What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

Discover the 10 hardest colleges to get into in 2023, as well as what these schools look for during the admissions process.
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  • The most selective U.S. colleges maintain extremely rigorous admission standards.
  • Five of the 10 most competitive colleges are Ivy League schools.
  • The 10 colleges with the lowest admission rates admit less than 6% 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 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?

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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Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 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.

Most Selective Colleges in the U.S.
School Location Acceptance Rate (Class of 2026)
1. Minerva University San Francisco, CA 0.99%
2. Harvard Cambridge, MA 3.00%
3. CalTech Pasadena, CA 3.00%
4. Columbia New York, NY 3.99%
5. Stanford Stanford, CA 3.99%
6. MIT Cambridge, MA 4.00%
7. Brown Providence, RI 4.99%
8. University of Chicago Chicago, IL 4.99%
9. Yale New Haven, CT 5%
10. Dartmouth College Hanover, New Hampshire 5.99%
Source: NCES

1. Minerva University - 0.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 20,816
  • Total Admitted: 208

Minerva specializes in developing the next generation of leaders using a project-based curriculum. Based in San Francisco, Minerva is the most difficult school to get into, with a 0.99% admission rate for the class of 2026.

The college is far more difficult to enter than the Ivy League colleges on this list. Of 20,816 first-year applicants for the class of 2026, Minerva admitted just 208 students. Using recent transcripts and final or national exam scores, Minerva looks at applicants' academic performance.

Applicants must also complete a series of timed online challenges demonstrating their logical, creative, and analytical thinking skills. The challenges, which also show applicants' language abilities, do not require any advanced preparation. Once admitted, you get to study in various countries during your four years of attendance.

2. Harvard University - 3.00%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 61,221
  • Total Admitted: 1,837

An Ivy League college, Harvard admitted just 3.00% of first-year applicants for the class of 2026. This rate applies to admission into Harvard College, the undergraduate school, and reflects an admittance of even fewer students than the previous year.

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.

3. California Institute of Technology - 3.00%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 16,626
  • Total Admitted: 499

Renowned for its science and engineering programs, Caltech is a very selective school with a 3.00% admittance rate for the class of 2026. This rate reflects admission of even fewer first-year applicants than the previous year, when Caltech admitted 3.92% of applicants.

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. Columbia University - 3.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 60,879
  • Total Admitted: 2,435

This year, Columbia ranks as the fourth-most difficult school to get into, with a 3.99% acceptance rate for the class of 2026. This rate is the same as the previous year's rate.

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 have taken and the grades you have 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.

5. Stanford University - 3.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 56,378
  • Total Admitted: 2,255

With a 3.99% admission rate for the class of 2025, Stanford falls just slightly behind Columbia with a .00005 difference! The school welcomed 10,000 more applications in 2021 than it did in 2020, representing a 23% increase.

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.

6. MIT - 4.00%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 33,767
  • Total Admitted: 1,351

A leading technical school, MIT currently boasts an ultra-low acceptance rate of 4.00% for the class of 2026. This represents a 1% increase in applications admitted 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.

7. Brown University - 4.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 50,649
  • Total Admitted: 2,532

This year, Brown welcomed its largest pool of applicants to date, resulting in an extremely low 4.99% 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.

8. University of Chicago - 4.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 37,522
  • Total Admitted: 1,876

One of the world's top research colleges, UChicago boasts a 4.99% acceptance rate for the class of 2026. Of 37,522 applicants, only 1,876 were accepted to the college. The university looks at several factors during the admissions process.

The requirements include applicants' secondary school transcripts, teacher evaluations, and essays. Applicants can use an optional two-minute video profile to introduce themselves and add a voice to their application. UChicago is test-optional but considers SAT/ACT scores if you wish to submit them.

9. Yale University - 5.00%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 50,060
  • Total Admitted: 2,503

Yale ranks as one of the hardest colleges to get into, with a 5.00% acceptance rate for the class of 2026, up 8% 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.

10. Dartmouth College - 5.99%

  • Total Number of Applicants (Class of 2026): 28,336
  • Total Admitted: 1,700

Dartmouth ranks as the 10th hardest school to get into, with a 5.99% acceptance rate for the class of 2026. Of 28,336 applicants, only 1,700 got admitted to Dartmouth. Like other Ivy League schools, Dartmouth uses a holistic approach to evaluate applicants' potential.

Admissions officers review applicants' high school GPA, grade trends, and the academic rigor of the coursework completed. Applicants can submit supplemental materials that showcase their accomplishments, such as awards and recognitions.

A required writing supplement gives the admissions team a greater sense of your purpose and whether you'll fit into this academic community.

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:

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