How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements

Learn Strategies for Making your UW Application Shine

University of Wisconsin Madison
University of Wisconsin Madison. Richard Hurd / Flickr

The University of Wisconsin System has a holistic admissions process that includes at least one personal statement. The flagship campus in Madison requires two essays. Applicants can apply using either the Common Application or the University of Wisconsin Application. This article addresses strategies for responding to the essay prompts. 

The Personal Statement for all University of Wisconsin Campuses

The main campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison as well as the campuses in Milwaukee, Stevens, and Stout accept either the Common Application or the UW application. For these four schools, applicants can choose to apply using the Common Application and reply to one of its seven essay prompts. This gives you the freedom to write about anything you choose, for not only do the prompts cover a wide range of topics, but option #7 allows you to write on a topic of your choice.

Every campus of the UW system, however, accepts the University of Wisconsin application. The main prompt on this application asks the following:

This part is all about you. Tell us about something you’ve done—academically or personally—and what you’ve learned from it. Was it a success or a challenge? Did it represent a turning point in your life? How did this particular moment in your life influence you, and how will it continue to influence you as you pursue your college education?

You have so many options here that you might find the essay prompt daunting. As you figure out what the "something you've done" is that you should write about, keep in mind the reason why the University of Wisconsin is asking this question. The admissions process is holistic, so the university wants to get to know you as a whole person, not just as a set of empirical data such as grades, class rank, and standardized test scores. Your extracurricular activities and employment history are part of the holistic portrait, but they don't tell the whole story. 

Use this prompt to explore something that isn't obvious from the rest of your application. If one of your jobs or extracurricular activities is particularly important to you, you could use this essay to explain why that is so (much like a typical short answer essay). Or you could use this essay to present a side of your personality that doesn't appear on your application at all. Perhaps you like rebuilding motorcycles, fishing with your younger sister, or writing poetry.

Almost anything that's important to you is fair game here, just make sure you follow through and explain why it's important to you. If you fail to explain what you learned and how you've changed, you've failed to present the admissions folks a full window into your passions and interests. Also make sure your essay is forward looking since the prompt asks you to project ahead into your college years.

The Additional Essay for UW-Madison

The University of Wisconsin flagship campus in Madison requires a second essay. The prompt is the same whether you use the Common Application or the UW Application. It asks the following:

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.

UW-Madison has packed a lot into this essay prompt, and it might be best to view it as two essay prompts, not one. The first—why UW-Madison?—is typical of the supplemental essays for many other colleges, and you'll want to avoid common supplemental essay mistakes. The key here is to be specific. If your answer could be applied to schools other than UW-Madison, then you're being too vague and generic. What specifically about UW-Madison appeals to you? What unique features of the university distinguish it from other places you're considering?

Similarly, with the question about your academic interests, be sure to do your research. Make sure you know what the university offers so that you know what opportunities you can take advantage of should you be admitted. UW-Madison is trying to make sure applicants are familiar with the university's academic offerings and have clear interests that map well to the school's curriculum.

For both pieces of this essay, keep the "why" at the forefront. Don't just describe your academic interests or the features of UW that you like. Explain why you like these things. Why do you get excited about a certain subject area? Why does UW appeal to you? In addressing "why," your essay becomes about you. The admissions folks get a glimpse into what you value and what it is that interests and excites you.

The Additional Essay for UW-La Crosse

Of all the campuses in the University of Wisconsin system, the only other school to require a second essay is UW-La Crosse. The essay prompt reads:

Please respond to the following: How will your life experiences, commitments, and/or characteristics enrich the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse campus community? Tell us why you are interested in attending UW–La Crosse and what aspects of the campus are especially important to you?

Here, as with the UW-Madison prompt, you're getting the "Why our school?" question. Be sure to be specific. Any response that could be applied to universities other than UW-La Crosse are too generic. Show that you are familiar with UW-La Crosse and that the university has unique features that align well with your interests, personality, academic goals, and professional aspirations.

The main part of the essay prompt is refreshing in its directness, for, in truth, it is asking what every college admissions essay asks—How will you "enrich our community?" Colleges want more than students with good grades and high test scores; they also want students who will contribute to campus life in a positive way. Before you write your essay or take part in a college interview, you'd be wise to figure out your own answer to the question. What is it that you will contribute? Why will the college be a better place because of your presence? Think about your hobbies, your sense of humor, your quirks, your academic passions... all of the features that make you you.

Nearly all application essays are really getting at this very issue. Whether you are writing about a challenge you've faced, a problem you've solved, an important accomplishment in your life, or an important dimension of your life experiences, a good essay shows that you bring to campus the type of passion and personality that will enrich the university community.

Make Your University of Wisconsin Essay Shine

You have lots of breadth in choosing what to write about, but you'd be wise to steer clear of bad essay topics that often go astray. Also, don't just focus on what to write, but also how you write it. Pay attention to the style of your essay so that your narrative is tight, engaging, and powerful. Also be sure to follow the tips on the UW website.