Best Colleges In the Midwest: How To Choose

Chicago city
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/2/23

The Midwest has many excellent colleges to choose from. Whether you're from the region or looking to live far away from home, the Midwest may have the perfect school for you.

The Midwest is home to some of the country’s top colleges that can make stellar additions to your college list. Whether you’re a Midwest native or not, each of these top schools has something unique to offer to its students. 

Below we’ll walk you through the five top colleges in the Midwest, including some background information data on admitted students. If you’re wondering which Midwest college is best for you, read on to learn more.

The Top 5 Colleges in the Midwest 

Making an informed choice about which schools to add to your list starts with learning about each institution. Luckily, we’ve done the heavy lifting here, so you don’t have to. Our list is based on the top 30 schools in U.S. News World and Report’s ranking of best national universities

#1 University of Chicago 

The University of Chicago in Illinois is ranked first on our list. These are some of the school’s recent enrolment statistics

  • Acceptance rate: 5%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1510-1560
  • Middle 50% ACT: 34-35
  • Tuition: $61,179.00

Ranked as one of the top U.S. and global research universities, UChicago has served its students since 1890. The University of Chicago is dedicated to the rigorous inquiry that “inspires scholars to shape and define new fields of study that improve life around the globe.” 

UChicago emphasizes the value of diverse people, thoughts, and ideas at its campuses to “bring forth ideas that change the world.” By cultivating an environment where this is possible, the school aims to support the South Side of Chicago and other places worldwide. 

Undergraduate academics at UChicago focus on a liberal arts education. Students can learn to be critical thinkers, ask thoughtful questions, and be flexible enough to potentially change their views when presented with new information. 

The Core curriculum is a crucial feature of the school. It means:
Students learn in small “Socratic-style” classes with a maximum of 19 other students.
The main method of learning is discussing primary texts with peers. 
The first third of an undergraduate student’s time at UChicago. 
While not every student takes the same courses, they study similar disciplines and navigate intellectual challenges. 

Besides the Core curriculum, you can choose from 50 majors, 40 minors, and dozens of specialized study areas. If you’re a curious person with a passion for research and inquiry, the University of Chicago is an excellent addition to your school list. 

#2 Northwestern University 

Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, is ranked second for best Midwestern universities. Some of Northwestern’s recent class profile data includes: 

No data was released on test score averages because of the school’s test-optional policy, which is in place until at least the 2022-2023 admissions cycle.

Northwestern University’s mission is to be “committed to excellent teaching, innovative research and the personal and intellectual growth of its students in a diverse academic community.” 

The school has four core values its committed to: 
1. Faculty, research excellence, teaching, creativity, and scholarship
2. Positive student experiences 
3. Balancing the school’s present and future needs 
4. Diversity and inclusion 

Northwestern has more than 4,000 courses to choose from offered across its six undergraduate schools

  • Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences 
  • School of Communication
  • School of Education and Social Policy
  • McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science 
  • Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications 
  • Bienen School of Music 

The school also offers many opportunities to pursue self-directed research, with hundreds of labs available to undergraduate students of all majors. If you’re looking to broaden your horizons and global understanding, Northwestern offers study abroad programs in every continent. 

If you’re looking for diverse course offerings, research opportunities, or the chance to study abroad, Northwestern University may be the school for you. 

#3 Washington University in St. Louis 

Washington University in St. Louis, located in Minnesota, is the third-best college in the Midwest. Recent enrollment data shows: 

  • Acceptance rate: 11% (27% from Early Decision) 
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1500-1570
  • Middle 50% ACT: 33-35
  • Students in the top 10% of their graduating class: 91% 
  • Tuition: $61,750

WashU’s mission is to “act in service of the truth through the formation of leaders, the discovery of knowledge and the treatment of patients for the betterment of our region, our nation and the world.” 

The school’s primary goals are to: 
1. Foster excellence and creativity in teaching, research, scholarship, patient care, and service 
2. Welcome diverse students, faculty, and staff from different backgrounds in an inclusive, nurturing community 
3. Cultivate lifelong learning critical and ethical thinking in students to produce productive members and leaders in a global society 
4. Contribute positively to the St.Louis community and effect meaningful, constructive change in the world 

Washington University in St. Louis has over 100 undergraduate fields of study to choose from across four schools. Students can take classes across disciplines for a truly flexible and personalized college experience. 

WashU also offers numerous opportunities for undergraduate students to engage in research projects with large-scale support in a one-on-one setting. Students are also encouraged to deepen their global understanding and cultural knowledge through WashU’s study abroad programs. 

If you’re interested in a flexible curriculum, one-on-one research collaboration with faculty, or opportunities to study abroad, WashU may be an excellent fit for you. 

#4 University of Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana is No. 4 on our list of best colleges in the Midwest. Here are some of the school’s recent class profile data:

  • Acceptance rate: 12.9% 
  • Number of applicants: 26,509
  • Total admitted students: 3,420
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1460-1540 
  • Middle 50% ACT: 33-35 
  • Tuition: $62,693

Although Notre Dame is test-optional and will be until at least the 2023 and 2024 application cycles, the above test score data is based on students who chose to provide their scores. 

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic university. The school is dedicated to “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. 

As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the “various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.”

Students can choose approximately 75 undergraduate degree programs across six schools

  • School of Architecture 
  • College of Arts and Letters 
  • Mendoza College of Business 
  • College of Engineering 
  • Keough School of Global Affairs 
  • College of Science

The University of Notre Dame also offers study opportunities beyond its walls. There are nearly 50 international study programs and a network of 11 Global Gateways in major cities worldwide. 

If you’re interested in faith-based education and seeking global experiences, Notre Dame is a fantastic addition to your college list. For expert tips on how to successfully apply to Notre Dame, check out our guide.

#5 University of Michigan—Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is the fifth-best college in the Midwest. Michigan’s recent class profile data shows: 

  • Acceptance rate: 17.7% 
  • Number of applicants: 84,289
  • Total admitted students: 14,914
  • Median high school GPA: 3.88
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1350-1500
  • Middle 50% ACT: 31-34
  • Tuition: $16,736 (First Year)
The University of Michigan is a top-ranked public university. Its mission is “to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”

At the University of Michigan, you apply to one of 14 undergraduate schools or colleges rather than the university as a whole. First-year students are permitted to apply to the following academic units: 

  • Literature, Science, and Arts (LSA)
  • Engineering 
  • Architecture & Urban Planning 
  • Art & Design 
  • Kinesiology 
  • Music, Theater & Dance 
  • Nursing 

Most first-year students attend UMichigan’s liberal arts college. Across all 14 schools, there are more than 280 degree programs available.

The school supports new students looking for a more intimate learning experience through Michigan Learning Communities (MLCs). Through these programs, you can access specialized courses geared toward your interests. 

MLCs “provide the best of both worlds by combining the personal attention of a small college environment with the unparalleled resources of a large research university.”

UMichigan is also considered one of the best universities for gaining international experience through its M-Compass program. M-Compass lets students travel to different countries while gaining a global workforce understanding. 

If you’d love to study in close-knit groups at a college with bountiful resources, or you want to travel the world, consider adding the University of Michigan to your college list. 

Benefits of Going to College in the Midwest 

Besides getting a high-quality undergraduate education, there are many other benefits of attending college in the Midwest.  

Cost of Living

As the cost of rent and homes boom across the country, affordable housing may be at the forefront of your mind if you’re considering a move to the Midwest. According to U.S. News World and Report’s state affordability rankings, Midwestern states account for the majority of the top 10 most affordable states, including: 

  • Ohio 
  • Iowa 
  • Missouri 
  • Indiana 

Ohio is ranked as best in the nation for affordability. The Midwest is an excellent option if you’re looking to stretch your dollars and avoid paying hefty prices each month for housing. 

It’s a Generally Friendly Place to Live and Study 

We say “generally” here because it’s difficult to paint an entire population with one brush. However, people in the Midwest are often regarded as friendly. The University of Cambridge published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology analyzing personality traits of almost 1.6 million people in the U.S.

The study was conducted using Facebook surveys and other methods over 12 years. The data measured five personality dimensions: 

  • neuroticism 
  • agreeableness 
  • openness 
  • conscientiousness 
  • extraversion 

The report stated, “subjects from the Midwest states exhibited friendly and conventional traits more commonly than subjects from any other region.” So, there appears to be some truth to the idea of “Midwest nice.”

Beautiful Lakes and Scenery 

If you’re a fan of lake living and taking in the views, the Midwest has ample shoreline thanks to Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. Although these Great Lakes are what most people first think about, there are many other spots to see scattered throughout the Midwest, from mountains and prairies to forests and more.

If you’re interested in soaking in the natural sights, these are some of the most beautiful places in the Midwest

  • Badlands National Park in South Dakota 
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan 
  • Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota
  • Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio 
  • Shawnee National Forest in Illinois 

Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choices you have? Next we’ll go over how to choose the perfect Midwestern college for you. 

How to Choose Which Midwest Colleges to Apply to 

Deciding which colleges to apply to can be difficult, but the decision is ultimately yours to make. If you’re having trouble deciding which of these top colleges in the Midwest is right for you, these factors can help you decide. 


Location is a crucial consideration when you apply to colleges. There are essential questions you to ask: 

  • Do you want to stay close to home? 
  • Are you comfortable moving far away from your family?
  • Would you prefer to study in a larger city or a more rural setting? 
  • Do you want access to urban resources, or are you more interested in being close to scenic vistas with outdoor activities? 
  • Do you have a preferred state? 

These are crucial questions to ask yourself and determine what you want before deciding where to apply. 

The Right Fit 

People talk about best-fit schools a lot, but it’s an important consideration. For example, if you identify as Catholic and want a more faith-based education, studying at the University of Notre Dame may be the best option for you. 

You should also consider club offerings, extracurricular activities, and traditions that each school has. Which of these schools aligns best with your morals, goals, and personality? Assessing your fit through school research can help you decide. 

Program Offerings

It's best if you evaluate program offerings before choosing where to apply. Ask yourself, if you attend a particular college, do they have programs that reflect your interests and passions? Will the curriculum help you grow and prepare you for what’s ahead? 

While you don’t necessarily need to have your major figured out yet, choosing a broad field of study can help you decide which school is best for you. 

FAQs: Best Colleges in the Midwest

Do you still have questions about attending the best colleges in the Midwest? If so, check out these answers. 

1. What Are the Best Small Colleges in the Midwest? 

If a small campus is more your speed, the Wall Street Journal released a list of the 10 best small colleges in the Midwest, each with less than 3,000 undergraduates: 

  • Carleton College 
  • Macalester College 
  • Grinnell College 
  • Denison College 
  • Kenyon College 
  • Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 
  • DePauw University 
  • The College of Wooster 
  • Illinois Wesleyan University 
  • Gustavus Adolphus College 

2. Can I Apply to Only Midwest Colleges? 

If you’re sure you don’t want to live or study in any other region, there's no reason you can’t apply to only Midwestern universities. As long as you feel all the schools would be the best fit for you, feel free to add them to your college list. 

3. Which of the Best Midwest Colleges is Easiest to Get Into?

Using acceptance rate data from above, the University of Michigan has the highest acceptance rate at 17.7%. However, this acceptance rate is still selective: 1 in 5 students are accepted. You’ll need to perfect your application before submission for your best chance of success. 

4. How Do I Boost My Chances of Acceptance at a Midwest College? 

Boosting your chances of acceptance at a Midwest college (or any college for that matter) begins with perfecting your application. You can start by ensuring your GPA and test scores are high, then securing strong recommendation letters and writing stellar essays. 

You can also consider seeking an admissions consultant’s help to ensure your application is tailored to what each school seeks, boosting your chances of acceptance. 

5. Are There Any Ivy League Schools in the Midwest? 

No, all of the Ivy League schools are located in the Northeast. 

6. How Many Midwest Colleges Should I Apply to? 

The number of Midwest colleges you should apply to depends on how many other colleges you want to apply to. Generally, students will apply to 5-15 colleges depending on their preferences. 

7. What is the #1 College in the Midwest?

On our list of top universities in the Midwest, the University of Chicago is number one. Northwestern and WashU St. Louis are also highly ranked Midwestern schools. 

8. What College is the Harvard of the Midwest?

The University of Chicago is widely considered the top university in the midwest. In terms of state schools, Truman State is often rated highly and referred to as the “Harvard of the Midwest” or the “Princeton of the Prairies.” 

9. Are There Good Colleges in the Midwest?

There are excellent universities in the Midwest and all over the US! Some of the top choices in the midwest for college include the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Washington University in St. Louis.

Final Thoughts 

The Midwest is the home of many excellent colleges. Whether you’re interested in small Midwestern universities or a bustling campus, there truly is something for everyone. 

Ultimately, the Midwest colleges you decide to apply to are your decision. Before creating your applications, consider your preferences like location, fit, and program offerings. 

Getting into the best colleges requires polished applications that show admissions committees why you’re the perfect fit. Attending a Midwest college is well within your reach with enough dedication and enthusiasm. 

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