What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Two students talking in a room full of glass.

What Are the Hardest Colleges to Get Into?

For high school students who have the dream of getting into a top undergraduate program, the experience can often be one filled with anticipation, excitement and anxiety. The simple reason for that is because the best colleges in the United States are very often the hardest colleges to get into.

With that in mind, it is important to know that just because a school is hard to get into does not mean that it is impossible. Every application cycle, thousands of students get into schools with very low acceptance rates. If you work your hardest inside the classroom and commit your time and energy to passions outside of the classroom, there is no reason why you cannot ultimately join that group of students that make their admissions dreams a reality.

A women with her notes.

Whether you are interested in getting into an Ivy League program like Harvard or Princeton, or a non-Ivy school that is just as prestigious and competitive like MIT or Stanford, there are proven strategies and tactics that any student can utilize in order to increase their chances of success.

That is what AdmissionSight helps instill in the students that we work with every single application cycle. Thanks to our years of experience within the admissions environment, we offer the students that we work with a competitive advantage against the other students all over the world who have the dream of one day attending a top university.

When it comes to one of the top tools that a student can utilize during their application journey, knowledge ranks near the very top. There is no doubt that students who have a better understanding of how the admissions process works – both in general and at specific schools – have a better chance of impressing admissions officers and getting into those schools.

After all, it is much easier to play a game when you know all of the rules! And if you don’t believe us, consider the fact that when it comes to getting into top 10 schools that often have the very lowest acceptance rates in the entire world, AdmissionSight has a historical success rate of approximately 75.0 percent.

That means that three quarters of the students that we have worked with over the years have gotten into schools like Yale, Columbia, Caltech, UChicago and more.

In order to help all of the students out there – no matter if you are an incoming high school freshman or incoming high school senior – get a better idea of the current rankings of toughest schools to get into, we thought that we would do a brief breakdown of some of the schools at the very top of the list.

So, if you are wanting to learn more about the colleges with the lowest acceptance rates, what colleges are the hardest to get into and how to get into the hardest universities, then you have absolutely come to the right place!

Let’s start breaking down the list of the hardest colleges to get into and go into some of the most effective strategies and tools that high school students can use when they are trying to overcome the odds and get in.

Let’s get into it!

What are the hardest colleges to get into?

When it comes to answering this question, the metric by which it is answered must first be established. Because the actual difficulty of the admissions process is somewhat subjective, and because the admissions process itself varies slightly from one school to the next, the easiest way to determine which schools are the hardest to get into is to look at the school’s acceptance rate. If you are unfamiliar with the term, rest assured that it really is quite simple.

A woman looking for the perfect university for her

The acceptance rate simply reflects the percentage of students that get into a given school compared to the total number of students that applied in that year. So, if 2,500 students end up getting accepted to a school that saw 50,000 applicants that year, then that school’s overall acceptance rate will be 5.0 percent.

Because the number of students that apply to certain schools – as well as the number of students that get in – tend to fluctuate from one year to the next, the ranked list of hardest schools often changes slightly.

However, there is no doubt that the schools that show up at the top of the list very often end up appearing there year after year. So, in order to help you get a better understanding of which schools are the hardest, we’ve decided to break down the list school by school. Just before we get started, we first want to clarify just a few things.

First off, we want to make it clear that even the “easiest” schools to get into on this list are still considered amongst the elite of the elite in terms of both prestige and competitiveness in the United States. Consider the fact that there are over 2,800 four-year colleges in the United States and these are just the top 20.

Secondly, we wanted to clarify that the difference between the hardest school to get into on this list and the easiest school to get into is quite small. In fact, it’s less than 5.0 percent in terms of the overall acceptance rate. What that means is that the kind of student that gets into the hardest school on this list is going to be very similar to the student that gets into the easiest. They are both going to have impressive academic records, fantastic extracurriculars, unique personal essays and convincing letters of recommendation.

Truly, getting into any of these schools is a major achievement! With that out of the way, let’s get started.

One final note here is that some of these schools decided not to publish their admissions statistics for the most recent application cycle (2021-22) for students who will be part of the graduating class of 2026. We will label the schools that have statistics from previous application cycles.

20. Cornell University

To get us started, we have the first Ivy League school mentioned on this list. All eight will be listed before this ranking is finished. Like most schools on this list, Cornell admissions officers look at a student’s academic rigor in high school, their talent and ability, their character and much more. Just like all of the other Ivies (and all the other schools on this list), Cornell boasted an acceptance rate below 9.0 percent in 2023.

  • Acceptance Rate (Class of 2025) – 8.7 percent
  • Applicants (Class of 2025) – 67,830
  • Median SAT score – 1510
  • Media high school GPA – 4.07

19. Barnard College

Closely affiliated with Ivy League school Columbia University, Barnard College is a very small, all-women’s college that sits in the middle of the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Barnard is an incredibly prestigious school with scores of famous alumni and is widely considered to be the best women’s college in the world.

  • Acceptance Rate – 8.0 percent
  • Applicants – 12,009
  • Median SAT score – 1478
  • Media high school GPA – 4.0

18. Northwestern University

Another fantastic school that is often talked about alongside the Ivy Leagues, Northwestern offers a wonderful combination of top-tier academics along with the “classic” college experience, with Greek Life, football Saturdays and much more. Along with fantastic business and engineering programs, Northwestern is also known to foster some of the most impactful creative voices of the last generations thanks to their journalism and acting programs.

  • Acceptance Rate – 7.0 percent
  • Applicants – 51,554
  • Median SAT score – 1520
  • Media high school GPA – 4.1

17.  Swarthmore College

While liberal arts schools used to be seen as an easier bet than big research universities, the tables have certainly turned in recent years. In fact, applications to liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore have tripled since the year 2000. This is far from the only liberal arts school that will be mentioned in this list.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.95 percent
  • Applicants – 14,700
  • Median SAT score – 1489
  • Media high school GPA – 4.05

16. Amherst College

Amherst is one of the growing list of schools in the United States that no longer require students to take specific courses or have a specific distribution of credits. Instead, students have full reign to pursue their specific areas of interest and passions without having to worry about fulfilling credits in areas that they are not at all interested in. The school is also one of the oldest in the country, and is one of the few schools that is older than the country itself, first opening in 1759.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.93 percent
  • Applicants – 14,800
  • Median SAT score – 1480
  • Media high school GPA – 4.07

15. Pomona College

Located in Claremont, California, Pomona College is one of several schools that is located in the great state of California. Though it is located in California, the education style at Pomona is much more closely in tune with the elite liberal arts colleges of the east coast. It is definitely one of the hardest colleges to get into no matter how long your list of achievements are.

  • Acceptance Rate (Class of 2025) – 6.6 percent
  • Applicants (Class of 2025) – 11,620
  • Median SAT score – 1499
  • Media high school GPA – 4.04

14. John Hopkins University

The students that make it to this school are in the top 10.0 percent of their high schools’ graduating class in terms of academic success, so being at the top of the academic charts is basically an unofficial prerequisite to get into this fantastic east coast school. While Johns Hopkins is not part of the Ivy League, it is a similarly impressive destination for undergrad students to end up.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.5 percent
  • Applicants – 37,150
  • Median SAT score – 1540
  • Media high school GPA – 3.92

13. Duke University

Though Duke University is predominantly known across the country for its incredible men’s basketball team, it is also known as one of the premier academic institutions in the world as well.

Front view of the Duke Chapel tower in early fall,

Just like the Ivy leagues, Duke is known to routinely reject students that are at the very top of their high school classes even if they have near-perfect standardized test scores. With these kinds of schools, it is often about the other factors – such as extracurriculars, personal essays and more – that make the difference.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.2 percent
  • Applicants – 50,002
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 4.13

12. Dartmouth College

Dartmouth is one of the eight Ivy League schools and was once considered to be a far better bet than many of the other schools in that elite group. However, things have changed rather rapidly at Dartmouth and the acceptance rate today is now three times lower than what it was just a decade ago. Now it finds itself just outside the top 10 of the hardest schools to get into in the entire country.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.1 percent
  • Applicants – 47,152
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 4.11

11. Vanderbilt University

Though Vanderbilt is not an Ivy League school, it is considered to be part of the “Southern Ivies,” which include prestigious and selective colleges across the southeastern United State. As you can see by its placement on the list, it is just as impressive to get into this school as it is the eight actual Ivy League schools.

  • Acceptance Rate – 6.1 percent
  • Applicants – 47,152
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 3.83

10. University of Pennsylvania

UPenn as it is often called is one of the other Ivies and is an incredibly prestigious and historic school. Not so long ago, Penn was one of the several Ivies that was considered a far easier school to get into than the “Big Three,” but that is clearly no longer the case. Penn has rejected thousands of students in recent years that would have easily gotten into the school not so long ago. Now, it is widely considered amongst the hardest colleges to get into.

  • Acceptance Rate – 5.68 percent
  • Applicants – 56,332
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 3.9

9. University of Chicago

UChicago was always considered to be one of the best schools in the country, and that hasn’t changed one bit. The acceptance rate at this school has dipped over the last couple of application cycles just like it has at the other schools on this list. While UChicago is mere minutes away from Northwestern, the college experience is far different.

  • Acceptance Rate – 5.0 percent
  • Applicants –37,977
  • Median SAT score – 1545
  • Media high school GPA – 4.48

8. Brown University

Another notch up on this list, another Ivy League school to claim it. Brown is incredibly prestigious, but is also known (along with Dartmouth) as one of the more open-minded Ivies that is styled more closely to the liberal arts experience. Their Open Curriculum allows students to choose their own direction in their studies and craft unique academic pursuits.

  • Acceptance Rate – 5.0 percent
  • Applicants – 44,503
  • Median SAT score – 1520
  • Media high school GPA – 4.08

7. Yale University

Here it is, the first of the “Big Three” of the Ivy League. When Yale is considering what students to accept from one year to the next, its admissions officers ask the questions, “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?” and “Who will contribute most significantly to Yale’s community?” These are common questions at schools that strongly value its campus and alumni community.

  • Acceptance Rate – 4.46 percent
  • Applicants – 50,015
  • Median SAT score – 1520
  • Media high school GPA – 4.14

6. Princeton University

The second of the “Big Three” of the Ivy League. Along with Yale (and Harvard), these three schools are known as the most historic and (historically) most difficult ivy League schools to get into.

View of the campus of Princeton University, New Jersey, under snow after a winter storm.Though the level of difficulty has changed somewhat in recent years, you can see that they are still regarded amongst the very best schools in the country and world.

  • Acceptance Rate – 3.98 percent
  • Applicants – 37,601
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 3.9

5. MIT

MIT is known for really only accepting students who seem destined to accomplish great things in the world of STEM. Unlike the Ivies, legacy status is not considered at MIT, and the school prides itself at being singularly focused on whether or not a student is the right fit for the school, both academically and culturally.

  • Acceptance Rate – 3.96 percent
  • Applicants – 33,796
  • Median SAT score – 1550
  • Media high school GPA – 4.17

4. Stanford University

Stanford is not only known for its incredible academics, but also for its propensity to identify and educate some of the leading future minds in the world of tech and business. Some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley got their start at Stanford not so long ago.

  • Acceptance Rate – 3.95 percent
  • Applicants – 55,471
  • Median SAT score – 1530
  • Media high school GPA – 3.96

3. Caltech

Directly from the admissions office at this small, but mighty school, the five factors that carry the heaviest weight in the admissions process include rigor of secondary curriculum, standardized test scores (in a normal, non-test-blind year), essays, recommendations, and character/personal qualities.

One of the walkways in Caltech campus

  • Acceptance Rate (Class of 2025) – 3.92 percent
  • Applicants (Class of 2025) – 13,026
  • Median SAT score – Test-blind and does not consider standardized test scores
  • Media high school GPA – 4.19

2. Columbia University

Columbia used to be one of the easier Ivy League schools to get into, but that is no longer the case. As recently as 2011, the acceptance rate was in the double digits at this Manhattan school, but that number is now closer to zero than it is to 10! One of the obvious reasons is because the school is getting far more applicants than it used to.

  • Acceptance Rate – 3.73 percent
  • Applicants – 60,377
  • Median SAT score – 1510
  • Media high school GPA – 4.12

1. Harvard University

No surprises here! Harvard is often the most selective school in the United States and is certainly its most famous. For the class of 2026, it was at the top of the list of the hardest colleges to get into. Year to year, 84.0 percent of students who have gotten into Harvard end up attending, meaning that it is the second choice for an incredibly low number of students. Harvard demands applicants to display top academic ability, extracurricular achievements and much more to get in.

  • Acceptance Rate – 3.19 percent
  • Applicants – 61,221
  • Median SAT score – 1510
  • Media high school GPA – 4.18

Learn how to get into the hardest universities

When it comes to getting into the colleges with the lowest acceptance rates, it is always about much more than just grades. Students have to find important ways to stand out from the crowd. If you are interested in learning how to do just that, contact us at AdmissionSight to schedule a free consultation.



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