Badgers to Be: Tips for University of Wisconsin-Madison applicants

At some large universities, the highest numbers win the admissions game.  They'll plug your grades and test scores into a formula and let the computer decide who gets in. But University of Wisconsin-Madison comes right out and tells you on their website that they don't use formulas and that they read every application.  That means they're going to read the two essays you're required to write, and those essays can absolutely impact your chances of admission. 

Here are some tips to help you think about some good responses. 

Submit your responses to both questions 50 and 51 on separate sheet(s) of paper.

50) The University of Wisconsin values an educational environment that provides all members of the campus community with opportunities to grow and develop intellectually, personally, culturally and socially. In order to give us a more complete picture of you as an individual, please tell us about the particular life experiences, perspectives, talents, commitments and/or interests you will bring to our campus. In other words, how will your presence enrich our community?

This seems to be the popular question this year for colleges–how will you contribute to our campus?  It makes sense that while colleges care about what you do in high school, they do so mostly because that can give them indicators of what type of person you're likely to be once you get to college.

I've written a lot entries about this question (see my guidelines for Michigan, Boston University and Villanova, to name a few), but the most important thing you have to do is understand what "contributing" means on a college campus. 

A college is a community.  If every member of that community sat passively through classes, spent the rest of their time watching TV, and just dutifully plodded through four years of college, it wouldn't be a very interesting place to live and learn for four years.  As much as colleges provide to students, it is the students who ultimately make the campus experience memorable for each other by becoming members of that community and finding ways to contribute.

Here are some examples of college students who are contributing.

1. The former high school quarterback who plays intramural flag football is contributing.

2. The African American student who joins the African American Student Union is contributing.

3. The student with a pilot's license who joins the Flying Club is contributing.

4. The student who has to work full time to put herself through college, and schedules classes around the hours where she works at the campus coffee shop, is contributing. 

5. The student who becomes a resident advisor and also teaches cultural sensitivity trainings to the RA staff is contributing. 

6. The former photographer for the high school paper who now takes photos for the college paper is contributing.

7. The homosexual student who becomes the president of the Gay/Straight Alliance in college is contributing. 

8. The harmonica player who plays with a blues band in the annual campus "Battle of The Bands" is contributing.

9. The former lead in the school play who minors in drama and acts in the productions is contributing.  

10. The daughter of migrant farm workers who's now the first in her family to go to college, who plays club ultimate frisbee, works part time, and regularly visits her professors during office hours is contributing.

The common trait all of these students have are that they are in some way sharing their talent, background, belief or circumstance with other students and faculty. It might be a major leadership role on campus or might be simply teaching other students how to play the harmonica.  But they're not just keeping to themselves.  They're finding their place within the campus community.

The only way to answer a question like this is to think about the person you want to be in college, and connect that with stories from your high school life that illustrate those traits, circumstances, beliefs, etc.

If you were going to add an example of yourself to the list above, what would the example be (in other words, how do you see yourself contributing in college)?  Tie that example to your high school life and share some specific, descriptive stories that show that experience, belief or trait.  You have to show the college something about who you are today, and then look ahead to how you'll bring that with you to college. 

51) Tell us about your academic goals, circumstances that may have had an impact on your academic performance, and, in general, anything else you would like us to know in making an admission decision.

A lot of students struggle with this question because they just don't know what to say.  It's not uncommon, as it's often the broader prompts like this one that are harder for students to answer. But remember that essays are a vehicle for the admissions committee to get to know you better in ways your application doesn't reveal.

Here are some things you could consider discussing here:

1.  Have you experienced a legitimate hardship in high school, something that really did affect your performance?  Just remember not to present something as a hardship unless, in fact, it was. 

2. Do you have any disability that has impacted your academic work?

3.  Is there a story about your family or your life that you think is important for an admissions committee to know, something that might have impacted your high school career, and most importantly, something that's not apparent from the rest of your application?  Maybe you're the first in your family to attend college, or you've grown up not knowing your father, or were an army brat who's attended four different high schools, or you had a brain tumor during your sophomore year and had to miss two months of school? 

4.  Have you had an experience that you think will impact your college career, particularly academically?  For example, did your chemistry teacher inspire you to major in chemistry, or did your work on the newspaper make you want to study journalism, or your summer job at a law firm make you consider law? 

5.  Is there anything else about you or your life that you wish you could share with a college, something that didn't fit neatly onto the application?  This is the place to share it.

Unfortunately, open essay prompts can also lead to cliche, unrevealing essays where the writer is really just trying to impress the reader (which is a terrible approach).

With that in mind, here are a few topics to avoid:

1)  Anything where you inject deep meaning that wasn't there at the time, like, "Being on the football team taught me many important lessons about dedication."  Yes, you have to be dedicated to be on the football team.  But were you really thinking, "I'm learning important lessons about dedication" while you were playing football?  Probably not.  

2)  Any experience presented as a hardship that wasn't all that hard. You don't necessarily get "extra credit" for enduring a hardship, and in fact, you'll lose figurative points for trying to garner sympathy from an experience that wasn't a tragedy.

3)  Anything that just repeats what they already know from your application.  If you list "Philanthropic trip to Mexico with church" on your application, they know what that means.  A 500 word description of it here in the essay doesn't make it more impressive.  If you want to write about something that was mentioned on your application, don't just write a summary of the activity or event.  Instead, write about a part of the experience that has not been mentioned yet, something they wouldn't know from reading your application. 

4) Anything that resembles a eulogy for your cat. 

5) Anything that doesn't sound like something you would normally think or say out loud.  Most teenagers don't think or say "Participating in an on-campus blood drive gave me new insight into the fulfillment that can be gained from extending my hand to others."  So don't say it in your college essay.

It's good to see large schools like University of Wisconsin trying to personalize their application process. Thank them for doing so by personalizing your responses.  Be honest and revealing, and worry much more about what you want to say than you do about what they want to hear.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

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