Ivy League schools are often thought of as the “best of the best,” “top-tier schools,” and synonymous with the most academically rigorous schools in the nation. It might seem like the only students who get in are certified brainiacs or who have been preparing to apply their whole lives.
But, what exactly is an Ivy League school and why do people talk about them like they’re the end-all and be-all of college admissions? Let’s start by breaking down what makes a school “Ivy League.”
The Ivy League is a conference— part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)— made up of eight schools:
Brown University in Providence, R.I.
Columbia University in New York, N.Y
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.
University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa.
Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
All this means is that they happen to play sports against each other, just like the Atlantic Coast Conference, or the Big Ten conference.
So, the underwhelming truth is that being part of the Ivy League doesn’t necessarily make a school “better” than a school outside of the Ivy League. There are plenty of schools with similar academic rigor and prestige that aren’t part of the Ivy League, many of which you’re probably familiar with, like Stanford University or MIT.
That being said, all eight Ivy League schools do share a set list of characteristics that make them highly sought after. Let’s break them down:
Ivy League schools are some of the oldest in the country.
One reason you’ve probably heard so much about Ivy League schools is because they’ve been around for a long time. Cornell University, the “youngest” of the Ivy League, was founded in 1865. Harvard University, by comparison, was established in 1636. That’s 140 years older than the U.S. itself!
Why does that matter? This means Ivy League schools carry a lot of recognition and have a vast network of alumni all over the world. If you attend one of these schools, you become part of that network and the many opportunities they have to offer.
Ivy League schools are highly selective.
This is probably the most important distinction to make about Ivy League schools. Because of their prestige and recognition, these eight schools receive the most applications in the country. In 2021, Brown and Harvard received nearly 50,000 and 60,000 applicants, respectively.
However, seats at these schools are obviously limited, which means only a small percentage of students are admitted. The acceptance rates for Ivy League schools are notoriously low— typically less than 10%, and sometimes less than 5%. These rates have been even lower post COVID-19 as well.
While there are plenty of other highly selective schools across the U.S. (MIT’s acceptance rate in 2021 was less than 7%), all Ivy League schools are extremely selective and should be considered reach schools on your list of colleges to which you are applying.
Being highly selective schools means that these schools are extremely competitive to get into— meaning that while the admissions process is still holistic, your GPA and SAT do play a crucial role in proving you are equipped to handle the academic rigor at these schools.
At Columbia, for example, 95% of freshman students admitted in 2020 were in the top ten percent of their class, with the middle 50% of students scoring between 1450 and 1570 on their SATs. If you’re interested in applying to any of the Ivy League schools, competitive grades and test scores play a large role.
Ivy League schools are private universities.
All Ivy League schools are private institutions, which means these schools are funded mainly, if not entirely, from tuition costs and donations, as opposed to public universities which are funded by their state government. Because Ivy League schools don’t receive public funding, their tuition rates are significantly higher than the lower tuition rates you’ll find at public universities.
However, this doesn’t mean the affording and attending an Ivy League school has to be out of reach. Through private contributions and donations, these schools are more likely to have enough funding to offer generous financial aid packages to students, with substantial money set aside for those who demonstrate financial need. You’d be surprised to find that in many cases, attending an Ivy League school can cost about the same or even lower than a public university through the grants and scholarship opportunities they offer.
So, there are a lot of specific characteristics shared by Ivy League universities. Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a good number of other colleges and universities across the U.S. that share similar traits— making them just as, if not more, competitive than some Ivy League schools.
Stanford University, MIT, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University and Duke University are all examples of competitive, private universities with strong academic programs that are highly selective. Ultimately, it’s more important to focus on applying to schools that are the best fit for your specific goals, rather than create a list based on any special distinction or prestige.
Ivy League schools are a great goal to set your sights on and offer incredible opportunities for their students, but remember: while all Ivy League schools are elite, not all elite schools are Ivy League.