How to Get into Northwestern University

November 18, 2022
By AdmissionSight

How to Get into Northwestern University

Located in beautiful Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University is one of the top schools in the nation. A combination of excellent academics, an innovative campus, and Division I athletics, makes Northwestern a great choice for students who have put in the hard work in high school. But gaining admission to Northwestern can be a little tricky.

You will need to have the right combination of test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities if you want to be a strong contender. In this post, we’re going to discuss everything you need to know before you apply to Northwestern in order to give yourself the best possible chance of getting in. So, let’s talk about how to get into Northwestern University.

How hard is it to get into Northwestern?

Like many competitive schools, Northwestern University has become even more selective in the last few years. Students putting off college because of the pandemic has significantly increased the number of applications that many schools receive, but all of these students are competing for the same number of spots in the freshman class.

Three years ago, Northwestern had an acceptance rate of 9.3%, which is already very low. Currently, Northwestern has an acceptance rate of 7%, which puts them more in line with Ivy League schools, and in some cases more selective.

Group of student smiling at each other while talking.

When it comes to applying to Northwestern, there are a number of factors to consider. First, is whether you plan to apply early decision or regular decision. For students who know that Northwestern is their first choice, applying early decision gives you a significant advantage because the acceptance rate for early decision is around 22% versus their cumulative acceptance rate of 7%.

Of the roughly 4,500 students who applied to Northwestern early, about 1,000 were admitted. Now compare that to the roughly 2,000 total accepted students versus their total applications (51,544), and you can see that students who applied early had a much better chance of admission. The bottom line is that if you are sure that Northwestern is the school for you, apply early.

What does Northwestern expect from their applicants?

In order to give you the best information about how to get into Northwestern, we’re going to break this down into the different criteria that Northwestern considers when they look at your application.


The average student who gets accepted to Northwestern has a GPA above 4.0. This means that in order to be competitive, you will need to excel in your courses, but you will also need to take courses that allow you to score above a 4.0 if you get an A. AP, IB, and honors courses are the way to do this, but Northwestern will also want to see that you have been consistent.

Many colleges are impressed with students who show significant improvement in their grades over their high school career, but highly-selective schools like Northwestern want to see that you’ve been committed to academic excellence throughout your entire high school career.

Three students talking in a bench while holding their notes.

Part of the reason for this is they want to see that you value hard work, but they also want students who show sincere intellectual curiosity. Taking more rigorous courses shows that you want to challenge yourself as a student, and this is the kind of motivation they are looking for.

Test scores

Standardized test scores were an optional part of the Northwestern application during the 2022-2023 application cycle due to the pandemic, but this may change in the future. With this in mind, you need to be conscious about how to prepare for the SATs or ACTs in order to score as highly as possible. Typically, accepted Northwestern applicants had an average of 1468 on the SAT and 33 on the ACT.

There is a common misconception that you need a specific score in order to ensure admission to a top school. But at Northwestern 1468 was the average score, meaning some students scored lower and some students scored higher. Obviously, your test scores aren’t the only criteria by which you are judged but applying with a lower score typically means you will need to make up for it somewhere else on your application.

Extracurricular activities

Top colleges these days want well-rounded students who have an active life outside of the classroom. But they also want to know what you’ve been doing with this time. If you’re wondering how to get into Northwestern, one of the keys is to have extracurricular activities that demonstrate your leadership skills and commitment to your community.

When it comes to your particular extracurricular activities, schools care less about what you did than how you did it. If you took part in community service activities, did you take the initiative to spearhead new projects or ideas? If you spent much of your time outside of school working a part-time job, what lessons did you learn, and how did you make the most of your time at work?

If you participated in sports, were you a leader on and off the field for your fellow players? Maybe you took it upon yourself to start a social justice club at school or you found a way to solve a specific problem in your community. Regardless of how you’ve spent your time, the goal is to show Northwestern that you grew both personally and intellectually.

Some students are laser focused on their favorite field of study, and they use their time outside the classroom to dig even deeper into their academic passions. And just because these pursuits were academic, it doesn’t mean they don’t qualify as extracurricular.

Perhaps you spent the summer exploring your passion for Oceanography by spending a month at sea with researchers. Or you have used your passion for drama to stage a play in your community. Regardless of your particular passion, Northwestern wants to see how your activities contributed to your growth and personal integrity.

Academic Research

Northwestern has an interesting approach to academic research in that they allow all students, regardless of discipline, to engage in undergraduate research. This includes applying for research grants and taking part in different research events. Because of their focus on research across all fields, it is ideal that as an applicant you have some experience with academic research that you can share as part of your application. Of course, academic research can take many forms.

If you are curious about the development of innovative battery systems, doing research on how electric vehicles work to create a faster charging system for EVs is an excellent way to demonstrate your passion.

Group of students looking at a laptop while talking.

Academic research doesn’t have to be limited to the sciences though. If there is a particular figure from the arts that fascinates you, digging into their life story in order to write a paper revealing something previously unknown about them would also show that you have a dedication to learning.

When it comes to your on-campus experience at Northwestern, diving into these academic or extracurricular pursuits can take many forms. Some students have helped their professors edit textbooks, while others have used their research opportunities to preserve Native American languages.

Regardless of your particular field, Northwestern offers you nearly limitless possibilities to pursue your passions. But in order to take advantage of Northwestern’s vast opportunities, you will need to demonstrate that academic research is something that you are passionate about.

What does Northwestern look for?

If you’ve spent time with the Northwestern undergraduate admissions website, you will notice they talk a lot about “fit.” This an important factor for Northwestern because they are concerned with how well students will fit with the Northwestern experience, and how good a fit Northwestern is for each individual student.

Students are encouraged to spend some time reflecting on what would make a good fit for them, and they encourage you to think about a variety of factors from academics to campus life. They’ve even broken the idea down in order to help you reflect.

View of a woman studying in a room with a window.

In terms of academics, Northwestern wants you to consider what you are passionate about and why. They want to know what kind of initiative you have taken in order to pursue these passions, and they want to know the ways in which you have challenged yourself along the way.

Community involvement is an important factor for Northwestern, and they want to know how you have been involved in your community. What have you contributed, and what have you learned from these experiences? And of course, how do you see yourself being involved in the Northwestern community and your other future communities.

Part of the admissions process at Northwestern focuses on admitting interesting and inspiring people. So, they want to know what makes you special and unique. They want to know what kinds of friends you hope to meet at college and the type of friend you would be in return. But they also want to know about how you would solve problems that you encounter in your life.

How would you overcome them, and what would you hope to learn as a result? And finally, they want to know what makes you truly happy. What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? These are all important factors in understanding you as a person.

Of course, there is no “correct” way to answer any of these questions. They’re just a tool to help Northwestern determine if you would be a good fit for their community. And hopefully for you to determine if Northwestern is a good fit for you.

Personal statement/supplemental essays

Top schools want to see more from students than just numbers on a transcript. Schools like Northwestern want to know how you think and how you express yourself. Numbers on a transcript don’t tell a school how your mind works, so making the most of your personal statement and supplemental essays is a vitally important part of your application. Students who wonder how to get into Northwestern need to understand that your essays are what give the Northwestern undergraduate admissions staff a clear picture of who you are and what makes you special.

A female student seated in a room with her laptop in front of her after

Schools like Northwestern get plenty of applications from students who have excellent grades and test scores. So, in order to make it through the application process, you need to set yourself apart from the crowd. Northwestern is looking for intelligent, hardworking students, but they’re also looking for interesting people. In order to build an extraordinary student body, Northwestern needs to know how their applicants approach the world and the experiences that have shaped them. This is the purpose of your essays.

Northwestern’s current supplemental essay asks you to think about how you will engage with the greater Northwestern community. As we mentioned earlier, community engagement is a big deal when it comes to whether you are the right “fit” for them.

When it comes to writing this essay, consider the many different opportunities that you will encounter at Northwestern, and how you would become involved. Keep in mind that Northwestern is strongly hinting that you should do your homework and find out what they have to offer before you start writing. Once you have this information, you can think about how you would fit with their culture.

Letters of recommendation

When it comes to how to get into Northwestern, one of your most valuable tools is your letter of recommendation. This allows Northwestern to see you from someone else’s perspective. Because of this, it’s vitally important that you choose someone who knows you in a variety of different ways. The teacher who gave you an A in their class isn’t a great resource if that’s all they know about you. But the teacher who mentored you or guided you through challenges in your studies will know you as a student and as a person.

Northwester uses four main factors when considering your application: the academic rigor you have chosen in high school, your class rank, your GPA, and test scores. But they also consider your essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, your character, and your talent (if applicable).

This is why it’s so important to look beyond the most obvious factors in your application. Since there’s a good chance that most applicants will satisfy the first four criteria, your best chance of standing out is somewhere within those additional five criteria.

Demonstrated Interest

While Northwestern doesn’t require that you do a campus visit or alumni interview, they do consider your level of sincere interest when considering your application. Obviously, a campus visit or interview is the best way to demonstrate your interest in Northwestern, but you can also accomplish this by reaching out to the admissions department to introduce yourself and ask any specific questions you might have about the school or the application process.

Depending on where you live, a campus visit may not be feasible. You can communicate this to the Northwestern undergraduate admissions department by asking for additional resources to satisfy your curiosity about the campus. Because interviews are not held on-campus, students have the option of setting up an alumni interview anywhere in the world either in-person or via Skype or Zoom. Having an interview with one of their alumni representatives gives you the chance to demonstrate your enthusiasm for Northwestern in a more personal way.

Other supplemental materials

Because Northwestern has a number of specialized programs, you may be required to submit additional supplemental materials. Like the supplemental essay, you should take these supplements very seriously. For example, the Bienen School of Music requires supplemental materials for all of their applicants, and the materials vary depending on your area of concentration. To find a list of all additional supplemental materials, go to Northwestern’s admissions website in order to see exactly what you need to submit.

A holistic approach to admissions

Like many schools, Northwestern uses a “holistic approach” to their admissions process. This means looking at the whole student rather than just grades and test scores. This means the Northwestern undergraduate admissions office will look at your life circumstances in addition to your transcripts and test scores. In their own words, “we seek to develop a contextual understanding of a student based on different sources of information.”

Universities know that some students come from backgrounds that offered fewer opportunities, while others may have faced unique challenges, and some simply have extraordinary gifts that schools find attractive. The bottom line is that there is no simple answer to how to get into Northwestern. Instead, your goal as an applicant is to highlight what makes you a strong, unique candidate.

Because Northwestern is such a selective school, you may have a lot of questions about the application process, and whether your application meets their criteria. At AdmissionSight we have many years of experience guiding students through the college admissions process in order to give them the best possible chance of getting in. Our counselors know what college admissions officers want to see, and they can help tailor your application to make it as competitive as possible. You’ve already done the hard work of excelling in your studies. AdmissionSight can help you get across the finish line.



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