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Last updated March 9, 2023

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How to Get into Northwestern

Key Takeaway

If Northwestern is your dream school, then you're in the right place. With a 7% acceptance rate, it's rivals the Ivies in terms of difficulty. But with a smart application strategy, you may be able to beat the odds. In this guide, we show you how to create a compelling and authentic narrative for your Northwestern application. 

Don’t let that pretty purple fool you. Getting into Northwestern is serious business.

With an acceptance rate of just under 7%, Northwestern is harder to get into than some Ivies (we’re looking at you, Cornell).

But our team of former admissions officers have helped students just like you get into Northwestern.

This post explains how they did it.

How to Apply to Northwestern

Whether you apply through the Common Application or Coalition Application, Northwestern asks for the same basic materials:

  • Background and demographic information
  • Extracurricular activities list
  • Official secondary school transcript
  • School report
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • “Why Northwestern” essay
  • Standardized test scores (though these are still optional)

Depending on your situation, you may also be required to submit additional materials, like your IELTS results or an Early Decision Agreement.

When you apply to Northwestern, you’ll also be applying to a particular school that houses your major of interest. Don’t worry—if admitted, you’ll still be allowed to take classes outside of your home school. In fact, an interdisciplinary course load is actually encouraged.

Northwestern emphasizes that applications to all schools are evaluated the same, but beware: you might face more competition if you’re applying to a more popular major. (See our breakdown of the most popular Northwestern majors in our Northwestern Common Data Set post.)

If you’re applying to a school that requires or encourages supplemental materials, you may have even more information to send it. (For example, check out the video supplements that applicants to the School of Communication’s Music Theatre Certificate Program are encouraged.)

Northwestern Application Options

You have two options when applying to Northwestern: Early Decision and Regular Decision.

Since there’s no Early Action option, you’ll only be able to apply early if you’re willing to sign a binding Early Decision agreement. The trade-off, of course, is that you’ll benefit from that sweet, sweet 17.3% ED acceptance rate.

But unless Northwestern is your absolute top choice, you’ll probably be applying Regular Decision.

Northwestern Application Deadlines

Early Decision applications are due November 1, and Regular Decision applications are due January 2.

How hard is it to get into Northwestern?

We won’t beat around the bush: getting into Northwestern is hard. A 7% acceptance rate means that 93% of applicants get denied. Statistically, you’re more likely to be in the 93%.

So why is it so hard to be admitted?

It’s a numbers game. Of the almost 50,000 students who applied, just over 3,000 were offered seats in the incoming class. There simply aren’t enough seats for the number of qualified applicants.

Add in the prestige and popularity of particular programs (like communications or engineering), and you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.

Thankfully, all your hard work in high school doesn’t have to be for naught. Good application strategy and thoughtful decisions—like applying ED, which has a 10% higher acceptance rate—can turn those elusive admissions tides in your favor.

What does Northwestern look for in applicants?

As a top school in the country, Northwestern looks for top applicants. We’ve already broken down all of the most important Northwestern application evaluation criteria in our Northwestern Common Data Set post, so here we’ll focus more on those intangible qualities Northwestern admissions officers are on the hunt for.

Northwestern’s admissions office has a whole page on their website dedicatd to the “‘Fit’ Factor.”

Here’s what they say: “[F]it is a story you tell us about how you see yourself thriving on campus.”

Dear reader, it’s all in the marketing. That’s why we’re constantly talking about crafting a cohesive application narrative. You’re not just applying—you’re marketing yourself to an admissions officer.

Now let’s take a look at the story Northwestern tells about itself.

To start, peruse the university values page. We can extract a few key themes:

  1. Intellectual impact: Northwestern isn’t just concerned about learning for learning’s sake (although that’s important, too). They also want to see how you can take your work in the classroom and use it to impact the world around you.
  2. Research: Northwestern wants students who will take advantage of all the research initiatives on campus. They want you to think about (and demonstrate) entrepreneurship, innovation, and a keen eye for research.
  3. Student support and community: Northwestern is big on supporting students and maintaining a strong sense of community. Browsing through information about student life will help you find your “fit.”

Bada bing, bada boom. See how your own story fits within this mold, and write your application with that in mind.

Northwestern GPA requirement

Northwestern keeps their GPA information close. But as we discussed in our Northwestern Common Data Set post, 95% of enrolled first-year students ranked in the top tenth of their class. That’s not to say that there’s no room for students who aren’t at that level, but the vast majority are.

It may be bleak, but it’s true. There’s not much room to mess around with sub-10% acceptance rates, so you should set realistic expectations about your chances.

Northwestern SAT Scores

There’s some good news and some bad news, depending on what your scores are.

If you’ve aced your standardized tests, Northwestern will consider your test scores. High enough scores might just give your application the bump it needs to make it to the admit pile.

But if you’re unhappy with your scores, Northwestern is still, as of now, test-optional.

Deciding whether to submit your test scores is a test in and of itself. That’s why we have a whole strategy post about test-optional admissions.

To help you decide, you need one crucial piece of information: the middle 50%. The middle 50% represents the test score range that 50% of enrolled first-year students received. Here are Northwestern’s:

SAT Composite: 1490-1550

ACT Composite: 33-35

So 50% of Northwestern’s first-year students were in those ranges. That also means that 25% were at or below the ranges, and 25% were at or above.

Read our strategy post for more detailed advice about submitting your scores. But, in general, you should feel comfortable submitting your scores if you’re within the middle 50% range—especially if you’re at the higher end of it.

Does Northwestern superscore?

Yup, Northwestern superscores. Don’t expect yourself to ace every section every time. Superscoring means that Northwestern will accept your best scores in each section, no matter the test date you took them.

What high school course work do I need to get into Northwestern?

The courses Northwestern admissions officers expect you to take will depend on the school you're applying to.

If you’re more interested in the arts, humanities, or social sciences, your course breakdown might look something like this:

  • 4 years of English
  • 2+ years of foreign language
  • 2+ year of history or social studies
  • 2+ years of lab science
  • 3+ years of math

And if you’re more on the STEM side, you may be looking more like this:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3+ years of lab science (they note specifically that chemistry and physics are preferred)
  • At least 3.5 years of math
  • Additional courses in foreign language, history, and social studies

What extracurriculars do I need to get into Northwestern?

Here’s the thing. When it comes to extracurriculars, it’s less about what you do and more about how and why you do it. It's all about the impact.

Northwestern doesn’t really care whether you’re a national robotics finalist or an award-winning poet or a primary caregiver for your family member. Those are all awesome, noble activities to be involved in.

What Northwestern admissions officers actually care about is why and how you’ve been involved. They want to know how your activities have contributed to who you are and who you want to be.

Let’s take the poet as an example. Maybe they’re applying to the McCormick School of Engineering. A poet applying to engineering? There’s an interesting story. Let’s say the poet isn’t just a talented writer—they’re also interested in Natural Language Processing and artificial intelligence. As a poet, they’re interested in what makes human art different from machine art. See how the story comes together?

But the “why” alone isn’t enough, either. Admissions officers also want to know about how you’ve impacted those around you.

We’ll do another example, this time with the student who is a primary caregiver. At first glance, you might think that this responsibility doesn’t look as impressive as a student who was a national robotics finalist. But they’re just different impacts. If this student wasn’t able to participate in other extracurriculars because of their home responsibilities, then they can explain how their carework was vital to their loved one and family.

So no matter what you’ve done, return to Northwestern’s advice: write about your activities in a way that emphasizes your willingness to engage, collaborate, and make a meaningful impact.

Final Takeaways + Northwestern Supplemental Essay

If you want to take your college experience in a Northwestern direction, you’ve got to learn how to market yourself. You also need the grades, the rigorous courses, and, possibly, the test-scores as prerequisites. Just as Northwestern is a top school, you’ll need to be a top applicant.

Once you’ve got your application strategy in place, it’s time to write your essays. Northwestern has one supplemental essay: a simple “Why Northwestern” question that requires a thoughtful answer. We break it all down for you in our separate How to Write the Northwestern Supplemental Essay post, so we recommend you go there next. 👋

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