What is it Like to Attend Northwestern University?

The tutors behind Varsity Tutors are not just here to teach – they’re sharing their college experiences as well. Chloe is a 2012 graduate of Northwestern University and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. She is an Austin tutor who specializes in Essay Editing tutoring, Reading tutoring, ISEE prep tutoring, and more. See what she had to say about her alma mater:


VT: Describe the campus setting and transportation options. How urban or safe is the campus? Are there buses or do you need a car/bike?

Chloe: Northwestern’s Evanston campus is on the medium/large end (240 acres), with lots of open outdoor spaces. It is right by Lake Michigan, well maintained, and really pleasant to walk around. Located in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, it is a happy medium between “urban” and “rural” campuses. On campus grounds, I felt very safe because they are well lit and even late into the night there are always a few people walking around. I lived farther off campus than most students do and was not as comfortable going home by myself at night.

When it comes to transportation, Northwestern has you covered. There are several L train stops in Evanston, which can get you to downtown Chicago in roughly 45 minutes (less if you can catch the express train), but is not used to get around Evanston. The Metra is another, slightly more expensive, train option, mostly used by working commuters traveling longer distances. To travel through Evanston and the Northwestern campus, buses, biking, and walking are all commonly used. Northwestern has a “campus shuttle” used nearly exclusively by students, but the Evanston Loop is also convenient, especially for students living off-campus. With some transfers, the Evanston Loop can also take you into Chicago. From 7pm-3am, Northwestern also offers a driving service called Saferide. While it is NOT a taxi service and will rarely be available on-demand, Saferide can be used when students do not feel comfortable getting home on their own. Students should be aware that in the winter, they get “booked” rapidly, and are not meant to be used regularly. If need be, Evanston also has a number of taxicab companies that can be at your door within 5 to 15 minutes. Finally, Northwestern offers a carpooling service around the holidays that allows students to share rides to O’Hare and Midway airports at a discounted price. 

Not many undergraduate students have cars at Northwestern because with all of the other options, it is unnecessary, and parking is inconvenient both on and off campus. Many students do have bikes, which make for faster trips to campus, but once on campus, it becomes difficult to bike through the crowds of people walking. I personally walked nearly everywhere throughout my time at Northwestern, and while I do not have fond memories of walking through snow for months, it was definitely doable.

VT: How available are the professors, academic advisers, and teaching assistants? 

Chloe: Whenever I sought out professors, they were pleasant and encouraged me to ask questions and bounce ideas off of them. One of my favorite aspects of college was having in-depth conversations with my professors that were sparked by concepts/texts from class, but had nothing to do with assignments. That being said, do not expect professors to come to you if you are struggling, have missed a lot of class, etc. Professors who reach out to you just to “check in” are rare at Northwestern, so don’t be afraid to contact them. The majority of teaching assistants were exceedingly available. They were quick to respond to emails and usually happy to stay after class and/or set up meetings to talk to students. Unfortunately, the handful of times I was able to see my academic advisors over my four years, my meetings with them were brief and only dealt with necessities such as getting paperwork done. I did not feel much “advising” took place when it came to making decisions about my studies, but I must say that I have many friends who loved their advisors and felt that they were helpful.  

VT: How would you describe the dorm life – rooms, dining options, location, socialization opportunities with other students? 

Chloe: Northwestern freshmen are required to live on campus, and most sophomores live there as well. The “personalities” of the Northwestern dorms span a huge range. Fortunately, there are pictures and descriptions of all the dorms online so you will know what to expect. There are 18 residence halls and 11 residential colleges. The former are traditional dorms while the latter emphasize community, each with their own faculty fellows and built-in opportunities for students to get to know each other. Many residential colleges have “concentrations,” such as green living, performing arts, and international studies, attracting students who are particularly interested in those fields. For someone like me, who was nervous about making new friends, it made sense to opt for a residential college. During orientation, there were activities planned every night, ranging from making s’mores on the lakefill to touring the entire dorm building in groups on a scavenger hunt. I loved living in Willard Residential College, and several of my closest friendships were formed there. 

Nearly all dorms are coed (with separate bathrooms), have kitchen facilities, TV/game rooms, and large common rooms. Double rooms are the most common, with a handful of singles and triples. Many have their own dining halls and/or convenience stores, and those which do not are only a short walk from dining/shopping locations. Dorms located on “north campus” are closer to the athletic facilities, Engineering buildings, and fraternities, while those on “south campus” are quieter and nearer to the Liberal Arts buildings and downtown Evanston. Accepted Northwestern students rank their top 5 preferred dorms and will typically be placed in one (I was placed in my first choice) and those who wish to live in a residential college must submit a brief essay about why they would like to live there. Sophomores who wish to stay on campus but change their dorm can do so. 

VT: Which majors/programs are best represented and supported? What did you study and why? Did the university do a good job supporting your particular area of study?

Chloe: Some of Northwestern’s most popular areas of study are: Journalism, Engineering, Communications, Political Science, and Psychology. The majors within the Medill School of Journalism, the School of Communication, and the McCormick School of Engineering are all more in the spotlight because their schools are revered and specialized. Because the School of Education and Social Policy is the smallest school and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has over 60 majors and minors rather than a particular focus, they receive less publicity. Of course, that does not mean that the students themselves are any less valued.

I graduated with two majors, Film in the School of Communications and English in Weinberg, and I had great experiences with both departments. I came to Northwestern as a Communication Studies major, but after my first English class I realized that I was meant to study literature. As a sophomore, I enrolled in a Film Theory course which I enjoyed so much that I decided to minor, but eventually accumulated enough courses to double-major! The English department’s faculty is brilliant and dedicated. My English courses taught me not only about literature, but history, gender studies, and religion as well. The Film department is filled with more quirky, but equally passionate teachers, and Northwestern offers numerous opportunities for Film majors such as grants, screenings, internships, and lecture series with media industry professionals.

VT: How easy or difficult was it for you to meet people and make friends as a freshman? Does Greek life play a significant role in the campus social life?

Chloe: Overall, I found it relatively easy to meet people at Northwestern. Of course, it takes awhile to distinguish who amongst the dozens of other students you seem to meet everyday will be the ones you form lasting friendships with. For the duration of orientation week, freshmen spend most of their time in groups with other students of the same major, and several events are organized by school, giving them many opportunities to meet people with similar interests. The residential college I lived in also had at least one planned activity every week (more during orientation), which was a nice way to get acclimated. Many professors at Northwestern, especially those teaching courses designed for freshmen, include introductions and even brief activities on the first day of class so that students can learn a little bit about each other at the start of the quarter.

About half of undergraduates pledge fraternities and sororities, but Greek life is not especially apparent to those who are not a part of it. Students who “go Greek” seem to dedicate a significant amount of time to it, but fraternity parties are typically open to everyone, and being part of a fraternity/sorority is definitely not pivotal to having an active social life. 

VT: How helpful is the Career Center and other student support services? Do many reputable companies recruit on campus?  

Chloe: While I never went there myself, many of my colleagues found internships, fellowships, and jobs during school and after college through the Career Center. It has a solid reputation for jump-starting the careers of students and recent graduates. Students also receive weekly emails about various recruiting opportunities, job fairs, guest lectures, and tutorials for building skills such as resume-writing and interviewing. 

VT: How are the various study areas such as libraries, student union, and dorm lounges?  Are they over-crowded, easily available, spacious?

Chloe: Norris University Center, Northwestern’s main student center, was just updated last year. It is spacious, and a great place to grab a meal with friends between classes, study, or meet in groups to work on projects. Norris houses a bookstore, a large food court, a Starbucks, a FedEx mailing center, a small art gallery, an arcade, and an outdoor ice skating rink in the winter! The ground floor also overlooks the lake and offers a beautiful view. Norris is usually busy but not overly crowded.

While I only visited a few dorm lounges, the ones I did spend time in were clean and well-furnished, but rarely full. The dorm I lived in was sizeable and had a common room, study lounge, computer lab, TV lounge, and game room. These were never packed, with about ten students at a time in each.

University Library, which is attached to Northwestern’s gorgeous original library, Deering, is enormous. Most of the time, it is easy to find an empty desk, armchair, or even an entire room to study in. However, around midterms and finals weeks, it can be hard to find a comfortable work space, and impossible to find a secluded one. During those hectic times, the main library stays open all night, and most students will have pulled an all-nighter there by the time they graduate. The Engineering and Math departments have their own libraries elsewhere on campus, which are significantly smaller, but offer an alternative for students majoring in those subjects.

VT: Describe the surrounding town. What kinds of outside establishments / things to do are there that make it fun, boring, or somewhere in between? To what extent do students go to the downtown area of the city versus staying near campus?  

Chloe: Northwestern’s undergraduate campus is located in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Popular Evanston businesses within walking-distance of campus are Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, Barnes & Noble, American Apparel, an Irish pub, a few bars, several coffee shops, and a movie theatre which screens major releases as well as independent and art films. Evanston also has wide variety of restaurants, many of which rival the quality of those in Chicago. There are upscale spots perfect for date nights as well as “standards” like Chipotle and Burger King. Evanston is far from boring, but most businesses do close around 10pm even on the weekends, which can be disappointing for night owls. Luckily the El train runs until 2am, so you can go into Chicago for more options. Despite the cold, Chicago is one of the country’s liveliest and most diverse cities, and a huge perk of going to Northwestern is knowing it is close by. 

VT: How big or small is the student body? Were you generally pleased or displeased with the typical class sizes?

Chloe: Northwestern currently has about 8,500 undergraduates and nearly 11,000 graduate students. However, the individual “schools” within Northwestern vary in size. The School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), for example, has about 300 undergraduates and 400 graduate students while the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has around 4,000 undergraduates and no graduate students. Class sizes vary greatly – I took discussion-based courses with less than 10 students as well as large lectures with nearly 200. As an English major, most of my courses consisted of 20-30 students. Of course, the further along in your studies, the more opportunity for small classes you have. Not only do upperclassmen register first for their classes, but once students have declared their majors and minors, they are able to “pre-register” for classes in those subjects. I found this system worked well, allowing those with a vested interest in certain areas of study the chance to get into small classes with students who shared their majors/minors. 

VT: Describe one memorable experience with a professor and/or class. Perhaps one you loved the most or one you regret the most.

Chloe: My sophomore year, I heard that my favorite professor would be teaching a Faulkner course only available every other year. Because I was an underclassman and didn’t have priority, I couldn’t sign up in time for such a popular class. Fortunately, I got in as a senior and it turned out to be one of the most fascinating and memorable courses I ever took at Northwestern. Our last day of discussion was held in our professor's home, where we all brought different brunch items. Crammed in wherever we could fit, we shared our final thoughts about the books we had read while we ate bagels and drank coffee! It was a great end to the quarter and I felt completely rewarded for having waited several years to take the class.


Check out Chloe’s tutoring profile.

The views expressed this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.