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Last updated March 21, 2024

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How to Use the Northwestern Common Data Set

Key Takeaway

Northwestern's 7% acceptance rate makes it a tough nut to crack. If you want to get in, you'll need more than good grades and extracurriculars. You'll need proven talent and a strong sense of personal character.

Northwestern’s Common Data Set is a goldmine of information for strategic applicants. In this post, we lay out the most important admissions data and show you how to glean insights that can inform your Northwestern application.

Let’s dive in.

How Northwestern Evaluates Applicants — based on CDS data

In the application process, Northwestern admissions officers are on the lookout for students who excel academically and in their extracurriculars. They highly value course rigor, class rank, and GPA, and they place a lot of weight on your application essays.

Northwestern admissions officers want to see that you have demonstrated talent and ability. But what’s more, they want to see your character and personal strengths.

Other factors—test scores, interviews, volunteer and work experience, and demonstrated interest—are considered but aren’t quite as important.

Basis for Selection Factors Very Important Important Considered Not Considered
Rigor of Secondary Record X      
Class Rank X      
Academic GPA X      
Standardized Test Scores     X  
Application Essay X      
Recommendation(s) X      
Interview     X  
Extracurricular Activities X      
Talent/Ability X      
Character/Personal Qualities X      
First Generation     X  
Alumni/ae Relation     X  
Geographical Residence       X
State Residency       X
Religious Affiliation/Commitment       X
Racial/Ethnic Status     X  
Volunteer Work     X  
Work Experience     X  
Level of Applicant's Interest     X  


Does Northwestern track demonstrated interest?

Yes, demonstrated interest is considered by the Northwestern admissions team. To show demonstrated interest, you’ll want to engage as much as you can with Northwestern. Open their emails, attend virtual programming, sign up for an interview, email your admissions officer, and visit in person if you can.

Does Northwestern care about standardized test scores?

Yes. Test scores aren’t the most important factors in the Northwestern admissions process, but your scores are considered. In 2021, 43% of enrolled first-year students submitted an SAT score, and 39% submitted an ACT score.

Does Northwestern care about essays?

Yes. A lot. Application essays are considered “very important” to your application, so you’ll want to spend time crafting them. Among students we’ve worked with, the ones who successfully landed a spot at Northwestern had some pretty amazing college essays—usually with very specific reasons why they thought the school was best for them. See our college essay and Northwestern supplemental guides to get started. 

What GPA do I need to get into Northwestern?

The Northwestern Common Data Set doesn’t reveal very much information about the GPA and class rank of applicants or admitted students. But we do know that 95% of students were ranked in the top tenth of their high school graduating class, meaning that their GPAs surpassed at least 90% of their peers.

With that information in hand, we can deduce that the majority of successful Northwestern applicants have around a 4.0. But with there being 5% of applicants who don’t fall into the top tenth of their graduating classes, there may be some wiggle room for outstanding applicants.

Northwestern Acceptance Rate

In 2021, Northwestern received applications from 47,636 students. Of those, they admitted 3,321—a nearly 7% acceptance rate. That’s almost as low as Duke and Dartmouth. Northwestern enrolled 2,086 of those admitted students.

Northwestern Early Decision Acceptance Rate

Northwestern offers an Early Decision application option. As of 2021, the number of applicants who applied ED was 4,545. Northwestern admitted 1,105 of them, making for a 24.3% ED acceptance rate.

Yep, you read that right. That’s around a 17.3% rate increase compared to the low RD/EA rate of almost 7%.

What’s the right application option for you?

If your profile and strengths align with what Northwestern is looking for in applicants, and if you think Northwestern is the best school for you, then you might consider applying ED. But remember that applying ED is a binding choice: you must sign an Early Decision Agreement that obligates you to attend the school in question if you are admitted (with a few exceptions). Read more about EDs in our Early Decision strategy post.

Most popular majors at Northwestern

On the Common Data Set, Northwestern reports the number of degrees that are awarded in each academic field every year. From this data, we can extrapolate what the most popular Northwestern majors are.

Taking a look at the table, we can see that most Northwestern students major in the social sciences, communication or journalism, and engineering. Northwestern also has a relatively high percentage of students in the visual and performing arts, especially compared to schools like Cornell or Georgetown.

Major Percent of Degrees Conferred
Social Sciences 21
Communication/Journalism 14
Engineering 12
Biological/Life Sciences 7
Visual and Performing Arts 7
Computer and Information Sciences 6
Psychology 6
Mathematics and Statistics 5
Public Administration and Social Services 4
Health Professions and Related Programs 3

Northwestern’s liberal arts foundation is apparent in the fairly good distribution of majors across STEM, social science, and humanities disciplines.

If you’re applying to one of the more popular majors, remember that more popular = more competitive. When you’re applying to a more competitive major, each part of your application becomes even more important. Typically more competitive majors have higher average GPAs and test scores, and your essays are crucial to help you make your case.

What should you do with all this information?

Northwestern doesn’t sugarcoat how they evaluate their applicants. Factors are either “very important,” or they’re simply “considered.” There’s no middle ground. So what are you, the applicant, to do?

When crafting your application to Northwestern, go all-in on those “very important” factors. Some factors—like GPA, class rank, level of extracurriculars—will be mostly out of your control at this point in your high school career. That’s where application strategy comes in. Writing essays that highlight your academic and extracurricular accomplishments while also demonstrating your ability and character can be the difference between a rejection and an acceptance.

If you’re lacking in some of the “very important” areas, you can think about those “considered” factors as a way to boost your chances. Have a low GPA? Shoot for a high standardized test score. Worried about not having enough extracurriculars? Shine in your admissions interview. Not sure you’re ranked highly enough but love Northwestern anyway? Demonstrate that interest.

Informing your application strategy with the Common Data Set can set your application apart. In our next post, How to Get into Northwestern, we tell you in more detail how to write an application that stands out.

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