Is Northwestern University an Ivy League School? Ranking, Acceptance Rate, and More

Ivy League universities are renowned not only in the United States, but also around the world for their record of academic excellence, prestige, important research contributions, and illustrious alumni. Many of today’s most influential thought leaders, politicians, researchers, inventors, business moguls, and philanthropists graduated from Ivy League institutions, which further boosts the prestige and selectivity of this group of universities. 

Northwestern University, situated in Evanston, IL on the magnificent Lake Michigan, has all the makings of an Ivy League school: academic excellence, prestige, important research contributions, and illustrious alumni. Just 12 miles north of downtown Chicago, Northwestern embodies the best of both worlds: a sprawling suburban lakeside campus with easy access to the most bustling city in the Midwest. 

But more impressive than its lush, beautiful campus is its academic renown. Consistently ranked one of the top universities in the world, Northwestern is known for its emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, prolific research output, and friendly, collaborative student culture. The university’s tremendous research output is part of why the university’s endowment, valued at $12.2 billion USD, is one of the largest in the entire world. 

With this financial support, Northwestern can attract the best and brightest students and faculty to campus. Indeed, the university’s investment in its students and faculty pays off: as of 2020, the alumni and faculty have included 1 Fields Medalist, 22 Nobel Prize laureates, 40 Pulitzer Prize winners, 6 MacArthur Genius Grant recipients, 10 living billionaires, 2 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and a host of other accolades. Some notable alumni include Game of Thrones mastermind George R. R. Martin, president and COO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell, Emmy-award winner actors Stephen Colbert and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and actress and humanitarian Meghan Markle. 

There is no doubt that Northwestern is an Ivy-caliber university. In this article, we’ll review what the Ivy League actually refers to, whether Northwestern is an Ivy, and how to get into this elite university.  

Is Northwestern University an Ivy League School?

Northwestern University
Eric Fredericks, Northwestern University Campus, CC BY-SA 2.0

Northwestern is not technically an Ivy. 

However, it rivals the Ivies in terms of its academic prestige, admissions selectivity, and research output. Alongside the University of Chicago, Northwestern is the most selective and esteemed university in the entire Midwest. 

The Ivy League was established in 1954 as an athletic conference for eight universities located in the Northeast. The Ivies include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Cornell, and Brown. No universities have been added to or removed from the Ivy League roster since its founding. 

Today, the Ivies are known for being extremely hard to get into and for producing some of the most successful and influential alumni in the world. However, that wasn’t the original intention of the Ivy League. The formation of the Ivy League had to do with geography and athletics; the eight universities were included in the conference because they were all similar in terms of enrollment and traditions and were located within driving distance of one another, so teams could fairly easily play one another. Had Northwestern been located in the Northeast instead of the Midwest, there’s a good chance it would have been included in the conference and would be known as an Ivy today. 

Even though Northwestern is not an official Ivy, it undoubtedly rivals, and sometimes outmatches, the Ivies in terms of its admissions rate, national and international rankings, academics, and alumni impact. Northwestern is also a much stronger athletic contender than the Ivies are: Northwestern competes in the notorious Big Ten Conference, meeting powerhouse opponents like Penn State, Ohio State, University of Michigan, and Indiana University. 

Why Northwestern University Is Confused As an Ivy League School

Many people mistakenly take Northwestern to be an Ivy League school, which makes sense: nowadays, when we think “Ivy League,” we think of academic excellence and admissions selectivity. Northwestern certainly checks those boxes. 

Northwestern is indeed one of the best universities in the United States and around the globe. Its 2021 acceptance rate reached a historic low at 6.8%, accepting just 3200 of its nearly 50,000 applicants. Indeed, prospective students continue to flock to Northwestern for its combination of academic renown, school spirit, record of research output, illustrious alumni network, and friendly Midwestern ethos. The coming years will likely continue to see increased demand for all that Northwestern offers its students and alumni. 

As mentioned previously, the Ivy League actually started out as an athletic conference centered in the Northeast. Today, Ivies are known not for their athletics, but for their elite academics. Northwestern rivals the Ivies’ academic prestige and offers a livelier athletic environment, which in some ways gives it an edge over the Ivies in terms of overall experience. It’s no surprise that Northwestern has been informally dubbed a “Hidden Ivy”, as it offers all the academic prestige and selectivity of an Ivy without the official Ivy brand name. 

Other schools in this informal Ivy category include Stanford, MIT, Duke, Caltech, and University of Chicago.

At the time of its founding in 1851, Northwestern was intended to be a premier academic institution serving the region known as the Northwest Territory. Today, Northwestern attracts students from all fifty states and over 70 countries and is a premier academic institution not only in the Midwest, but around the whole world. Call it a “Hidden Ivy,” call it a “Midwestern Ivy,” call it an “Ivy in all but name”; any way you look at it, Northwestern is an Ivy-caliber institution though it is not an official Ivy.  

Northwestern University – Ranking, Acceptance Rate, and More

Northwestern is one of the most challenging universities in the country (and the world!) to get into. For the past few years, its admit rate has hovered around 9%, but in 2021 – due in part to an increase in applications thanks to pandemic-related test-optional policies – Northwestern’s acceptance rate dropped to 6.8%. This means that for every 100 applicants, only 6 or 7 are admitted. This acceptance rate is on par with that of Ivies such as Cornell, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, and Brown, all of which had only slightly lower acceptance rates than Northwestern in 2021. 

Part of the reason Northwestern is such a desirable school is that it ranks so highly in national and international publications. US News and World Report, the most widely consulted ranking system in the US, ranks Northwestern #9 nationally, tied with Johns Hopkins University and Caltech and beating out the Ivies Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell. 

However, Washington Monthly, a competitor to US News, ranks Northwestern lower: #30 nationally, behind all of the Ivies except Dartmouth and Brown. 

The popular website ranks Northwestern favorably in a number of categories, most notably #1 Best Colleges for Communications in America, #2 Best Colleges for Performing Arts in America, #7 Colleges with the Best Professors in America, #10 Hardest Colleges to Get into in America, and #10 Colleges with Best Academics in America.  

While Northwestern’s national rankings differ a bit from publication to publication, there is no denying the fact that the university is in high demand and therefore uses an incredibly selective admissions process. 

How to Get Into Northwestern University

Because Northwestern is so highly ranked and selective, successful applicants need to have nearly perfect grades, test scores, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities. The average GPA of admitted students is 4.1, but keep in mind that at an elite university like Northwestern, a high GPA is not enough; students also need to elect to take the most challenging courses (AP, IB, Honors, etc.) their school offers. Northwestern admissions officers want to see students take full advantage of the challenging educational opportunities available to them. 

As part of the holistic review process, Northwestern also considers students’ SAT and/or ACT scores. The average SAT range of admitted students is 1450 to 1540, and the average ACT range is 33 to 35. Therefore, in order to be a strong candidate, an applicant needs to have very strong standardized test scores. 

However, there is more to Northwestern’s admissions process than quantitative data. Northwestern takes a holistic review of students’ applications, placing their GPA and test scores in conversation with their essays, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities. Admissions officers want to read essays in the student’s own voice, telling a captivating story about who the student is and how they think about and interact with the world. Applicants also write a “Why Northwestern?” supplemental essay, where they can articulate why they want to attend and how they see themselves fitting into the Northwestern community and contributing to life on and off campus.    

Likewise, admissions officers want to see that students have demonstrated deep, lasting commitment to a few extracurriculars they are passionate about, rather than shallow and haphazard commitments to random activities. It’s especially good if the extracurricular activities align with the overall narrative of the student’s application and the student’s intended major and future goals. 

Recap: Northwestern University Is Not an Ivy League School, However, It Is One of the Best Schools in the US

As this article has explained, Northwestern is not technically an Ivy League school. The only official Ivies are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, and Cornell. That said, Northwestern is undoubtedly an Ivy-caliber institution, and has all the makings of an Ivy: prestige, academic excellence, highly selective admissions, impressive research output, and illustrious alumni. On top of that, Northwestern also has the unique angle of belonging to one of the best Division I sports conferences in the country, the Big Ten Conference. 

Northwestern is consistently ranked at the very top of national and international rankings of universities. Furthermore, Northwestern and its neighbor University of Chicago are in a league of their own in the Midwest, as they are by far the most prestigious and selective private research universities in that whole region. Some people nickname University of Chicago the “Harvard of the Midwest,” and perhaps Northwestern should be called the “Yale-or-Princeton of the Midwest.”

Any way you look at it, Northwestern is a first-rate research institution. Among its faculty and alumni are Supreme Court Justices, Olympic medalists, Nobel Prize laureates, and founders of companies such as the Mayo Clinic, The Blackstone Group, and Accenture. Northwestern students benefit from highly accomplished yet accessible professors who genuinely care about teaching, which is rare for such a research powerhouse. While Northwestern may not technically be in the Ivy League, its name and reputation still carry a lot of weight across all different industries. A degree from Northwestern – and the quality of education it represents – rivals that of any Ivy League university.

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