How Ivy League Admissions Work

The campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. See more investing pictures.
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Nearly 30,000 exceptionally qualified students applied for 2,131 places in the Harvard University undergraduate class of 2013. That's an acceptance rate of 7.32 percent. At Princeton University, 21,964 applicants fought for 2,181 spots. In total, the eight colleges in the so-called Ivy League collected more than 200,000 applications from the nation's (and the world's) top-performing high school students -- and only sent acceptance letters to 11.9 percent of them [source: Hernandez College Consulting]. That's what we call selective.

The term "Ivy League" was born in the 1930s as a name for the fledgling football league that included eight prominent Northeastern colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale. Today, the Ivy League is less synonymous with sports than its academic rigor, professional achievement and exclusivity.

According to U.S. News & World Report, there are five Ivy League schools among the top 10 universities in the United States. The other three Ivies make the top 20. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are the perennial powerhouses, regularly swapping the top three spots in the national rankings.

Even as the selectivity of America's colleges remains flat -- one study says that colleges are less selective overall than they were in the 1950s -- the Ivy League draws more and more applications for roughly the same amount of spots [source: Ruiz].

The tightly concentrated demand at the Ivy League schools can be at least partially explained by the power of the Ivy League brand name, which many high-achieving students (and their parents) equate with the only path to success and wealth. The increasing selectivity of the Ivy League admissions process only exacerbates the problem, creating hordes of Ivy-obsessed students who place unhealthy pressure on themselves to be accepted.

The danger of the brand-name, "bumper-sticker" mentality is that an Ivy League education is being sold as a product rather than a valuable experience. And students, in a desperate attempt to obtain that product at any cost, sometimes turn the application process into a marketing campaign, or worse, a business [source: O'Brien]. They hire expensive counselors and coaches and tutors who "package" their skills, talents and experience into something no admissions officer can resist.

If you're intrigued by the Ivy League, keep reading to learn more about the credentials sought by these elite universities and how you can improve your odds of admission.

Ivy League Admissions by the Numbers

While all of the Ivy League schools insist that their admissions processes are about more than grade point averages, SAT scores and class rank, you won't get your foot in the door without some impressive numbers.

The SAT I test is an excellent example. Let's look at the SAT score ranges from freshmen who enrolled at four Ivy League colleges in the fall of 2008. These scores represent the range from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile (in other words, 25 percent of enrolled students scores higher than this range and 25 percent scored lower).

Harvard University

  • SAT Critical Reading: 690 to 800
  • SAT Math: 700 to 780
  • SAT Writing: 690 to 790

Princeton University

  • SAT Critical Reading: 690 to 800
  • SAT Math: 700 to 790
  • SAT Writing: 690 to 780

Brown University

  • SAT Critical Reading: 650 to 760
  • SAT Math: 670 to 780
  • SAT Writing: 660 to 770

University of Pennsylvania

  • SAT Critical Reading: 650 to 740
  • SAT Math: 680 to 780
  • SAT Writing: 670 to 760

[source: NCES]

The same is true for the ACT. A quick look at the 50th percentile range finds ACT scores well above average for most enrolled students: Harvard (31-35), Princeton (30-34), Yale (29-34), Dartmouth (28-34), and Brown (28-33) [source: NCES].

It's interesting to note that Ivy League applicants heavily favor the SAT over the ACT, even though all Ivies accept both. At Harvard, 98 percent of accepted students submitted SAT scores and only 25 percent submitted ACT results. At Princeton and Cornell, it's the same story: 98 and 22 percent, and 99 and 30 percent respectively [source: NCES].

Web sites like the National Center for Education Statistics don't publish the median GPAs of enrolled students, but there's a common understanding that the Ivies only admit students with stellar GPAs. A perfect 4.0 (or above, with weighted grades) isn't required, but low B or C students would have to demonstrate remarkable achievements in other areas (extracurricular involvement, test scores) to balance out "average" grades [source: College Confidential].

If you want a quick assessment of how your numbers stack up with other applicants, try the Academic Index Calculator on the College Confidential website. The Academic Index (AI) is a ranking from one to nine that's used by Ivy League schools to determine the academic eligibility of athletes. It uses a standard formula that combines SAT I and SAT II scores with class rank and GPA to arrive at a single number. Applicants with an AI of eight or nine get into the Ivies at a much higher rate [source: College Confidential].

If your AI tops out at a five or six, don't give up hope. While numbers are important, the Ivy League admissions process evaluates your potential from every possible angle. Keep reading to learn about Ivy League admissions beyond the numbers.

Ivy League Applicants

Ivy League colleges like Princeton look for intelligent, yet well-rounded students.
Ivy League colleges like Princeton look for intelligent, yet well-rounded students.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Dave Berry, writing for College Confidential, compares Ivy League admissions to an elite piano competition. With such a talented pool of competitors, judges must look beyond technical the perfectionists to find the true musicians, the rare individuals who embody the music and give it life [source: Berry]. Successful Ivy League applicants must possess a similar quality -- an intangible, unique spark -- that separates them from the near-perfect crowd.

To identify this spark, the Ivy League admissions process is designed to be "holistic," considering the whole student rather than just his or her test scores and GPAs. When you move away from numbers, you move from highly objective to highly subjective criteria. Harvard Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons calls his school's subjective criteria, "intellectual imagination, strength of character, and... ability to exercise good judgment" [source: Fitzsimmons]. The Cornell Admissions Web site says it looks for students with "intellectual potential, strength of character and love of learning."

Since every applicant brings a unique set of accomplishments to the table -- artistic abilities, volunteer work, leadership experience -- Ivy League admissions committees are given the difficult task of comparing apples to oranges. The Harvard Dean of Admissions says that it's not uncommon for a single application to receive five full readings before a decision is made and that committees have been known to debate the merits of an individual applicant for over an hour to arrive at even a preliminary decision [source: Fitzsimmons].

The standard description of a successful Ivy League applicant is "well-rounded," an individual who has proven excellence and unusual achievement across a range of academic subjects and extracurricular pursuits. The Harvard dean says that a well-rounded application shows dedication and is an excellent predictor of future success. That said, the Harvard Web site acknowledges that some successful applicants are also "well-lopsided," showing remarkable talent in a single, focused discipline.

While there are no foolproof "tricks" for getting into an Ivy League school, there are plenty of books and admissions insiders offering advice about getting your application to the top of the pile. We'll look at some of those strategies on the next page.

Ivy League Admissions Game Plan

The road to a fat envelope from an Ivy League school starts in kindergarten. Parents should encourage independent reading and expose children to a broad range of subjects and activities (arts, music, sports, science, computers and more), identifying areas where the child has particular talents and interests. Parents should also build close relationships with teachers, administrators and guidance counselors [source: Berry].

Don't overlook those early standardized tests given in elementary and middle schools. High test scores can open doors to special college prep programs like A Better Chance and Prep for Prep. If you feel like your child has exceptional academic abilities, have him or her take the SAT as early as middle school. A high score could mean a coveted spot at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth or another accelerated gifted program [source: Berry].

This brings up the classic question: public or private high school? With the emergence of magnet schools, charter schools and other independent "public" high schools, that question is more complicated than ever. Research shows that the high schools sending the largest percentage of graduates to Ivy League colleges (so-called "feeder" schools) are almost entirely private schools and highly selective public schools. A 2002 study by Worth magazine found that 94 of the top 100 Ivy League feeder schools were private [source: Coombes].

Don't be thrown by the feeder school statistics, though. The Ivy League isn't stocked entirely with prep school alumni. More than half of the undergrads at Harvard, Princeton and Yale are public school students [source: Coombes]. At the end of the day, Ivy League admissions officers are choosing students rather than their schools, so the right applicant with the right qualifications could come from anywhere [source: Bernstein].

Whatever high school you attend, Ivy League admissions officers want you to take the most rigorous course load possible. This means every available AP or IB course, challenging electives and even summer programs. If your school doesn't offer these courses, do extra work on your own. Read books independently, enter science and arts competitions or take classes at local colleges [source: Coombes].

Study hard for the SATs -- most experts agree that the test is coachable -- and plan to take it several times. Take the SAT II subject exams right after you've completed the related coursework so the material is fresh in your head [source: Berry].

Perhaps most important of all, don't write a generic essay! Ivy League colleges are flooded with applications from students with perfect GPAs and sky-high test scores. The essay is your chance to tell your own story in your original and unique voice [source: Berry]. It's helpful to look at your application from the admissions officers' perspective [source: Steinberg]. They will be trying to determine the unique contributions you will make to their college community. To do that, they need to know who you are, so don't be afraid to take a chance and be yourself.

More and more high school students are hiring private college counselors to give them an edge over the competition. Are they worth the money? Learn more on the next page.

Private College Counselors

Private counselors charge lots of money to help students get into Ivy League schools like Columbia University in New York City.
Private counselors charge lots of money to help students get into Ivy League schools like Columbia University in New York City.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Private college counselors are independent guidance counselors who charge thousands of dollars (sometimes tens of thousands of dollars) to coach, tutor and counsel a student through the college admission process. Private counselors are often former admissions officers at prestigious colleges (a few, believe it or not, are still on the job) or experienced private high school guidance counselors who have branched out on their own [source: Jaschik].

Why would anyone pay the equivalent of a year's college tuition to an admissions coach? It turns out that a fully engaged guidance counselor can be a powerful advocate for Ivy League admissions. Experienced guidance counselors at competitive high schools build long-term relationships with admissions officers at the top colleges. When it's crunch time for college admission decisions, guidance counselors make "due diligence calls" to check on the status of their students [source: Gross]. If an application is on the fence, the counselor might provide additional information to seal the deal or assure the college that it's the student's top choice.

Some high schools have a huge advantage over others when it comes to guidance counselor resources. The Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. is a public magnet school that's also the top-ranked high school in America, according to U.S. News & World Report. The school has seven full-time guidance counselors [source: Bernstein]. But what if your school only has one counselor? Or your particular counselor does a lousy job? Should you be left out of the running?

Before hiring a private counselor, you should consider the ethical issues surrounding the profession. Some counselors flaunt their inside connections with admissions offices at certain Ivy League colleges, implying that if you're willing to pay their exorbitant fees, they can get you in. Also, many people feel that private counselors only increase the educational opportunity gap between those who can afford such a luxury and those who can't.

If you feel strongly that a private counselor is a good investment, look for someone who is a member of a counseling organization like the National Association for College Admissions Counseling or the Independent Educational Consultants Association [source: Figueroa]. Also look for someone whose goal is to find the best fit for you, not just get you into the best school.

All of the Ivy League schools are private institutions that charge high tuitions. But what about qualified students who can't afford $50,000 a year to attend Harvard or Yale? Keep reading to learn more about Ivy League financial aid.

Ivy League Financial Aid

While Ivy League colleges have some of the lowest acceptance rates in the country, they also have some of the most generous financial aid policies. That's because they boast insane institutional endowments. Even after losing more than 27 percent in 2009, Harvard's endowment was still $26 billion at the end of the fiscal year [source: Harvard Gazette]. Yale's stands at $22.9 billion, down 24.6 percent [source: Yale Public Affairs]. But even as their endowments sustained severe losses, many Ivy League schools expanded their commitment to low-income students.

Admission to all Ivy League schools is "need-blind." Yale was the first to institute the policy in 1966. Under this policy, all candidates are evaluated for admission with no regard to ability to pay. The overall message is: If you can get into one of these highly selective schools, they will do everything in their power to help you afford it.

In recent years, Harvard, Princeton and Yale introduced sliding scale tuition policies that offer significant discounts to students from middle-to-lower-income households. In some cases, no payment is required.

In the case of Yale and Harvard, if a student's family earns less than $60,000 a year, they will pay nothing for their education. At both schools, the percentage the student pays goes up incrementally (from zero to 10 percent of annual income) with family earnings of $60,000 to $120,000 a year [source: Fitzsimmons and Yale Public Affairs]. In 2008, Dartmouth eliminated tuition for students from families with incomes under $75,000 and extended its need-blind admissions policy to international students [source: Dartmouth Public Affairs].

Princeton is unique among Ivies (and all U.S. colleges for that matter) for its "no loans" policy for all students. If you get into Princeton, the college will supply grants -- not loans -- to pay for all demonstrated need, allowing each and every student to graduate debt-free. The "no loans" policy proved incredibly successful for attracting low-income applicants to Princeton. From 1998-99 (when the no loans system was launched) to 2005-06, matriculation of low-income student doubled at Princeton [source: FinAid].

The only bad news about financial aid and scholarships at Ivy League schools is that they are entirely need-based. Ivy League schools are prohibited from offering athletic scholarships and none of the schools offer merit-based or talent-based awards. That said, Ivy League students are free to win merit-based scholarships from outside institutions and organizations, including state, federal and private scholarships.

Keep reading for lots more information and resources about higher education.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bernstein, Elizabeth. "The Price of Admission." The Wall Street Journal. April 2, 2004
  • Berry, Dave. "Ivy Admissions: Can It Really Be That Hard?" College Confidential.
  • College Confidential. "The Academic Index"
  • College Confidential. "Ask the Dean: Ivy League GPA Requirements"
  • Coombes, Andrea. "Ivy league's proving grounds." CBS MarketWatch. April 26, 2002
  • Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs. "Dartmouth announces new financial aid initiative." January 1, 2008
  • Figueroa, Ralph S. A Private School Counselor Offers His Take on Private Counselors." The New York Times. "November 9, 2009
  • Fitzsimmons, William R. "Guidance Office: Answers from Harvard's Dean, Part 1." September 10, 2009
  • Gross, Jane. "At Last, College Answers, and a Few Questions." The New York Times. May 7, 2002
  • Harvard Gazette. "Harvard Management Company announced fiscal 2009 results." September 10, 2009
  • Hernandez College Consulting. "Ivy League Admission Statistics for Class of 2013"
  • Jaschik, Scott. "Ethics and Private Admissions Counseling." Inside Higher Ed. February 4, 2008
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "College Navigator"
  • O'Brien, Tia. "Ivy League or Bust." The San Francisco Chronicle. August 20, 2006
  • Ruiz, Rebecca. "Are Colleges Really More Selective?" The New York Times. December 23, 2009
  • Steinberg, Jacques. "Talk to The Times: The Choice Blog." The New York Times. November 2, 2009
  • Yale University Office of Public Affairs. "Yale Cuts Costs for Families and Students"
  • Yale University Office of Public Affairs. "Yale University Releases Endowment Figures." September 22, 2009