Northwestern College Essays

Advice for completing your application

Find help related to application requirements, such as your letters of recommendation and personal essay, and answers to common questions. 

Standardized test scores

TIP: Take whichever standardized test best suits you, and submit SAT Subject Test Scores if you’d like to demonstrate additional areas of academic strength.

You may send in either an ACT or SAT score. There is no preference for either exam. 

We review test scores slightly differently between the ACT and the SAT. For students taking the ACT, we use the highest official composite score that you choose to report. For students taking the SAT, we will simply add together your highest scores in the Critical Reading and Math categories to make a higher total score. This is the only area in which we create a “superscore” for applicants. You may use Score Choice to select which official SAT scores we receive.

SAT subject tests are optional. Subject exams, offered in topics such as molecular biology, English and physics allow students to demonstrate their skill level(s) in a particular area. For instance, a future engineering student may choose to take the chemistry and math subject tests. However, subject tests may be from topics outside of your potential major. Prospective students who do not submit SAT subject test results will not be penalized; we recognize that many applicants may not have the opportunity to sign up for the exams. 

Letters of recommendation

TIP: Letters of recommendation should be from individuals who can best speak to the range of your strengths and abilities.

We require two letters of recommendation.

One letter should come from your high school counselor. This could be your college counselor, guidance counselor, academic advisor, career center specialist or whoever can to best speak to your overall high school curriculum and involvement within the context of your high school. The second letter should come from one of your teachers who can address your strengths as a student in the classroom; this recommender should most likely be a teacher from one of your core subject areas, in your junior or senior year.

If you have an additional reference who would like to submit a letter on your behalf, we will accept supplemental letters of recommendation. It is in your best interest that each letter provides new or different information about you.

Personal essay

TIP: Essays are an opportunity – they are one of the few sections of your application that you can manage right now, rather than being dependent on your past performance.

Essay writing is an excellent opportunity for personal expression and original thought. Applicants to Northwestern complete two sets of essays: essays appearing on the Common Application or Coalition Application, and the Northwestern Writing Supplement essay. The suggested word limit guideline gives you the chance to answer each question in detail, while also challenging you to write in a concise and clear manner.

In the Northwestern Writing Supplement, we ask students to explain why they would like to attend Northwestern. 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.

Activity chart

TIP: The activity chart is your opportunity to be thorough about the depth and range of your involvement, whatever it may be.

The activity chart is your chance to explain any and all activities in which you’ve been involved outside of your high school classes. Provide as much detail as you can, explaining any abbreviations or acronyms that may be unique to your school. If you have held any leadership positions or received any awards, honors or distinctions, be sure to include that information on the activities chart as well. There’s no “right answer” to what kind of activities we like to see – Northwestern has over 500 different clubs and activities on campus, so we appreciate a very wide range of activities and value diversity of student interests.

Special circumstances

TIP: Use the “Additional Information” section of the Common Application to share any information that may have significantly impacted your academic performance or other involvement.

If you have experienced any special or outstanding circumstances that may have interrupted or significantly affected your academic performance in high school, you may write about those in the “additional information” section of the Common Application. If your high school counselor is aware of these circumstances, he or she may also use the Counselor Recommendation to explain this information. Should you have additional circumstances that need to be addressed, you can email a brief summary to

Selecting Early or Regular Decision

TIP: If Northwestern is your first choice for college, applying Early Decision best positions you within a competitive applicant pool. If you’re applying for financial aid, we use the same need-based process for financial aid awards for early decision and regular decision; your aid package will be the same regardless of when you apply.

If Northwestern is your top choice, you are strongly encouraged to consider applying Early Decision. We use the same review criteria for both early and regular decision. Applicants in both cycles are very competitive. Last year we enrolled 49% of our incoming freshman class from early decision.

Northwestern allocates financial aid on the basis of demonstrated financial need. Should you receive an offer of admission, your financial aid (including scholarships) will not differ whether you apply under the early decision or regular decision time frame. Please use our Net Price Calculator to determine your expected family contribution. Northwestern guarantees to meet 100% of the demonstrated need between your expected family contribution and the total cost of attendance.

Interviews and meetings

TIP: Admissions staff members do not conduct interviews, but optional, informational alumni interviews are available in some cities.

Alumni Interviews are an optional component of the application process, available on a limited basis. Alumni feedback is included in your file, but not participating in an interview has no negative effect on your chance of admission. Alumni interviews allow applicants to ask questions, and are primarily informational. Read about alumni interviews and availability.

Once you’ve hit “submit”

TIP: Once you’ve submitted your application, keep an eye on your email account associated with your Common Application or Coalition Application – that’s where we’ll send any important updates regarding your application status.

Congratulations! You’ve completed your application. Sit back and relax. Keep your eye on the email address associated with your Common Application or Coalition Application. If we are missing any of your application materials, you will receive an email from Otherwise, you’ll hear from us with an admission decision, by mid-December for Early Decision applicants, and by the end of March for Regular Decision applicants.

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Moreover, adding “flavor” to the essays by elaborating on your personal connection with your chosen interests, and the unique contributions you have made to them are also critical to your candidacy. Remember that you do not have to win a Nobel Prize or cure cancer to engage your readers and make them feel that you will add to the excellence of the institution. Uniqueness is conveyed through personal anecdotes, narrated with a detailed voice.


If you are passionate about biomedical engineering, do not write, “I love the intersection between biology and engineering.” Everyone majoring in biomedical engineering also finds such overlap appealing. Instead, start the essay with an anecdote about how when you missed school because of a stomach flu, you spent the long hours in bed sketching designs of ingestible micro-machines that could disseminate antibiotics more efficiently than regular medicine, thinking of the pain it would spare you and millions of other people.


Not only is this specific anecdote a more appropriate way of conveying to the reader that biomedical engineering already permeates your life, it also implies that you are inventive and industrious with your time. This supplement is only 300 words, so using specific anecdotes like this with multiple layers of meaning is essential to saturating the space with as much content as possible.


Do not, however, treat this as a shorter Common Application essay. Ultimately, the emphasis is on your fit for Northwestern’s specific resources. You could begin by illustrating how you would bury your head in literature written by the likes of Kafka and Camus all weekend, then show up Monday morning before everyone else arrives at school for an advanced lab that aims to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, then transition to discussing how Northwestern’s Science in Human Culture Program is a perfect fit for you and your interdisciplinary mind.


Remember to talk about what you will actually do in the program; envision yourself there, already at Northwestern. What will your day look like? Which professors would you like to work with within the Science in Human Culture Program? What kind of scholarship or internship opportunities within the program will you take advantage of for your research proposal?


Again, specificity is key. Avoid making general statements such as: “Northwestern’s state-of-the-art theater program makes it the perfect school for me.” That answer is one that could be given by virtually anyone, even those who haven’t the slightest idea of what theater is. Generality connotes lack of interest, lack of research, and worst of all, lack of effort. So when writing this essay, ask yourself: What are the specific aspects of Northwestern University that sets it apart from all the other top 20 schools? What could I do at Northwestern that would be hard for me to do at other colleges?

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