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How to Get Into the Ivy League

Harvard. Princeton. Yale. Columbia. They’re some of the most prestigious schools in the world. For many students, attending one of them has been a dream since childhood. For others, acceptance into the Ivy League seems almost impossible to obtain. Regardless, everyone agrees that applying to Ivy League schools is arduous, stressful, and a bit mysterious.

If you’re in high school and beginning to plan your next steps, you might be wondering how to get into the Ivy League. Read on for comprehensive information on how Ivy League admissions work and what you can do to make your application stand out.

What does Ivy League mean?

The Ivy League refers to a group of eight elite colleges in the northeastern United States: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). Many people don’t realize that the term “Ivy League” originates from the athletic conference that is made up of those eight schools.

In popular culture, Ivy League schools are renowned for being some of the most prestigious and selective colleges in the world. However, there are many other elite universities that are not technically in the Ivy League. Schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford regularly rank within the top two or three schools in the world, but are not members of the Ivy League. Some people use the term “Ivy Plus” to refer to both the eight Ivy League schools and additional prestigious schools that sit at the top of global university rankings.

What schools are in the Ivy League?

There are eight schools in the Ivy League: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). Each school is unique for many reasons, including location, structure of student life and activities, degrees offered, exposure to graduate programs, and more. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are often regarded as the most prestigious Ivy League schools; some use the acronym “HYP” to refer to that trio of elite colleges.

Harvard University

Harvard University is one of the most prestigious universities in the world; as of 2022, it is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the #1 global university*. Harvard is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few miles from downtown Boston. Harvard’s current acceptance rate is 4.01%.

Yale University

Yale University, located in New Haven, Connecticut, is a prestigious liberal arts university. Currently ranked #12 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*, Yale’s most recent acceptance rate was 4.62%.

Princeton University

Princeton University is regarded as one of the most prestigious schools in the Ivy League. It is located in Princeton, New Jersey, about an hour and a half away from New York City. Princeton is currency ranked #16 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*, and has an acceptance rate of 3.98%.

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, New Hampshire, is one of the most remote Ivy League schools. It is currently tied for #247 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*, though holds the #13 spot for national universities (within the U.S.). Dartmouth’s acceptance rate is 6.17%.

Brown University

Brown University is an Ivy League college known for its strong pre-medicine program and flexible curriculum. Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown is currently tied for #119 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*. Brown’s most recent acceptance rate was 5.4%.

Columbia University

Columbia University is the only Ivy League school located in New York City. It is also one of the most prestigious, currently ranked #6 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*. Columbia most recently admitted 3.9% of applicants into its Class of 2025.

Cornell University

Cornell University is unique among the Ivy League in that it is a land-grant university that received federal land for its founding. Located in Ithaca, New York (upstate from New York City), Cornell is currently ranked #22 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*. It’s most recent acceptance rate was 8.7%.

University of Pennsylvania (UPenn)

The University of Pennsylvania is one of the most urban Ivy League colleges. Located close to downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, UPenn is highly regarded for its business programs. It is currently ranked #13 in global universities by U.S. News and World Report*, with a 5.9% acceptance rate.

How hard is it to get into the Ivy League?

It is very difficult to get into the Ivy League. In fact, Ivy League colleges have some of the lowest acceptance rates of any schools in the world. In the most recent admissions cycle for the class of 2025, Ivy League acceptance rates ranged between 3.9% (Columbia) and 8.7% (Cornell).

Ivy League acceptance rates have gotten lower recently due to record-large applicant pools. Due to housing capacity and other constraints, most Ivy League colleges have to admit roughly the same amount of students each year. As the Ivies increase in popularity and draw tens of thousands more applications each year, without admitting more students, they get more and more selective.

Many people think that the only way to get into an Ivy League school is to be the child of a billionaire, be the top soccer player in the entire world, or other similarly unattainable feats. While those students do have an easier time than most getting into the Ivies, the Ivy League routinely accepts thousands of students who simply did very well in school and got involved in their communities. Read on to learn more about how to get into the Ivy League despite ever-lowering acceptance rates.

What are Ivy League admissions officers looking for?

Ivy League admissions officers read tens of thousands of applications per year; in the most recent admissions cycle, Harvard received 57,786 applications. With all of those applications to get through, admissions officers focus on certain key criteria to review a huge number of applicants very quickly.

The three most important components of an Ivy League application are academics, extracurricular activities, and essays. Those three factors make up the vast majority of an admissions officer’s judgement about a particular application. Two additional components, letters of recommendation and interviews, are also taken into consideration; however, they are taken less seriously than the first three criteria.

It’s important to note that admissions officers don’t review each application the same way. Applicants are assessed differently depending on how distinctive they are within the applicant pool. For example, colleges look to maintain a certain racial balance within their accepted class, so it can be harder to gain acceptance as a member of a racial group that sends in more applications; this fact makes it more difficult to stand out as an Asian-American applicant. Geographic diversity also matters: it’s more difficult to stand out as a student from New York City or Boston than it is to gain acceptance as a student from a small town far away from the northeastern United States.

Regardless of demographics or location, the best thing that any student can do to get into the Ivy League is to focus on the following components of your application.

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Academics

Academics, including both grades and test scores, are the most important thing to focus on when targeting Ivy League acceptance. It is exceedingly difficult to get into an Ivy League school if your grades or test scores are below average; even “legacies” (students who are more often accepted to Ivies because members of their family are alumni) and students who are admitted for rare personal achievements have to meet baseline academic standards.

Academics are typically the first thing that Ivy admissions officers assess when opening an application. Unfortunately, if your grades and test scores aren’t up to par, officers might skip the rest of your application and move on to the next one.

So, what grades do you need to get into an Ivy League school? While it may sound disheartening, perfection is the best thing to focus on for Ivy-quality academics. From the very beginning of high school, you should strive to take the most challenging classes available at your school, get an A in every single class, and attain a perfect or near-perfect score on the SAT or ACT when it’s time to take those tests. In a recent survey of Harvard freshmen, 54% reported entering Harvard with a 4.0 high school GPA.

For more on academics that will keep you on par with each Ivy League school, check out The College Monk’s guide on the average GPA needed to get into the Ivies.

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Extracurriculars

While academics are very important (good grades and test scores are often the baseline requirement for admission into the Ivy League), extracurriculars are also a huge piece of the puzzle. Because perfect grades and test scores are so common for students applying to the Ivies, it’s necessary to stand out with unique, impressive extracurricular activities. Very few, if any, students who simply got perfect grades and test scores but did nothing else during high school are admitted to the Ivies.

You might be wondering: what are the best extracurriculars to get into the Ivy League? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. There isn’t any magical club or sport that will guarantee admission. Instead, admissions officers are focused on a few factors when evaluating your extracurriculars: impressiveness of your achievements, genuine commitment, and fit with the rest of your application.

It’s pretty obvious that one of the best things you can do to get accepted into the Ivy League is have impressive extracurricular activities. That includes holding leadership positions in clubs or sports teams, winning awards for your achievements, and/or doing something so unique that very few other high schoolers are able to pull it off. Examples of highly impressive extracurricular activities include being a top-ranked tennis player in your state, founding a business that is featured in the press, or being the captain of a nationally-competitive quiz bowl team.

But before you go stuffing countless extracurriculars into your schedule, remember that admissions officers also value genuine commitment. They look negatively upon students who clearly joined 10 clubs just to pad their college application. Instead, focus on a small handful (usually 2-4) extracurriculars and nurture them over time: stay involved for all four years of high school, take on successive leadership roles, and be able to point to the impact they’ve had on your development.

Finally, it’s important to ensure that your extracurricular profile aligns with the rest of your application. If your grades and test scores are highest in STEM, and you write passionately about wanting to become a doctor in your essays, being a semi-active member of the creative writing club won’t help your application very much. Instead, devote your time toward standing out in your chosen field: volunteer at a hospital, conduct medical research with a local professor, or other activities that can fit seamlessly into your personal narrative. Find out more about honing a personal narrative later on in this post.

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Essays

Academics and extracurriculars are the two most important components of your Ivy League application, but essays are the third-most vital piece. Essays, including both your primary Common App essay and any supplemental essays for each school, give you a chance to give more life to your application beyond a list of grades and extracurriculars.

Obviously, the writing quality of your essays is important. If you don’t feel confident as a writer, start planning ahead for your college essays a long time in advance. Look up the Common App essay prompts (they usually remain the same each year) and start jotting down ideas. Draft paragraphs or full essays months in advance, and solicit help from parents, teachers, and even fellow students to edit and refine your writing.

However, many students are capable of writing a well-worded, grammatically-correct essay. Your responses need to take it to the next level with topics that are unique, thoughtful, personal, and consistent with the rest of your application. Don’t be afraid to go deep in your college essays: stories about your childhood, events that have shaped your upbringing, and philosophies that shape your view of the world often make the best essays. One thing is for sure: writing a generic essay about why you’re an excellent student and really want to get into the Ivy League won’t cut it.

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Recommendations and Interviews

Academics, extracurriculars, and essays are by far the most important components of your application. However, there are two additional sections that you’ll present to admissions officers: letters of recommendation and interviews. While these two factors are less important than the rest of your application, you should still take care to ensure that they are high-quality.

Letters of recommendation typically come from at least two teachers, one guidance counselor, and (optionally) other coaches or mentors that play a role in your life. The best way to submit high-quality letters of recommendation is to be sure they’re authored by people who genuinely know you and can write a letter with specific anecdotes about your character. Getting letters from the most prestigious people you can find, even if they barely know you, is usually not a good strategy. Sure, if one of your closest family friends who has known you from birth also happens to be a high-profile alum from the school you’re applying to, their letter is worth including. But doing cold outreach to the most famous people you know and having them submit a templated letter could actually hurt your application.

As a last step in your admissions process, you’ll probably conduct alumni interviews for each of the Ivy League schools you applied to. These interviews can be nerve-wracking, but remember: your goal is simply to be yourself. These interviews usually don’t make or break your candidacy; try to reiterate your background and reasons for applying to the school, ask a few good questions of the alumnus, and you’ll have done your best.

How to Get Into the Ivy League: Developing a Personal Brand or Narrative

As you work on each component of your Ivy League application, there’s one important thing to focus on: developing a personal brand or narrative. College admissions are all about your distinctiveness as an applicant, more than your individual test scores or extracurricular activities. To stand out to admissions officers, you want to communicate a clear story of self that ties in each component of your application.

For example, you might be a passionate writer. Great! If you were to make that passion the focus of your college application, you could: take high-level English courses and get good grades, join creative writing clubs and take leadership positions, enter writing competitions, develop your own course for younger students on creative writing, and (of course) write your college essays about your love for the written word. Admissions officers will clearly grasp your love for writing when they page through each section of your application.

The same rule applies for any number of passions or personal narratives. Your goal is to develop a clear theme within your academics and extracurriculars “on paper,” and then expand upon your narrative in your essays. Learn more about H&C Education’s philosophy of building a personal brand here.

Frequently Asked Questions About Getting Into the Ivy League

Even after reading all about academics, extracurriculars, essays, and more, you might still have some specific questions about how to get into the Ivy League. Here are a few of the questions we receive most often:

What is the easiest Ivy League school to get into?

According to acceptance rates alone, there are a few Ivies that are easier to get into than others. In the most recent admissions cycle for the Class of 2025, Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth, and Brown had the highest acceptance rates.

However, the real answer depends on each individual student. For example, a student who runs a thriving business might have an easier time getting accepted to UPenn, a more business-oriented (and home to Wharton business school), than Harvard or Yale, which prioritize a liberal arts education.

Are schools like MIT, Stanford, and Duke in the Ivy League?

No, they are not. The Ivy League includes the eight schools that make up the Ivy League athletic conference: those are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).

However, other top-tier universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, Berkeley, Duke, and others are often regarded equally with the Ivy League. Some people use the term “Ivy Plus” to refer to the broader collection of Ivy League schools and non-Ivy equivalents.

Can I get into Harvard with bad grades?

The short answer is: probably not. It is very difficult to get into any Ivy League school with truly bad grades, such as a C average or below. There are certain cases where a student’s incredible achievements outside of school, and/or personal hardships that made academics difficult, can reduce the impact of grades on their application. However, for the vast majority of students, any grades below a B will make acceptance nearly impossible.

What are the differences between the Ivy League schools?

Each Ivy League college is unique in its own way.

Some are very urban: Columbia, Harvard, and UPenn are located in major East Coast cities (New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia respectively). Dartmouth and Cornell are located in more rural areas with access to nature.

Some schools focus more on liberal arts than others. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown have a particular focus on a well-rounded liberal arts education; some students aren’t interested in that philosophy, and prefer to study more pre-professional majors. Schools like Cornell, UPenn, and Columbia, are great for that, with specific schools that offer degrees in direct pre-professional fields.

Student life and culture also differs between Ivy League schools. Students at schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton live in residential colleges where they dine and study. Brown is known for a more unique student body that welcomes nontraditional thinkers.

In general, it’s always a good idea to spend time researching each school you’re interested in applying to. Blog posts, faculty interviews, and conversations with current students can all help reveal the differences between each Ivy League school.

Can I afford the Ivy League?

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Ivy League is that tuition is too expensive for the average person. While the sticker prices on an Ivy League education are huge (average tuition and fees are almost $60,000), few realize that the Ivy League offers some of the most generous financial aid programs of any schools in the world. In fact, many low-income or middle-class students from the United States would pay less to attend a school like Harvard than they would to attend their local state university.

Admissions to all Ivy League schools are need-blind, meaning that financial aid applications and college applications are read separately, and admissions officers do not take need into account when assessing a candidate’s fit. While the media is full of stories of wealthy individuals gaining unfair access to Ivy League schools, the reality is that all Ivies accept thousands of low- and middle-income students each year, many of whom pay nothing to attend.

Looking for individualized help as you plan how to get into the Ivy League? Contact us for a free consultation to find out how our proven college admissions consulting services can boost your chances.

* While we cite U.S. News and World Report rankings in this blog post, it’s important to be wary of college rankings. Establishing clear hierarchies of the “best” schools ignores all of the nuance that goes into a school decision for each particular student; the best school for one student is not the best school for another. For example, research rankings for specific majors you’re interested in: you might be surprised that many top 10 lists for specific majors don’t include Ivy League schools!

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