As the 2022–2023 school year goes on, the very top of the American college admissions process continues to be incredibly tough. More people are applying to schools that are seen as “elite” and “prestigious” than ever before. At the start of the pandemic, many colleges made it possible to apply without taking a test. This has caused tens of thousands of new people to apply to Ivy League and similar schools. In other words, there have never been so many people trying to “get in” to the colleges that are hardest to get into.
Before we talk about the most difficult colleges to get into, we want to make a few things clear. College Transitions doesn’t want its readers to think that colleges with lower acceptance rates are better than those with acceptance rates that are just a little bit higher. Even though we mostly ranked by acceptance rate (for reasons we’ll explain later), we don’t mean to say that Columbia is better than Yale because it has a 3% acceptance rate and Yale has a 4% acceptance rate. Every school on this list is one of the best in the world and gives its students an excellent education. Again, this isn’t a list of the “best” colleges in order. It’s also not meant to praise ridiculously low acceptance rates. Instead, this list is just meant to tell the reader what the title says: the 25 colleges that are hardest to get into, objectively (or almost objectively) and by the numbers.
The top 25 schools that are hardest to get into
*Unless otherwise stated, acceptance rates are from the Class of 2026. The university has released these numbers, but they are not yet “official.” All SAT scores come from students who will be in the Class of 2025.
1) The University of Harvard
Harvard is the school that other colleges and universities want to be like, and many smart and driven high school students want to go there. 84% of accepted students choose to enroll, which is a crazy high number. In other words, Harvard is rarely a student’s second choice school.
- Acceptance Rate: 3.19%
- 61,221 people applied to be in the Class of 2026. The average SAT score was 1510.
2) The University of Columbia
There have always been almost no chances of getting in here, since the acceptance rate hasn’t been in the double digits since 2011. As part of the university’s “holistic” process, there are seven main things that are given the most weight: the difficulty of the curriculum, class rank, grades, essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and character or personal qualities.
- Acceptance Rate: 3.73%
- 60,377 people applied for the Class of 2026. SAT: 1490-1560
From the admissions office’s point of view, the most important things are the difficulty of the high school curriculum, standardized test scores (in a normal year without test blindness), essays, recommendations, and character/personal qualities. As hard as it is to get into the school, it might be even harder and take even more time to do the work there.
- Acceptance Rate for the Class of 2025: 3.92 percent
- 13,026 people applied for the Class of 2025. SAT: Caltech doesn’t look at SAT scores right now because it doesn’t care about test scores.
4) The University of Stanford
One of the best schools for getting into the tech industry and one of the best research universities in the world are right in the middle of Silicon Valley. Since there are so many great candidates for a small number of spots, it helps to have a hook, or an area where you really shine.
- Acceptance Rate: 3.95% (Class of 2025)
- 55,471 people applied to be in the Class of 2025. The median SAT score was 1530.
MIT is looking for the world’s smartest and most creative engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and people who work in related fields. These people will one day build the world that the rest of us will just live in. MIT is one of the few elite schools that doesn’t look at legacy status. This means that the fact that your mother, grandfather, or brother went to MIT doesn’t help you get in at all.
- Acceptance Rate: 3.96%
- 33,796 people have applied to be in the Class of 2026.
- Median SAT: 1550
6) The University of Princeton
In short, getting into Princeton is a difficult task that even some of the most qualified applicants will likely fail at most of the time. People who are successful usually have GPAs and test scores that are close to perfect and a “hook” that seals the deal.
- Acceptance Rate: 3.98% (Class of 2025)
- Applicants for the Class of 2025: 37,601
- Median SAT: 1530
7) The school Yale
The committee’s process is based on two main questions: “Who is most likely to make the best use of Yale’s resources?” Who will make the biggest difference in the Yale community? People who have great credentials and a history of special skills and achievements that scream “future leader” will do the best.
- Acceptance Rate: 4.46%
- 50,015 people applied to the Class of 2026.
- Average SAT: 1522
8) The school Brown
In a typical year, close to half of the students who were accepted were either the valedictorian or the salutatorian of their high school class. People who want to go to Brown should be at the top of their class, intellectually curious, open-minded, and have other qualities that would help them do well in Brown’s unique Open Curriculum.
- Acceptance Rate: 5%
- 44,503 people applied to be in the Class of 2026. The average
- SAT score was 1520.
9) Chicago’s University
UChicago is now in the same group as Stanford, Yale, and Columbia in terms of how selective it is. In 2005, 40% of those who applied were accepted. In 2022–2023, there are no tests required to get into the university, but it is also very selective.
- Acceptance Rate: 5%
- Applicants for the Class of 2025: 37,977
- Average SAT: 1545
10) The University of Penn
In the evaluation process, things like GPA, scores on standardized tests, essays, recommendations, and character/personal qualities are seen as “very important.” Penn is turning down more students than ever, including thousands of teenagers who would have been accepted a generation ago.
- Acceptance Rate: 5.68% (Class of 2025)
- Applicants for the Class of 2025: 56,332
- Median SAT: 1530
11) Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has set itself up as not only one of the most selective schools in the South, but also one of the most elite schools in the whole country. The university’s admissions committee says that seven things are “very important”: the difficulty of your classes, your GPA, your class rank, your scores on standardized tests, your application essay, your character and personal qualities, and your involvement in extracurricular activities.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.1%
- 47,152 people applied to be in the Class of 2025. The median
- SAT score was 1530.
12) The University of Dartmouth
Before ten years, the acceptance rate was three times what it is now. It has never been harder to get a spot on this beautiful campus in Hanover. If you want to take advantage of its well-known teaching staff and small, hands-on learning environment, you’ll need to bring your best credentials to the table.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.2%
- There were 28,357 applicants for the Class of 2026, and the median SAT score was 1520.
13) The school of Duke
Duke is now more selective than a few Ivies, which isn’t surprising given that the school has a unique mix of academic prestige and exciting extracurriculars. Like the Ivies, Duke usually turns down valedictorian and high school seniors with perfect scores on standardized tests. Successful applicants will have good grades, interesting essays, and special skills that make them stand out from the crowd of other people who want to be Blue Devils.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.2%
- 50,002 people want to be in the Class of 2026.
- SAT: 1480-1570
14) The University of Johns Hopkins
Students in high school today were in the top 10% of their classes 99% of the time, so getting perfect grades in the most difficult classes is pretty much a requirement to be considered. Johns Hopkins is now in the very top group of colleges, along with the Ivies, Stanford, and a small group of very good liberal arts schools.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.5%
- 37,150 people applied to be in the Class of 2026.
- The median SAT score was 1540.
15) Pomona College
Pomona College in Claremont, California, is the best school in the Claremont Consortium. It is similar to the best liberal arts schools in the Northeast. If you are one of the few who can get in, you won’t find a better or more challenging liberal arts education anywhere else.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.6% (Class of 2025)
- There were 11,620 applicants for the Class of 2025, and the average SAT score was 1499.
16) College of Amherst
Amherst has a “New Curriculum” that doesn’t require you to take any specific classes or get your credits in a certain way. Students have the freedom to follow their passions and interests right from the start of their college careers. Successful applicants will be near (or at) the top of their high school class, will have scored in the top 1-2% on standardized tests, and will have special skills or qualities that set them apart from a large group of other qualified people.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.93%
- Average SAT score for applicants to the Class of 2026 was 1480.
17) The college Swarthmore
Since the turn of the millennium, the number of applications to this liberal arts college has tripled, making it harder than ever to get in. In the admissions process, the admissions committee says that there are six things that are the most important: the difficulty of the high school courses, class rank, GPA, the application essay, recommendations, and character/personal qualities.
- Acceptance Rate: 6.95%
- Average SAT score for applicants to the Class of 2026 was 1489.
18) The University of Northwestern
The admissions office says that GPA, class rank, and how hard the courses are are among the eight things that are “very important” in the process. Northwestern has always been a very selective school, but in recent years, the requirements have gotten even tougher.
- Acceptance Rate: 7%
- 51,554 people want to be in the class of 2026.
- Median SAT: 1520
19) The college Barnard
This all-college women’s is part of Columbia University and serves 3,043 smart young women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. If you have good grades, good test scores, and winning personal qualities, you will be taken seriously by one of, if not the best women’s college in the world.
- Acceptance Rate: 8%
- 12 009 people applied to be in the Class of 2026.
- The average SAT score was 1478.
20) The college Williams
Williams College is the second-oldest school in Massachusetts, after Harvard. It is also one of the best liberal arts schools in the whole country. Williams is looking for a group of talented students from different races and economic backgrounds who will do well in a small school community.
- Acceptance Rate: 8.5%
- Class of 2026 applicants had an average SAT score of 1510.
21) Rice University
Rice is both a top research school and a place where students are used to getting world-class education. 92% of Rice students were in the top 10% of their high school classes, and 98% were in the top quartile.
- Acceptance Rate: 8.6%
- 31 424 people applied to be in the Class of 2026, and the median SAT score was 1540.
22) Cornell College
The seven things that the admissions office thinks are most important are the difficulty of your classes, your grades, your test scores, your recommendations, your essays, your extracurricular activities, your talent or ability, and your character or personal qualities. Since Big Red has joined the other Ivy League schools with acceptance rates in the single digits, only the best college applicants have a chance of getting in.
- Acceptance Rate: 8.7% (Class of 2025)
- 67,830 people applied to be in the Class of 2025.
- The median SAT score was 1510.
23) The school Tufts
Tufts, like all Ivy League and Ivy-like schools, is looking for the best and brightest students. It is competing with schools with even bigger names to get the best students. So, for qualified applicants, showing their commitment through Early Decision can pay off.
- Acceptance Rate: 9.7%
- 34,880 people apply for the class of 2026.
- Average SAT: 1485
24) Carnegie Mellon University
Successful applicants to CMU took the most difficult classes they could in high school. The school also says that personal qualities, volunteer work, and extracurricular activities are some of the most important things for admission.
- Acceptance Rate: 11%
- 34,261 people applied to be in the Class of 2026.
- The median SAT score was 1520.
25) The University of Georgetown
The oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the country is also one of the best schools in the country, so there aren’t many surprises when it comes to admissions. Test scores around the 97th percentile and grades that are close to perfect in a heavy AP course load are almost a must.
- Acceptance Rate: 11.7%
- 26.670 people applied to be in the Class of 2026.
- The median SAT score was 1490.
More of the most difficult colleges to get into
Here are a few schools whose acceptance rates are lower than some schools that made our Top 25 list. For example, Georgetown has a higher acceptance rate than Colby, but a lot of students get into Colby during the Early Decision round. Carnegie Mellon has a higher acceptance rate than UCLA, but because UCLA is a public school, it gives preference to people who live in the state. Also, UCLA no longer looks at test scores. This is another way that the admissions process at UCLA is very different from every other school on the list except Caltech.
Tulane and Northeastern had acceptance rates for the Class of 2026 that were so low that they were crazy. But we thought it was right to put them in a different category. Tulane had an acceptance rate of 8.4%, but they take a very high number of students through Early Decision.
Also, the academic qualifications of first-year students at Tulane are not as good as they are at other schools with acceptance rates in the single digits. Last year, 6.7% of people who applied to Northeastern University were accepted. The year before, that number was 18%. Last year, there were too many students in the school, which may have contributed to this sharp drop. So, the rate of acceptance is likely to go up a little in the coming years.
These rankings also leave out some of the most selective music schools in the world, like The Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.