Northwestern Supplemental Essays 2023-24 – Prompts and Advice

September 6, 2023

northwestern supplemental essays

With an acceptance rate of just 7% for the Class of 2027, Northwestern University is very much an “Ivy-equivalent” school. This is true both in terms of quality academics and selectivity. Last fall, incoming Wildcats almost universally placed within the top 10% of their respective high school class. They also boasted average SAT scores in the 1470 range. In 2023-24, even high schoolers bringing superior credentials to the table need to realize that the majority of the other 52,000+ other applicants can demonstrate comparable levels of achievement. Therefore, applicants need to look for other ways to separate themselves from the pack. And that brings us to the Northwestern supplemental essay prompts.

 (Want to learn more about How to Get Into Northwestern University? Visit our blog entitled: How to Get Into Northwestern University: Admissions Data and Strategies for all of the most recent admissions data as well as tips for gaining acceptance.)

In addition to one required essay prompt, Northwestern also gives applicants the opportunity to respond to at least one (and up to two) optional prompts. Essentially, every applicant has three opportunities to stand out in the eyes of admissions officers and showcase what makes them uniquely qualified for admission. Below you will find Northwestern’s supplemental prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle along with our advice on how to pen winning compositions.

2023-2024 Northwestern Supplemental Essays

Prompt #1 (Required for all applicants)

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? (fewer than 300 words)

Northwestern is inviting you to share more about your background/identity/community through the lens of how that will impact your experience at the university. Take note of the wide-open nature of this prompt. You are essentially invited to talk about any of the following topics:

  1. A perspective you hold
  2. An experience/challenge you had
  3. A community you belong to
  4. Your cultural background
  5. Your religious background
  6. Your family background
  7. Your sexual orientation or gender identity

Although this prompt’s open floor plan may feel daunting, a good tactic is to first consider what has already been communicated within your Common App personal statement and activities list. What important aspect(s) of yourself have not been shared (or sufficiently discussed)? The admissions officer reading your essay is hoping to connect with you through your written words, so—within your essay’s reflection—be open, humble, thoughtful, inquisitive, emotionally honest, mature, and/or insightful about what you learned and how you grew.

Northwestern Supplemental Essays (Continued)

You’ll then need to discuss how your background/identity/experiences have influenced your academic, social, or extracurricular college goals. As such, think about what you learned and how it relates to one of the previously mentioned areas. For example, perhaps growing up in Northern California has made you passionate about post-wildfire ecosystem restoration, which you hope to pursue further through Northwestern’s environmental science program. Or, perhaps your experience as a poll worker has made you interested in NU Votes, or the discrimination you watched your sibling face after revealing their gender identity has informed your desire to be part of organizations like the Rainbow Alliance.

To that end, be sure you address how you will take advantage of Northwestern’s immense resources both inside and/or outside of the classroom by citing specific academic programs, professors, research opportunities, special opportunities, study abroad programs, student-run organizations, etc.

Prompt #2 (Optional but recommended)

Most “optional” essays are not truly optional, and Northwestern’s new essay prompts are no different. Think of it this way: if you’re truly interested in attending Northwestern, you have two more incredibly valuable opportunities to further demonstrate that fit. Take advantage of them!

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:

  • 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?

Out of everything on this Earth, what makes you tick? What keeps you up at night? What issue could you talk about or debate for hours? If you could address one problem in the world, large or small, what would it be? What do you love to do? Do you have a treasured cultural tradition that you’d love to share with others? If you are answering at least one of these questions, you are on the right track with this essay.

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  • 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?

Firstly, you’ll want to select a course centered around a topic about which you are an expert or hope to become an expert. The admissions reader is well aware that you are a teenager and not someone who has yet earned a Ph.D. Therefore, being a self-taught, informal expert is perfectly fine. You’ll then want to explain “why”—why will (or should) your passion be made relevant to a wider audience? And who would you want to work with along the way? These classmates and collaborators could be peers, mentors, or even guest speakers. Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind:

  • Given the prompt’s wording, quality answers should involve the intersection of two or more disciplines.
  • Course creation essays can and should reveal your ability to connect and synthesize information.
  • Make sure that the topic of your course is not overly broad or already offered. The topic should not be akin to a 101 college course like Intro to Psychology…be creative!
  • Community and belonging matter at Northwestern. Tell us about one or more communities, networks, or student groups you see yourself connecting with on campus.

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Keep in mind that Northwestern has already seen the President’s Volunteer Service Award and the impressive number of hours you volunteered at multiple nonprofit organizations. They know that you have been an active member of your high school/local community. The admissions committee now desires to understand precisely how you will contribute to their community of 8,000+ undergraduate students. Highlighting the link between your past efforts and future aims is critical here. For example, if you dedicated many hours to increasing your high school’s mental health support services, it will be more impactful when you now express your commitment to joining Northwestern’s Active Minds organization.

The strongest Northwestern community essays will show evidence of meaningful school-specific research. This research process will actually give you a better idea of how you would sincerely like to become engaged at each prospective school on your list. Admissions officers will appreciate a Northwestern-centric answer far more than a generic (often recycled from app to app) response. Moreover, given the word count, you’ll be able to produce the strongest response if you focus on just one or two specific aspects of your identity and perspective.

  • 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?

Northwestern Supplemental Essays (Continued)

If you choose to answer this question, know that you’ll need to think very deeply about your answer. Admissions officers are going to receive scores of responses about the number of opportunities available in Chicago, generalities about living in a suburb of a major city, and proximity to famous regional landmarks. As such, if Northwestern’s location feels particularly important to you, dig deep as to why. What location-specific experiences will you be able to have at Northwestern that you won’t be able to have anywhere else?

  • 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?

This prompt asks you to not only share a particular life experience but also describe why that experience will enable you to contribute to Northwestern in general. Essentially, it’s asking you to take your essay’s reflection one step further—you’ll need to share why the experience you’ve chosen has impacted you as well as why/how you believe it will allow you to positively impact the Northwestern community.

First, choose a key aspect of your experiences or background that reveals something deep and meaningful about you. (Although you could choose more than one, we’d advise against it, given that you only have 200 words in which to respond.) As you brainstorm, consider the following avenues:

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  • Your role in your family.
  • Your role in your social group.
  • A challenge you’ve faced.
  • A formative experience or realization.
  • Core values and beliefs.
  • Important aspects of your upbringing.
  • Cultural, religious, community influence.

Second, you’ll need to describe both personal and future impact. Make sure that your answer reveals something about how you will live out Northwestern’s values or contribute to a specific academic/social community.

Finally, this prompt is quite similar to the required prompt about background and identity (see above), so if you choose this option, be sure you’re not repeating yourself in any way. If you’ve already said everything you need to say about your background in the required prompt, you’ll likely want to choose a different option.

How important are the Northwestern supplemental essays?

The essays (including the Common App essay) are viewed as “important” to the Northwestern applicant evaluation process. The other factors that are also considered “important” are: recommendations, extracurricular activities, talent/ability, and character/personal qualities. The only four factors viewed as being more important than the essays are GPA, test scores, class rank, and the rigor of one’s curriculum.

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