What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?
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- The most selective U.S. colleges maintain extremely rigorous admission standards.
- Six of the 10 most competitive colleges are Ivy League schools.
- The 10 colleges with the lowest admission rates admit less than 7% of applicants.
Many high school students strive for the highest GPA and test scores to give themselves the best shot at getting into competitive colleges. While strong grades and test scores can certainly increase your chances, they might still not be enough to gain admission into every college.
The country's most selective schools all have extremely rigorous admission standards and accept very few applicants. So what makes certain colleges more difficult to get into?
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The hardest colleges to get into are among the oldest in the U.S. Over time, these schools have built up their reputations through a combination of academic excellence, large endowments, and notable alumni and faculty. These factors contribute to a long history of innovation and success.
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Top 10 Hardest Colleges to Get Into
While Ivy League schools make up the majority of the hardest colleges to get into, other highly selective schools, like Stanford and MIT, have comparably low admission rates. They may not belong to the Ivy League, but they offer similarly extensive research opportunities and reputable degree programs.
Use the table below to see which colleges are the most competitive in the U.S. All data is for the class of 2026 unless otherwise noted.
With hundreds of schools going temporarily or permanently test-optional in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges are experiencing record application numbers. This has resulted in some of the lowest acceptance rates in U.S. history.
|School||Location||Acceptance Rate (Class of 2026)|
|1. Harvard||Cambridge, MA||3.19%|
|2. Columbia||New York, NY||3.73%|
|3. Caltech||Pasadena, CA||3.92%*|
|4. Stanford||Stanford, CA||3.95%*|
|5. MIT||Cambridge, MA||3.96%|
|6. Princeton||Princeton, NJ||4.38%*|
|7. Yale||New Haven, CT||4.47%|
|8. Brown||Providence, RI||5.03%|
|9. Penn||Philadelphia, PA||5.87%*|
|10. Vanderbilt||Nashville, TN||6.1%|
*Indicates class of 2025 data.
1. Harvard University — 3.19%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 61,220
- Total Admitted: 1,954
With a record-low admission rate of just 3.19% for the class of 2026, Harvard currently ranks as the most difficult school to get into. This rate reflects admission into Harvard College, the Ivy League university's undergraduate school.
When making admission decisions, Harvard assesses each student as a whole person, considering both character and academic potential. The school makes a concerted effort to give each application careful attention so it can fully understand students' academic interests, backgrounds, and extracurricular talents.
Admissions officers rely heavily on letters of recommendation, college interviews, and extracurriculars to identify outstanding students.
2. Columbia University — 3.73%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 60,377
- Total Admitted: 2,253
This year, Columbia ranks as the second-most difficult school to get into, with a 3.73% acceptance rate for the class of 2026. This rate is only slightly lower than the previous year's rate of 3.9%.
Columbia takes a holistic approach to its undergraduate admissions process, assessing each student's unique experiences and background, as well as their academic achievements. The university looks at the rigor and variety of classes you took and the grades you earned.
Beyond academics, Columbia's admissions committee considers factors such as extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. Your level of involvement both inside and outside the classroom is a strong indicator of your ability to positively contribute to the school.
3. California Institute of Technology — 3.92%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2025): 13,026
- Total Admitted: 510
A premier research university, Caltech admitted just 3.92% of first-year applicants for the class of 2025. While class of 2026 admission statistics have yet to be released, we do know that the prestigious institution accepted even fewer students this year than it did last year: 432.
Caltech looks for students who share a love of STEM, with a particular interest in math, chemistry, and physics. The school also prefers applicants with a collaborative, creative, and resilient spirit.
Additionally, Caltech strongly values applicants with non-STEM-related passions and hobbies.
4. Stanford University — 3.95%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2025): 55,471
- Total Admitted: 2,190
With a 3.95% admission rate for the class of 2025, Stanford falls just slightly behind Caltech. The school welcomed 10,000 more applications in 2021 than it did in 2020, representing a 23% increase.
The acceptance rate for the class of 2026 has not been released but is likely similar to last year's, if not slightly lower.
At Stanford, your academic record is the most important factor in determining admission. The university also looks at components beyond numerical data, such as extracurricular activities and personal essays, which allow you to illustrate your unique background and experiences.
5. MIT — 3.96%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 33,796
- Total Admitted: 1,337
A leading technical school, MIT currently boasts an ultra-low acceptance rate of 3.96% for the class of 2026. This represents a 2% increase in applications over the 2020-21 admissions cycle.
Your overall fit with the school is the primary criterion for admission to MIT, though grades and test scores remain important. MIT aims to admit students who have a cooperative spirit and will lift up their peers.
In addition, those applying to MIT should feel comfortable working in team settings; most courses and labs are designed to be collaborative in nature. MIT prioritizes students who display a willingness to take risks and accept failure.
6. Princeton University — 4.38%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2025): 37,601
- Total Admitted: 1,647
Princeton is extremely competitive to get into, with a 4.38% acceptance rate for the class of 2025. Unfortunately, the institution is choosing to withhold acceptance rate data for the class of 2026.
The Ivy aims to identify students who will positively contribute and bring unique perspectives to its community. Rather than looking for a specific set of academic criteria, Princeton prefers applicants who have challenged themselves with rigorous honors and AP courses.
In addition to a rich academic record, applicants should have strong extracurricular achievement and a deep intellectual curiosity.
7. Yale University — 4.47%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 50,015
- Total Admitted: 2,234
Yale ranks as one of the hardest colleges to get into with a 4.47% acceptance rate for the class of 2026, down just slightly from its 4.62% acceptance rate for the class of 2025.
The university differs slightly from other Ivies regarding the factors it considers during the admissions process. Yale looks for two main components: the ability to contribute to the school's community and the ability to make the most of the school's resources.
While Yale evaluates nonacademic factors as well, it remains a highly competitive institution. Admissions officers focus on identifying exceptional ability and academic promise through a combination of grades, test scores, and the rigor of classes taken.
8. Brown University — 5.03%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 50,649
- Total Admitted: 2,546
This year, Brown welcomed its largest pool of applicants to date, resulting in an extremely low 5.03% acceptance rate.
The prestigious university reviews each application holistically and considers how students utilized their resources and opportunities in high school. Involvement outside the classroom is fundamental to Brown's culture, so your extracurricular accomplishments are an important factor in whether you'll get admitted.
Through essays and interviews, Brown looks for applicants who will benefit from and contribute to the school's academic culture.
9. University of Pennsylvania — 5.87%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2025): 56,332
- Total Admitted: 3,304
Penn's undergraduate admission rate fell from 8.6% for the class of 2024 to just 5.87% for the class of 2025. However, like Princeton and some other big-name schools, this year Penn is choosing to withhold class of 2026 acceptance rates.
The university prioritizes academic excellence. The most competitive applicants have high grades and have undertaken rigorous coursework.
Penn also looks for students with unique backgrounds and talents and who will positively contribute to the community. These personal characteristics are typically determined by examining an applicant's extracurriculars, interviews, and two Penn-specific personal essays.
10. Vanderbilt University — 6.1%
- Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): Not reported
- Total Admitted: Not reported
This year, Vanderbilt admitted just 6.1% of first-year applicants, making it one of the 10 hardest colleges to get into. The university accepted a mere 4.7% of regular decision applicants — a record low for the prestigious private institution.
Like many other schools on this list, Vanderbilt takes a holistic approach when evaluating applications. The premier school looks at five primary components: academic achievement, SAT and ACT test scores, extracurricular involvement, recommendation letters, and the personal essay.
Vanderbilt stresses that "context is king" and that its assessment of your grades, test scores, and coursework will be considered in light of the opportunities and options available at your school.
What Are Other Hard Colleges to Get Into?
Many other colleges and universities are similarly hard to get into. Here are 10 additional schools with highly competitive acceptance rates:
- Duke University: 6.17% (class of 2026)
- Dartmouth College: 6.24% (class of 2026)
- Johns Hopkins University: 6.48% (class of 2026)
- University of Chicago: 6.48% (class of 2025)
- Pomona College: 6.6% (class of 2025)
- Amherst College: 7% (class of 2026)
- Northwestern University: 7% (class of 2026)
- Tulane University: 8.4% (class of 2026)
- Rice University: 8.56% (class of 2026)
- Cornell University: 8.69% (class of 2025)