What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

October 11, 2021

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Many high school students strive for the highest GPA and SAT/ACT scores possible to give themselves the best shot at getting into competitive colleges. While strong grades and test scores can certainly increase your chances, they still might not be enough to gain admission into every college.

The country's most selective schools maintain extremely rigorous admission standards and accept very few applicants. So what makes certain colleges more difficult to get an acceptance letter from?

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 members. These factors contribute to a long history of innovation and success.

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.

Refer to the table below to see which colleges are the most competitive in the U.S. All data is from 2021 (for the class of 2025) unless otherwise noted.

Note that because many schools have temporarily gone test-optional in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer are reporting middle 50% SAT/ACT scores. This change in policy has led to a surge in applications at many selective institutions, resulting in unprecedented application numbers and some of the lowest acceptance rates in U.S. history.

School Location Acceptance Rate SAT Middle 50% ACT Middle 50%
1. Columbia University New York City, NY 3.9% 1510-1560 34-35
2. Stanford University Stanford, CA 3.9% 1470-1570 32-35
3. Harvard University Cambridge, MA 4.0% 1470-1570* 33-35*
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA 4.1% 1510-1580 34-36
5. Princeton University Princeton, NJ 4.4% 1450-1550 32-35
6. Yale University New Haven, CT 4.6% 1450-1560* 33-35*
7. Brown University Providence, RI 5.5% 1480-1560 33-35
8. Duke University Durham, NC 5.8% 1500-1570* 34-35*
9. University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 5.9% 1490-1560 35-36
10. Dartmouth College Hanover, NH 6.2% 1440-1560* 32-35*

*Indicates 2020 data

1. Columbia University

This year, Columbia ranks as the most difficult school to get into with a 3.9% acceptance rate. This rate is down significantly from 2020 following a 51% spike in first-year applications.

Columbia takes a holistic approach to its undergraduate admissions process, assessing each student's unique experiences and background, as well as their academic achievements. To evaluate a student's academic record, the university looks at the rigor and variety of classes taken and the grades earned in those courses.

Beyond academics, Columbia's admissions committee considers factors such as extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. A student's level of involvement both inside and outside the classroom is a strong indicator of their ability to positively contribute to the school.


2. Stanford University

With a 3.9% admission rate for 2021, Stanford falls just slightly behind Columbia. The school welcomed 10,000 more applications this year than it did in 2020, representing a 23% increase.

Stanford states that a student's academic record is the most important factor in determining admission, but it also looks at components beyond numerical data. Through a holistic admissions process, the university gives weight to extracurricular activities and personal essays, both of which allow students to illustrate their individual backgrounds and experiences.

These components also give admissions officers a better sense of how a student might uniquely contribute to the school.


3. Harvard University

With an admission rate of 4.0%, Harvard ranks as the third most difficult school to get into. This rate reflects admission into Harvard's undergraduate school, Harvard College. Some schools at Harvard are even more competitive, such as Harvard Medical School.

During its undergraduate admissions process, Harvard aims to assess each student as a whole person, considering their personal character and their academic potential. The school makes a concerted effort to give each application careful attention in order to fully understand a student's academic interests, personal background, and extracurricular talents.

Since most students who apply to Harvard are highly qualified, admissions officers rely heavily on letters of recommendation, interviews, and extracurriculars to identify outstanding students.


4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The leading technical school in the nation, MIT's undergraduate rate of admission was just 4.1% in 2021 after a whopping 66% increase in applications over the previous year.

An applicant's overall fit with the school is the primary criterion for admission to MIT, though grades and test scores are also important. MIT aims to admit students who possess a cooperative spirit and who 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. As the school has cultivated a community of curious, driven individuals, MIT's admissions committee prioritizes students who display a willingness to take risks and accept failure.


5. Princeton University

Down from its previous admission rate of 5.6% in 2020, Princeton is even more competitive to get into now with a 4.4% acceptance rate. The Ivy aims to identify students who will positively contribute and bring a unique perspective 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, Princeton looks for students with strong extracurricular achievement and a deep intellectual curiosity. This is primarily assessed through a combination of personal essays, short answers, and interviews.


6. Yale University

Down significantly from its previous rate of admission of 6.6% in 2020, Yale ranks as one of the six hardest colleges to get into with a 4.6% acceptance rate.

Yale differs slightly from other Ivies regarding the factors it considers during the admissions process. The university looks for two main components to help inform its decision: a student's ability to contribute to the school's community and a student's ability to make the most of the school's resources. These are typically identified by the applicant's personal essays and letters of recommendation.

While Yale evaluates nonacademic factors as well, it remains a highly competitive academic institution. Admissions officers focus on identifying exceptional ability and academic promise through a combination of grades, test scores, and the rigor of classes taken.


7. Brown University

In 2021, Brown welcomed its largest pool of applicants to date, resulting in an extremely low 5.5% 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 a student's extracurricular accomplishments remain an important factor in the decision-making process.

Through a combination of essays and interviews, Brown looks for applicants who will benefit from and contribute to the school's academic culture.


8. Duke University

Duke reported an increase in 10,000 undergraduate applications for 2021 compared to 2020, leading to an unprecedented acceptance rate of 5.8%. In addition, 44% of applicants chose not to submit SAT/ACT scores.

As a leading research university, Duke evaluates students based on their potential to contribute academically and make use of its resources. The university considers six factors, which can be categorized into three groups: academics, extracurricular activities, and personal interests.

Admissions officers identify academically exceptional students by reviewing letters of recommendation, grades, test scores, and the rigor of coursework. Extracurricular activities also help Duke find students with unique backgrounds and diverse perspectives. To assess students' personal interests and overall fit, representatives must carefully read through multiple required essays.


9. University of Pennsylvania

Penn's undergraduate admission rate fell from 8.6% in 2020 to just 5.9% in 2021. This rate reflects admission into Penn's four undergraduate schools: the College of Arts and Sciences, Penn Engineering, the School of Nursing, and the Wharton School.

The university prioritizes academic excellence. The most competitive applicants have earned high grades and undertaken rigorous coursework. This weight toward academic achievement is made evident by Penn's fall 2020 incoming class statistics, in which 97% of admitted students were in the top 10% of their high school class.

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. Dartmouth College

In a record-breaking application cycle, Dartmouth boasted a competitive admission rate of 6.2% for 2021. The change represented a 33% increase in applications over 2020 and resulted in one of the most diverse classes in the school's history.

Dartmouth looks for "strong-minded, multitalented" applicants to join its community. The prestigious institution wants students who will actively support one another and take advantage of the school's multidisciplinary resources and premier research opportunities.

Applicants are evaluated on their unique backgrounds and talents in addition to their academic achievements, letters of recommendation, test scores, and Dartmouth writing supplement.


Feature Image: DenisTangneyJr / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

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