps you have overcome significant challenges or adversity in your life, and this has shaped your resilience and determination. Delve into how sharing your personal journey can inspire and motivate others, while also fostering empathy and understanding within the Northwestern community.

Additionally, your academic and extracurricular pursuits can also contribute to the diversity of perspectives at Northwestern. If you have a passion for a particular field or subject, your unique insights and knowledge can enhance classroom discussions and inspire your peers to look at topics from different angles. For example, if you are a student who is passionate about social justice and advocacy, you could discuss your plans for bringing awareness to important issues, amplifying marginalized voices, and fostering a sense of inclusivity on campus.

Ultimately, Northwestern values the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that Northwestern students bring. By embracing and celebrating this diversity, you have the opportunity to contribute to an inclusive and vibrant learning environment that fosters personal growth, intellectual curiosity, and meaningful connections. So, take a moment to reflect on your own voice and perspective, and consider the unique contributions you can make to the Northwestern community.

Additional Tips for Writing the Northwestern Supplemental Essays 2023-2024

Now that we have explored the Northwestern Supplemental Essays, here are some valuable tips to consider as you craft your responses, as recommended by Andrew:

  • Connect answers to yourself: While it’s pretty easy to fill up a page with everything appealing about Northwestern, remember that the Northwestern supplemental essays are designed to get to know you. Andrew says, "In my experience, many examples (ie. NUDM, Associated Student Government, Dolphin Show, etc.) all get parroted back at us in great volume in student essays. While many students do connect with these examples, many are clearly students marking these organizations from their campus visit or from a brief web search – which often reads as generic because the responses lack depth and reflection. “ If you choose to discuss the NUDM, share the personal and meaningful reasons why the Dance Marathon holds a special place in your heart and is something you eagerly anticipate as a future student at Northwestern.
  • Don’t repeat what you’ve written for other components: Remember that admissions officers have already seen your activities list and your personal statement through the Common App. It’s important that you cover an entirely different experience in your supplemental essay and not repeat the same reasons why you want to pursue a certain major or career. Admissions officers don’t want to read about the same thing over and over again, so you need to focus on adding new information and showcasing the depth of your knowledge about Northwestern.
  • Think about the Northwestern college of your choice: Before you sit down to write your Northwestern supplemental essay, you should think carefully about the specialized college you’ll apply to and tailor your essay to highlight unique program offerings at that particular school. Even though you are allowed to take classes across the different schools, your essay needs to be as specific as possible to your primary field. If you’re applying to the School of Engineering, don’t rave about classes in the School of Communication!

Your goal with the supplemental essays is to demonstrate to Northwestern that your decision to apply is well-informed and thoughtful. The supplemental essays are an opportunity to showcase how Northwestern’s resources can align with and support your personal goals. Begin your research now to provide a compelling and informed response. Best of luck!

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