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What Are the Top 10 Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

By Savannah Dawson

Prior to coming to Scholarships360 for her first internship in 2022, Savannah utilized her campus publications by joining various fashion publications that are offered at Ohio University. One of those publications is Thread Magazine, where Savannah has had the opportunity to work on articles related to world-wide related fashion news and events, as well as articles closer to home, such as a fashion piece on Athens hometown-hero Joe Burrow. This year, Savannah also had the opportunity to be a content writing intern for Aiken House, as well as a section editor for Southeast Ohio Magazine. In 2023, Savannah served as the Chapter President of her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta. These collective experiences, as well as her experience currently working for Ohio University’s Undergraduate Admissions, has led her to Scholarships360 and aided in her passion for helping students better understand the college admissions process and financial aid. In her free time, Savannah enjoys horseback riding, watching Formula One races, traveling, and spending time with her friends and family. Savannah will graduate from Ohio University in May 2024 with a degree in Journalism News and Information and a certificate in Italian Studies.

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: February 27th, 2024
What Are the Top 10 Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

As you start looking into what colleges to apply to, you may find yourself wondering, “What are the hardest colleges to get into?” In this article, we are going to take a deep dive into which colleges have the lowest acceptance rates. Before starting, we want to remind you that there are the most well-known names, and not every college with a low acceptance rate is on this list.  Let’s get started!

Things to keep in mind before we start

  • 7 out of the 10 most difficult colleges to get into are Ivy League Schools 
  • Being the person with the strongest grades does not always make you a top choice for a competitive school
  • Many of the hardest colleges to get into will only take one person per high school to keep their student population diverse and selective
  • Most of these schools are looking for stellar SAT and ACT scores, but because of the Pandemic, many schools are getting away from this and becoming test-optional 

Top 10 hardest colleges to get into

Although the order of the list changes from year to year, the colleges and universities on the list generally stay the same. Most of the schools are in the Ivy League, but not all of them are. The most prominent correlation between all of these schools? They all have extensive research programs and degrees that are world renowned. 

So what makes each of these difficult to get into, yet different from each other? Let’s break down each school and what they have to offer. Note that we listed the schools in order of acceptance rate. 

Harvard University

Harvard is an Ivy League university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their largest program, and what they are most well-known for, is their Economics program. The acceptance rate at Harvard was 4% this year. 

Many students and faculty say that Harvard’s long and extensive history is what makes them unique compared to its other Ivy League counterparts. Harvard was founded in 1636, so, to put that into context, Harvard opened its doors 140 years before the United States of America was founded. So what does this mean for students who attend Harvard? You are immediately part of a nearly 400 year old tradition, and held to a higher standard because of that– both in the admissions process and as a Harvard student. 

Harvard focuses on academics, just like any other prestigious higher education institution. One thing that Harvard looks for on your resume is leadership. So, when applying, think about what leadership opportunities you have had throughout your high school experience. If you don’t have any yet, you still have time to start a club, apply for a position, or get a promotion at work. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Harvard is on the East coast, so expect very cold winters
  • Harvard is another school with an extensive list of varsity sports– they are more than just about academics
  • Harvard is test-optional for the upcoming school year, and actually even if you submit them, they will not go through, so you do not need to submit at all 

Also see: How to complete the Harvard supplemental essays

Stanford University

Stanford University is a private university in the sunny and beautiful Stanford, California. Many students choose Stanford for its prestigious Computer Science program. Stanford’s acceptance rate sits at a striking 4%

Many admitted students and faculty at Stanford note that Stanford is more likely to take a high school student who is in the top 1,000 of their class at a prestigious institution rather than the top 100 of their class at a low ranking high school. This is important to note and to start preparing for your application process. 

Stanford is known for more than just its academics. The community of students there are extremely passionate about their sports teams, and they have a huge Greek Life presence on their campus as well. Both their men’s and women’s athletic teams dominate in various different aspects and sports. This is something to keep in mind if you are an athlete, or someone who enjoys attending sporting events. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • The weather in Stanford, California is often beautiful year round 
  • Stanford’s number one thing that they are looking for is academic excellence
  • Stanford is currently still test-optional

Princeton University

Princeton University is an Ivy League university in Princeton, New Jersey. It is well-regarded for its Computer Science program, among many other prestigious programs, including their Classics Department. The acceptance rate at Princeton is 4%

Princeton uses a holistic approach when choosing what students would best fit in their community. Princeton looks for students who are well-rounded; successful applicants should excel academically, intellectually, extracurricularly, and personally. According to the admissions tips page on their website, Princeton wants to look at your application and see a person who is already succeeding– whatever means in relation to you. 

Instead of trying to fit the mold of a Princeton student, show what makes you unique within your application and essay. If you are extremely interested in a particular topic, make sure that you share your passion. Princeton is known for supporting and funding the academic endeavors of their undergraduates. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Princeton remains test-optional, but you can still submit your scores if you did take the SAT or ACT
  • Princeton focuses mainly on undergraduate study and research

Columbia University

Columbia University is an Ivy League university in the heart of New York City. Best known for its Economics program, Columbia is one of the most difficult schools to get into with a 4% acceptance rate

Columbia is unique compared to many other schools because of its holistic approach to the application process. Other Ivy League schools are starting to follow in Columbia’s footsteps by looking into “who” they are as a person rather than focusing on academic achievement. This helps identify the individuals who would be a better fit for their university, and vice versa. This approach helps to cut down on transfers out of their school, so naturally they have a higher graduation rate than most schools at 93%.

So you might be asking “how can I stand out at Columbia University?” Start out with extracurriculars. Columbia wants to see that you are a well-rounded individual with interests outside of school. Think about this when you write your application essay. They also want to know that you are dedicated to your community. Get into some volunteer work if you are able to. Not only will this shape you as a person, but it looks great on college applications as well. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Columbia extended their test-optional policy for two more years, so students applying to be admitted in Fall 2023 and Fall 2024 will not be required to submit those scores – but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t submit them if you have them
  • Columbia is in the middle of a very busy city, so if the city scene is not your vibe, then maybe it is not for you

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is best known for its Computer Science program. The acceptance rate at MIT is 4%

There are many things that make MIT unique as a school. For starters, most of the classes do not require final examinations. Everything about the university encourages creativity. This is why so many people want to be a part of this community. 

So, how do you stand out compared to all of the other applicants? MIT wants unique students with creative minds. They are looking for pure talent in every realm rather than just academics, and they want students driven by discovery rather than recognition and validation. These are all important things to include in your application to stand out. 

Things to keep in mind

  • Cambridge is very close to Boston, so you will be near a large city
  • MIT has one of the earliest early acceptance applications– you can know months before other students whether or not you were accepted
  • MIT is no longer test-optional for first-year and transfer students. They require an SAT or ACT score

Yale University

Yale University is an Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut and is well known for its Economics degree (are you seeing a trend yet?). The acceptance rate at Yale is 5%.

Yale is one of the most unique universities because of the way its residential college system is set up. They have a residential college system so that their students are able to get the feel of being at a smaller college socially, but being at a large school for academic resources. These residential colleges have nothing to do with your major, and they are randomly assigned before you start school in the fall.

Yale is yet another school searching for the well-rounded student. Do well academically, be involved in extracurriculars and leadership, volunteer, and be a good person– this is how you get on Yale’s nice list. They want a student who is going to uphold their reputation as a good school with good people. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Yale has been test-optional since the Covid pandemic, but this is subject to change for the upcoming school year
  • Yale has a deep rooted culture in tradition (similar to Harvard in that regard)

Brown University

Brown University is an Ivy League located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown is well known for their Computer Science program and has an 6% acceptance rate.

An “open curriculum” is what makes Brown stand out from other top schools on our list. The open curriculum means that there are no general education requirements; therefore, students are able to enroll in the classes that they are truly interested in.  

A great way to stand out during the admission process at Brown is to take Advanced Placement (AP) or College Credit level classes rather than honors classes in high school. They would rather see you get a lower grade in one of those classes than an A in an honors or regular class.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Brown was named one of the “Top 10 Happiest Schools,” which is attributed to their laid back environment and focus on enriching the student experience
  • Brown is test-optional for the upcoming school year

Related: How to start the admissions process

Duke University

Duke University is a private university located in Durham, North Carolina. The university is affiliated with the Methodist church, but is officially non-denominational. This means you do not have to be of the Methodist religion to attend Duke. Duke is also well known for their Computer Science program and has an acceptance rate of 6%.

Duke University is unique in that each program of study has a unique cluster of disciplinary courses that usually involves travel or field visits. This allows students the opportunity for hands-on experience on top of the experience within the classroom. 

According to the Admissions Department at Duke, there are five main things that they look for in a student during the application process. These things are the intensity of a potential student’s academic history, academic excellence within that rigorous program (as measured by grades), letters of recommendation by two teachers and a counselor, extracurricular activities, and a well-thought out application essay. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Duke is located in the South, which differs from the other schools on this list when it comes to location, weather, and culture
  • Duke is test-optional for the upcoming school year

Also see: How to complete the Duke supplemental essays

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College is an Ivy League institution located in Hanover, New Hampshire. The university is well known for its Economics program and has an acceptance rate of 6%.

One of the many things that makes Dartmouth so special is what they call the D-Plan. This plan is a quarterly system that allows students to choose what classes they want to take while they are on break. In addition to this, Dartmouth is renowned for its traditions (like the Dartmouth Powwow or the annual snowball fight). They also have a well-known Greek Life presence and a great reputation for their outdoorsy campus and local scenery.

Dartmouth is interested in students who are outgoing, adventurous, curious, risk-takers. They love to see that a student is more than just their academics. They rate every student on a scale from 1 to 9 in two separate areas: academics and personal. Dartmouth looks for students who simply love to learn. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • Dartmouth is known for its beautiful scenery. If you are looking for a “college town” feel, this is the place for you
  • Dartmouth is test-optional for this upcoming school year

Don’t miss: How to complete the Dartmouth University supplemental essays

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania is known for its Finance and Financial Management Services programs. Their acceptance rate is 6%.

The number one thing that students note about the University of Pennsylvania’s campus is that it is visually appealing. UPenn is in the middle of an urban, city area, yet filled with greenery so that the beautiful architectural structures do not become monotonous. 

The University of Pennsylvania admissions team looks for a number of things when going through applications– a comprehensive review of your application, what kind of preparation you did in high school, standardized testing, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, essays, interviews, supplementary materials (portfolios, music/art samples, an additional letter of recommendation, etc.), and the incoming class profile. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • The College is in a city, so if you are looking for an urban campus, this is a great choice for you
  • University of Pennsylvania is test-optional for the upcoming school year

Also see: Insider tips as to what goes on in an admissions office

Closing thoughts for students

Now you’ve seen an overview of the hardest colleges to get into. Ultimately, all of these difficult colleges to get into have many similarities. First of all, they are all looking for similar things– most using a holistic approach to review applications and wanting a well-rounded student that their community will benefit from, and vice versa. 

Another thing that all of these universities have in common is that most of their top programs are the same. Each university can teach you something different in each program, so this is something to think about.

Additional resources

Hoping to find some essay help for a few of these universities to take off some of that college admissions pressure? We’ve got you covered. You can check out our articles on these top colleges supplemental essays to start. We can also help you decide how many colleges to apply to, how to choose a college, and how to plan a college tour. And to help your admittance chances, try checking out what looks good on a college application. Best of luck, and make sure you apply for all the scholarships you qualify for while you are eligible! 

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Frequently asked questions about the hardest colleges to gain admittance to 

Would I get more financial aid if the school is more difficult to get into?

Each school varies in regard to how they distribute aid.  However, you can apply for outside scholarships at any school that you are applying to. Scholarships360 has tons of options for scholarships to apply for outside of what specific schools can offer.

Why are these schools so difficult to get into?

Although each of these schools are highly selective, it is the most sought after programs that are the reason for the low acceptance rates. For example, Harvard is known for its Economics programs and Duke is known for its computer science program. Programs that they are less well-known tend to be less competitive.

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