written by
Ishaan Madan

Northwestern University Essay Guide 2020-2021

Essay Guides 8 min read
Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

In this Northwestern University Essay Guide, you’ll find tips on how to best respond to the supplemental essay prompts for Northwestern. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Northwestern University is a private research university located in Evanston, IL, founded in 1851. Just north of Chicago, Northwestern boasts a beautiful 231-acre campus situated right on Lake Michigan. With just over 8000 undergraduate students, Northwestern is a ‘medium’ sized school, ranked by US News as the 9th best university in the nation. As recently as the Class of 2024, Northwestern published a 9% acceptance rate for undergraduate applicants across its six undergraduate colleges. Northwestern’s 6:1 student-faculty ratio and $11B endowment are coupled with its commitment to excellence in research across many disciplines; students are encouraged to work alongside a star-studded faculty that includes recipients of awards ranging from Nobel Prizes to Grammy Awards. Notable alumni include TV personalities Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers, Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin, Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, and many more.

In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.

Northwestern’s supplement essay prompt is relatively straightforward and short, but it is a very critical part of the application. As with any typical ‘Why School’ prompt, there is a general structure that is often useful to follow, which we will discuss below. On top of that, this essay guide will offer Northwestern-specific tips to really help your application shine.

In general, a ‘Why School’ essay should address two key questions:

1) What qualities, resources, and attributes of the school are attractive to you?

2) What qualities and attributes do you possess that the school should care about? More specifically, why would a marriage of you and the school be a good idea for both parties?

Often times, applicants answering ‘Why School’ prompts thoroughly address the first of the aforementioned questions, but seriously lack or altogether miss answering the second. As you write your essay, be sure to think critically about both questions.

When answering the first question, the key to having a successful answer is to include as many specific details as you can. Specificity in this regard means naming professors, programs, majors, traditions, extracurricular activities, and other school-specific details. Your ‘Why Northwestern’ essay should not be casually interchangeable with your ‘Why U-Penn’ (or any other school’s) essay. Rather, each ‘Why School’ essay should be uniquely marked and filled with content that is unique to that specific school.

Later on in this article, we will cover content that is specific to the Northwestern experience to help with this, but don’t forget to do your own research to be able to identify Northwestern experiences that genuinely excite you.

The second question requires introspection and, consequently, is harder to offer general advice on. Think about your personal values, experiences, and goals; think about the highlights of your high school experience. What stands out? What kind of learner, thinker, and person are you? What kinds of activities do you enjoy? These are potentially difficult questions to answer as an 18-year-old, but thinking in this direction will help you address the second question.

In essence, you are trying to explain to the Northwestern Admissions Department why you would be a positive addition to their campus. It could be something as simple as: Northwestern has many great initiatives about going green, and you are fervently passionate about researching renewable energy sources. You can then spend a good portion of your 300 words discussing your passion for renewable energy.

Alternatively, you could identify a match on values: Northwestern celebrates interdisciplinary learning, and perhaps you are most enthralled in your studies when you have a varied course load across many subject areas. In that case, you could budget your 300 words describing examples from your high school experience that display your multifaceted learning style. If you are having trouble with this, speak more with your Bullseye Advisor about brainstorming and ideation in this area.

As promised, below are some Northwestern-specific activities/ideas to think about as you work through your essay:

AND is in Our DNA

Much of Northwestern’s recent advertising material features the slogan: “AND is in our DNA.” This is no accident; Northwestern is very proud of its interdisciplinary approach to learning. The advertising material suggests that Northwestern is not just a one-dimensional research institution.

Across the 6 undergraduate schools, students may pick from 90 different majors and 90 Minors/Certificates. Certificates are fantastic “Baby Minors” (on top of regular Majors and Minors) offered to Northwestern students in areas such as marketing, financial economics, design, and others. In your essay, you should mention which certificate(s) you are interested in pursuing at Northwestern to display your varied academic interests outside your intended field of study.

In addition to certificates, Northwestern offers true flexibility for undergraduates to study/switch across the 6 major colleges. I personally switched from the Arts and Sciences College to the Engineering College very early in my Northwestern career —I found the experience to be seamless. Northwestern ensures that transitions like this are effortless, and even encourages students to pursue double/triple majors across different colleges. Celebrate this in your essay! If you don’t have an intended major in mind, do not worry. Northwestern will allow you to dabble, switch, and explore as much as you like. If this is appealing to you, mention it in your essay.

It is worth mentioning that Northwestern is on the quarter system. This is a bit of a misnomer, as there are only three ‘real’ academic quarters in a year (the fourth being summer). However, the quarter system allows students to take more classes per year, on average, than students at semester schools do. The typical load for semester schools is 10 courses a year (5 per semester); at Northwestern, students typically take 12 courses in one academic year (4 per quarter). This will allow you to explore classes, minors, and certificates outside of your set academic path, giving you the flexibility to engage some of your funkier interests. Be sure to mention unique/quirky classes you are excited about that are available to you because of the quarter system.

Entrepreneurship, Research, Study Abroad

One of the main areas that Northwestern has invested in for the past few years is entrepreneurship. One of the spots that’s lesser-known to high school students on campus is an entrepreneurship hub called The Garage. Northwestern encourages undergrads to found startups out of this space, offering resources, funding, and mentorship to members of The Garage. Also, it is fairly common for Northwestern undergrads to work alongside prospective MBA candidates from the Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern’s Business School) on entrepreneurial ventures. Northwestern does a lot to make sure undergrads feel comfortable exploring their entrepreneurial tendencies, and if this is something you see yourself doing, it is absolutely worth mentioning in your essay.

The University also offers a host of Study Broad and Research experiences to undergrads. A notable study-abroad experience is the Bay Area Immersion Program. With regards to research, be sure to identify some professors whose work excite you and mention them in your essay. Northwestern really pushes for undergraduates to get involved with research.

Social Life and Traditions

Below are some traditions/social events that occur at Northwestern that can be sprinkled into your essay.

1. March Through the Arch: Upon starting at Northwestern, undergrads march through the main arch on campus. Upon graduating, they march out of the arch.

2. Painting The Rock: Centrally located on campus is a painted rock known as, “The Rock.” Students must “guard” (camp near) The Rock for 24 hours before being allowed to paint a message of their choosing on it. Often times, the messages are powerful social statements regarding current events. However, they can also be frivolous and fun.

3. Dillo Day: At the end of every Spring Quarter, Northwestern is home to the largest student-run music festival in the country. The full-day music festival has featured artists like Kanye West, Young the Giant, and Odesza in past years. It is an extremely fun day that every Northwestern student has memorable stories about. The day is known as “Dillo Day,” named for an armadillo.

4. Dance Marathon: A student-run, charity-driven dance marathon takes place every Winter Quarter. Students are encouraged to find donors and raise money while dancing for 30 consecutive hours (with short breaks, of course). Since 1975, Northwestern Dance Marathon has raised over $20M for more than 35 different charitable organizations.

5. Chicago: Since Northwestern is only a 40-minute train ride away from Chicago, feel free to write about experiences in the city that excite you. Chicago is known for its fantastic hotdogs, great Jazz/Blues music, historical sports teams (Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks, etc.) and ruthless winters. Northwestern often pairs up with local museums, sports teams, and theaters to offer students discounted/free Chicago experiences, so these are potentially worth mentioning in your essay.

Key Phrases

In your essay, using Northwestern-specific vernacular may help your writing seem more authentic. Below are some good phrases to know:

Morty: The President of the University, Morton Schapiro, affectionately referred to as “Morty” by the student body.

Lakefill: A small waterbody centrally located on campus that sits next to Lake Michigan.

Willie the Wildcat: Northwestern’s mascot for all sporting events. He is a wildcat and is present at all major sporting events.

NU: Northwestern is always abbreviated as ‘NU’. Do not abbreviate it as NWU or NW in your essay!


This Northwestern University essay guide was written by Ishaan Madan, Northwestern University Class of 2020. If you want to get more help writing your application essays from Ishaan or other Bullseye Admissions advisors, click here to schedule a free call.

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