What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?
Published on December 17, 2020
- The most selective U.S. colleges have 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 9% of applicants.
- The hardest colleges to get into typically use a holistic admissions approach.
In high school, you strive for the highest GPA and SAT/ACT scores possible to give yourself the best chance of being admitted 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 have extremely rigorous admission standards and accept very few applicants. So what makes certain colleges more difficult to get into?
To fully understand what makes some colleges more selective than others, you have to look at their history. The hardest colleges to get into are among the oldest in the country. 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 at America's most prestigious colleges.
While Ivy League schools make up the majority of the hardest colleges to get into, other highly selective schools, like Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have comparably low admission rates. They may not be Ivy League schools, but they offer similarly extensive research opportunities and many reputable degree programs.
Refer to the table below to see which colleges are the most competitive in the country. To be considered for our list, schools must have an undergraduate population of at least 5,000 students. The admission rates are drawn from the most competitive undergraduate colleges and programs at each university, rather than the university as a whole.
|College||Location||Admission Rate||SAT Middle 50%||ACT Middle 50%|
|Harvard University||Cambridge, MA||5.0%||1470-1570||33-35|
|Stanford University||Palo Alto, CA||5.2%||1420-1570||31-35|
|Princeton University||Princeton, NJ||5.6%||1450-1600||32-36|
|Columbia University in the City of New York||New York City, NY||6.4%||1500-1560||34-35|
|Yale University||New Haven, CT||6.6%||1450-1560||33-35|
|University of Chicago||Chicago, IL||7.3%||1510-1560||34-35|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Cambridge, MA||7.3%||1520-1580||35-36|
|Brown University||Providence, RI||7.7%||*1440-1570||*33-35|
|Duke University||Durham, NC||7.7%||*1480-1570||*33-35|
|University of Pennsylvania||Philadelphia, PA||8.6%||1470-1550||34-36|
Undergraduate student population parameter: 5,000 students.
Based on 2020 school data, unless otherwise noted.
*Indicates 2019 NCES data.
With an admission rate of 5.0%, Harvard University ranks as the most difficult school to get into. This rate only reflects admission into Harvard's undergraduate school — Harvard College. Some schools at Harvard are even more competitive, such as Harvard's School of Medicine.
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 and meet its academic criteria, admissions officers rely heavily on letters of recommendations, interviews, and extracurriculars to identify outstanding students. Grades and test scores are not the sole indicators of success at Harvard — a student's personal character is also important in determining their ability to succeed.
The second-hardest college to get into is not an Ivy League school. With an admission rate of 5.2%, Stanford University falls just behind Harvard this year. The admissions process at Stanford is a holistic one. Rather than simply reducing students to their test scores and grades, Stanford evaluates each student as a whole person.
The university states that a student's academic record is the most important factor in determining admission, but it also looks at components beyond numerical data. Stanford gives weight to extracurricular activities and personal essays. These components allow students to illustrate their personal background and experiences, which gives admissions officers a better sense of how a student might uniquely contribute to the school.
Slightly down from its previous admission rate of 5.8%, Princeton University is even more competitive to get into with a 5.6% rate of admission in 2020. Princeton aims to identify students who will positively contribute and bring a unique perspective to its community. Rather than simply looking for a specific set of academic criteria, the Ivy League school 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.
Columbia University in the City of New York
Columbia University in the City of New York ranks as one of the five most difficult schools to get into with a 6.4% rate of admission. This rate reflects admission into Columbia's main undergraduate school, Columbia College. Other colleges and education options within the university, such as Columbia's School of General Studies, may be less competitive.
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, Columbia looks at the rigor and variety of classes taken, as well as the grades earned in those courses.
In order to assess factors beyond academics, Columbia's admissions committee looks at a variety of factors, including extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation. A student's level of involvement both inside and outside of the classroom is a strong indicator of their ability to positively contribute to the school.
Up from its previous rate of admission of 6.2% in 2019, Yale University still ranks as one of the five hardest colleges to get into with an admission rate of 6.6%. Yale is slightly different from other Ivy League schools when it comes to the factors it looks for during the admissions process.
The university considers two main factors 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 recommendations.
While Yale evaluates nonacademic factors, it remains a highly competitive academic institution. Yale's admissions officers look to identify exceptional ability and academic promise through a combination of grades, test scores, and the rigor of classes taken.
University of Chicago
Admitting nearly 20% more undergraduate students than it did the previous year, the University of Chicago's admission rate rose to 7.3% in 2020. This rate reflects the rate of admission into UChicago's undergraduate school — College at UChicago.
Taking a holistic admissions approach, UChicago emphasizes that no single component determines a student's fit for the college. Instead, the admissions committee wants to understand each applicant's story and passions. These individual perspectives and characteristics are often best gauged through essays and extracurricular activities.
While students' backgrounds and interests are important factors, their academic record remains a central component, as well. As most students applying for admission have superior academic records, UChicago prioritizes applicants with strong letters of recommendation and rigor in their high school curriculum.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The leading technical school in the nation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's undergraduate rate of admission was just over 7% in 2020. Once admitted, first-year students can apply for pathways into more competitive programs at MIT.
MIT states that an applicant's overall fit with the school is the primary criterion for admission. Grades and test scores are still important, but MIT is also concerned with an individual's alignment with the school's mission and spirit. The school looks to admit individuals who possess a cooperative spirit and will lift up their peers.
In addition, it's important that students applying to MIT 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, the admissions committee is looking to identify students who display a willingness to take risks and accept failure.
In 2020, Brown University reported an admission rate of 7.7%. This rate of admission only applies to Brown's undergraduate population.
Brown reviews each application holistically and considers how each student utilized their resources and opportunities during high school. As involvement outside of the classroom is fundamental to the school's culture, a student's extracurricular accomplishments are an important component in the university's 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.
Duke University reported an undergraduate admission rate of 7.7% in 2020 — the same rate as in 2019. However, while the rate was the same, the university received about 2,000 fewer applications in 2020.
As a leading research university with abundant opportunities, Duke evaluates students based on their potential to contribute academically and make use of its resources. To identify these qualities, Duke considers six factors, which can be categorized into three main groups: academics, extracurricular activities, and personal interests.
The university identifies academically exceptional students by reviewing letters of recommendation, test grades and scores, and the rigor of coursework. Extracurricular activities help admissions officers find students with unique backgrounds and diverse perspectives that will add to the Duke community. To assess students' personal interests and their overall fit, admissions representatives carefully read through each of three required essay components.
University of Pennsylvania
Admitting nearly 15% more students than the previous year, the University of Pennsylvania's undergraduate admission rate rose to 8.6% in 2020. 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 in the admissions process. The most competitive applicants have earned high grades and undertaken rigorous coursework. This weight toward academic achievement is made evident by Penn's fall 2019 incoming class statistics, in which 96% of admitted students were in the top 10% of their high school class.
Penn also looks for students with unique backgrounds and talents, who will positively contribute to the community. These personal characteristics are typically determined by examining an applicant's extracurricular activities, interviews, and two Penn-specific personal essays.
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