Located in Evanston, Illinois, near the desirable city of Chicago, Northwestern University is home to 8,300+ brilliant undergraduates and a number of the top academic programs in the world. The notion of Northwestern being a highly-selective school is nothing new, but—as with most elite institutions in 2020—becoming a Wildcat is more challenging than ever before. The acceptance rate has remained sub-9% the last three years.

Wind back the clock to 1993 and 42% of applicants to Northwestern were welcomed aboard; even in 2009, a solid 27% of those who submitted an application ultimately received good news. Some simple math tells us that getting in to this powerhouse private Midwestern research university is three times more challenging in 2020 than a mere decade ago. Given this turn toward increased selectivity over the past decade, you’ll need every advantage you can get. The purpose of this blog is to provide you with:

1) An understanding of the big-picture of Northwestern University admissions.

2) Data to help you assess your chances of admission of more accuracy.

3) What the Northwestern admissions committee looks for and how to get your application to stand out from the crowd.

To accomplish these goals we will touch on the following topics:

  • Northwestern University’s Class of 2024 acceptance rate
  • Northwestern University’s ED acceptance rate
  • SAT, ACT, and class rank of accepted Northwestern University applicants
  • Admissions trends from the Class of 2024
  • The demographics of current Northwestern University undergraduates
  • Northwestern University’s yield rate
  • How Northwestern’s admissions officers evaluate candidates
  • Tips for applying to Northwestern
  • How to assess whether applying to Northwestern is even worth the $75 application fee (for you)

Let’s begin with an examination of the most recent admissions data.

Northwestern University’s: Overall Acceptance Rate – Class of 2024

In aiming to create a freshmen class of 1,975 students, Northwestern admitted 8.9% of the 39,261 who applied in the 2019-20 admissions cycle. This is actually up from last year’s 8.4% acceptance rate.

Northwestern University Early Decision Acceptance Rate

The university plucked 54.6% of their incoming freshman class from the ED round (Class of 2023 figure). In looking at all students admitted, those granted acceptance via ED comprise 29.8% of the total accepted applicants. Students applying ED were accepted at a 25% clip, better than three times the regular decision rate of 7%. The conclusion is obvious: Those who are serious about attending Northwestern should definitely consider applying via binding early decision.

Northwestern University Admissions – SAT, ACT, and Class Rank

Those enrolled in the Class of 2023 sported middle-50th standardized test scores of 1450-1540 on the SAT and 33-35 on the ACT. An astonishing 92% of Class of 2023 members placed in the top decile of their graduating high school class and 98% landed in the top quartile.

Admissions Trends & Notes – (Class of 2024)

  • 20% of students in the Class of 2024 received Pell Grants.
  • 13% of those in the Class of 2023 are first-generation college students.
  • The number of applications fell from 40,595 to 39,261 between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 admissions cycles.
  • Undergraduates now come from 95 countries and speak 60+ languages.
  • Slightly more students submit SAT results than ACT results—64% include an SAT score with their application and 53% opt for ACT results (with some clearly submitting both tests).

Who Actually Gets Into Northwestern University?

Let’s look at the demographics of the Northwestern University Class of 2023:

  • Students come from all 50 states.
  • Roughly 30% hail from the university’s home state of Illinois.
  • 11% are international students.

As at any highly-selective university, competition is toughest among those hailing from states with endless streams of qualified applicants (New York, California, Massachusetts). If you come from a less populated state like Alaska, North Dakota, or Montana, your location is more likely to provide a boost to your admissions chances.

Looking at ethnic identity, the breakdown of members of the Class of 2023 was as follows:

  • Asian American: 24.6%
  • Hispanic: 12.8%
  • African American: 10.2%
  • White: 57.2%

The breakdown by gender of all current undergraduates is almost perfectly split down the middle:

  • Male: 49%
  • Female: 51%

Yield Rate

Northwestern University’s yield rate—the percentage of accepted students who elect to enroll, divided by the total number of students who are admitted was 55% for the Class of 2023. For comparison, other top-ranked private schools have the following yield rates: Duke (55%), Vanderbilt University (49%) and Rice University (41%).

How Northwestern University Rates Applicants

There are four factors that Northwestern University ranks as being “very important” to their admissions process: rigor of secondary school record, class rank, GPA, and standardized test scores (test-optional for Class of 2021 only). An additional five factors are considered to be “important”: essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, character/personal qualities, and talent/ability. “Considered” items are an optional alumni interview, first-generation status, alumni relation (legacy), racial/ethnic status, volunteer work, paid work, and the level of an applicant’s interest in Northwestern.

In the admissions office’s own words: “Northwestern evaluates applications holistically. We seek to develop a contextual understanding of a student based on different sources of information.” Elaborating on this process, the Dean of Undergraduate Admission recently stated the following:

“Our review process is extremely thorough, taking into account the vast bdifferences between student experiences represented in our applicant pool. Every student’s achievements, talents, and skills are considered within the context of her or his high school and community setting. Our decisions are not based upon any particular formula or quota. Northwestern has the resources to meet the full financial need of all admitted students. If you applied for financial aid as a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or undocumented U.S. high school student, your financial need did not factor into our final decision.”

It definitely helps if you are recruited as an athlete to join one of Northwestern University’s 19 Division I sports teams; there are presently around 470 varsity athletes at the school.

Tips for Applying to Northwestern University

If you plan on joining the 39,000+ Wildcat hopefuls for the next admissions cycle, you should know the following:

  • Northwestern University expects to see evidence of advanced coursework in high school. Taking multiple advanced classes, particularly within your area of academic interest is a must.
  • You must apply to one of the six academic schools on your application. Some have different admissions requirements and standards. The schools are: 1) The College of Arts & Sciences 2) the School of Engineering and Applied Science 3) the School of Communication 4) the School of Education and Social Policy 5) the School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications 6) the School of Music.
  • Northwestern University does offer optional alumni interviews. All admissions interviews in 2020 for ED applicants will be conducted virtually.
  • Northwestern University weighs “demonstrated interest” in the admissions process. Therefore, you will be judged on whether or not you made a campus visit (in non-pandemic times) contacted an admissions officer, etc.
  • Make sure to dedicate sufficient time and effort to the supplemental essay offered by Northwestern. In the 2020-21 cycle the prompt is as follows:

While other parts of your application give us a sense of who you are, we are also excited to hear more about how you see yourself engaging with the larger Northwestern community.

In 300 words or less, help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.

We should note that Northwestern’s supplement essay is technically “optional,” but skipping the prompt would be a huge mistake. In the school’s own words, “We strongly encourage a response, as your answer will help us connect the dots across your application to imagine what kind of college student you might become.)”

The school advises the following: “This question is intentionally open-ended. You may choose one or several aspects of Northwestern to focus your writing, though the majority of the essay’s content should relate to your own interests or experiences.”

The key to addressing the prompt is to learn everything you can about Northwestern and communicate genuine reasons why it is the right place for you. For more, read our blog entitled Mastering the “Why This College?” Essay.

Should I Apply to Northwestern University?

With acceptance rates of 8-9% in recent years, Northwestern is a school that is looking for students that are at (or above) the 97th percentile on standardized tests and who placed toward the very top of their high school class. Just about all “A”s in an AP-heavy curriculum is expected. If Northwestern University is your aim, make sure to also have a rock-solid backup plan. All students need to make sure that they formulate an appropriate college list, containing a complement of “target” and “safety” schools. You’ll definitely want to get your counselor’s input during this process.