It’s like a scene from Gladiator out there. The college application process has always required blood, sweat and tears, but it’s gotten even crazier in recent years. Average GPAs and SATs are sky-rocketing, and acceptance rates seem to be playing limbo to see how low they can go. These schools topped the list of hardest to get into.
Find out where you’ll find the 10 hardest colleges to get into.
10. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
The prestigious California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California is one of the toughest colleges to get into, and the second hardest in California. With an average SAT score of 2300, an average ACT score of 34 and an acceptance rate of 8.1 percent, by figures alone Caltech can call itself incredibly selective. On top of that, the school is majorly math and science oriented, so it requires SAT Subject Tests in math and science. Add two letters of recommendation, plus lots of extra essays, then you still have to do the application.
9. University of Chicago
University of Chicago in Illinois welcomes fewer and fewer freshmen each year. The average GPA for admitted students is 4.23, Their average SAT runs about 2228. And their acceptance rate is a frighteningly low 7.8 percent. On the bright side they don’t require SAT Subject Tests, a nice pass amidst the struggle. Don’t rest on those laurels, though. “UChicago used the Common Application, but they had their own supplement where they asked borderline bizarre questions. The ones I remember for the long essay were: (1) Explain a joke without ruining it. (2) Compare apples and oranges. (3) Create your own question,” said sophomore Hadiya Hewett. On top of trying super hard to be clever in your answers, you also just have to be a good person. “I think being a Girl Scout for 12 years and actively working on a Gold Award Project helped me, as did being co-captain of the varsity field hockey team and the It’s Academic team. However, I think the greatest boost to my application came from being me,” Hewett said. Just be you–that’s easier said than done.
8. Columbia University
Expect to go through hell and back to get into Columbia. This popular, competitive Ivy League school in New York requires the the usual supplemental essays, two Subject Tests and three letters of recommendation. On top of that, pile on those outside activities. “I think the biggest thing for getting into top tier schools is to do a few extracurriculars and do them well. It’s about consistency, longevity and excellence,” said senior Sonya Li. The chances of boasting acceptance are pretty low, with an acceptance rate of 6.1 percent and average SAT/ACT scores of 2215 and 33.
7. Princeton University
Princeton University in New Jersey sits at “The Big Three,” the popular table of the three most prestigious Ivy League colleges which already shows it’ll do a lot of freshman snubbing. The average GPA of accepted students actually dips below perfect with a 3.9, but the SAT average brings it back up with 2250, and an acceptance rate of 6.9 percent.
6. The United States Naval Academy
The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland isn’t a typical liberal arts college, but that doesn’t mean the application process gets any easier. The Naval Academy emphasizes an impressive transcript, due to its average SAT score of 1332 (don’t get too excited… it’s out of 1400). “Every applicant needs to be nominated by a Congressman or Senator in their respective state,” said Gil D’Albora, a senior at the United States Naval Academy. And not only that, but you have to take a fitness test too. “The Fitness Assessment consists of pull ups, push-ups, sit ups, one mile run and a basketball throw,” D’Albora said. Top it all off with an acceptance rate of 7.9 percent and you’ve got a lot of literal hoops to jump through.
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
MIT is just down the lane from another ultra-competitive Cambridge school you may have heard of before. No slackers allowed in this town: An 8 percent acceptance rate, an average SAT of 2220 and ACT of 34 are your goals. Like Caltech, MIT requires two SAT Subject Tests in both math and science. What makes this school even tougher is the fact that you have to fill out its own unique application. MIT doesn’t give the common app the time of day. Not only that, but you might have to be charming. There’s an interview portion of the application, explained sophomore Sherri Green. “I think all of the interviewers are MIT alums, so it’s interesting to ask them about their experiences — it’s more of a conversation than an interview. Mine took place at a table in the mall and lasted about an hour and a half. It’s mostly for them to get to see you as a real person—not just words on a page.” So hurry up and cultivate a personality stat.
4. Yale University
Yale has yet to lose its selective status. This New Haven, Connecticut Ivy has an acceptance rate of 6.5 percent. The application process requires the usual Subject Test, essay and letter of recommendation requirements. But Yale wants the full story, your test story that is. They don’t accept Score Choice from the SAT, so you have to send all of you scores. Even that one you took early on “just for practice.” No pressure, right?
3. Curtis Institute of Music
You might be surprised to see this tiny school nestled between the Ivy’s, but its unique application process doesn’t make it any less competitive. In fact, the acceptance rate for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a minuscule 2.94 percent, far lower than measly little Yale. Curtis doesn’t care very much about SAT scores, since they have an audition-based process. The predominant way they accept prospective students is based on musical skills, which is even more terrifying.
2. Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts is clearly doing something right. Harvard isn’t necessarily the hardest school to get into, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’ve gotten easier over the years. They too have a mind-bogglingly low acceptance rate at 5.3 percent, average SATs of 2260, average ACTs of 34 and all the other application hurdles. While current student Anna Sato mentioned that the application process is actually relatively easy (besides the not-so-optional optional essay), the prestige and reputation of Harvard brings in mountains of applications, which makes it more of a challenge for the admissions team to sift through and find yours. Distinguish yourself like Sato did by really committing to your passions; for her, that meant music and science research.
1. Stanford University
Though the East Coast has a reputation for having the best colleges in the country, the most competitive college stands in California. Stanford is more selective than all the Ivy League schools, with an acceptance rate of only 5.05 percent. Average SAT scores of 2210 and ACT scores of 33 aren’t too much outside the norm, but an average admitted GPA of 4.18 amps up the competition. Though Stanford does have the lowest acceptance rate of standard colleges, they don’t technically require SAT subject tests. But they are “highly recommended”—AKA take them if you even want a shot.
Curious about what the admissions process is really like at the hardest colleges to get into?
“The hardest part for me was writing so many essays and trying to make them good quality but not spend too much time on them so I could write all of them. I’d advise applicants to start writing their essays in the application season and not wait till December to write them all.” – Mike Solorio, Stanford University, Class of 2020.
“I think the extended essay (or uncommon essay) is the most important part of the application, and I would definitely focus on making that essay stand out and say something original. I wrote about what constitutes unique personhood. There was a prompt about cloning and teleportation, and whether a teleported person or a clone is the same person as the ‘original.’” – Ruth Selipsky, University of Chicago, Class of 2020.
“For me, doing the SAT was very hard. I took 23 practice tests then three real tests, and I ended up on the lower end of Princeton’s average. Spend a good chunk of time on the personal statements, and treat every prompt like a chance to flex all your creative autobiography muscles. Statistically, if you are someone with the drive and patience to apply to an elite university, you’ll have the drive to make the same level of success later in life. Getting into a good college is not everything and not getting in isn’t the end of the world. Study your SAT, but also make sure to go get dinner with friends, take naps, eat ice cream for no reason and catch up on some movies. Balance it out.” – Anhar Mac Karim, Princeton University, Class of 2018.
“I think the hardest part of the application was not writing the essays themselves, but choosing a prompt to write about. As you probably already know, UChicago has quirky prompts; some of the more well-known ones being ‘Where’s Waldo?’ or ‘Find X’. I found it extremely difficult to settle on one prompt because I had so many ideas for different prompts.” – Alexander Scott Zhou, University of Chicago, Class of 2021.
“Last year, I applied for Early Restrictive Action to Stanford. Because it was restrictive, I had ample time to really hone and work on my essays. My high school counselors helped out whenever I had any questions about forms. I suggest that applying students write about topics that are true to them, something that carries with it a core aspect of their personality. For example, I wrote about Jimmy Neutron (the Nickelodeon show) because I not only love the show, but also because of its message and theme of invention. This would eventually lead to all the decisions I made and the accomplishments that I held dear.” – Wilson Nguyen, Stanford University, Class of 2020.
“One of the greatest traits is to stress your individuality. It’s a strange feeling to become a string of letters and numbers that can be hard to remember, so you have to do your best to work the best of you into a very small package. Take not only the best of you but the most unique parts of you to create the most notable applicant you can be. By creating a platform to express my creativity in a way a transcript cannot, the university allowed me to display my interests in the most honest way I know how.” – Jessie Davila, University of Chicago, Class of 2021.
“My experience applying to Yale as an international student was of course a very different one. Despite the increasing number of international students applying to Yale every year, the application process is still not fully understood in England so it took a lot more time to even fully understand what was required and when. One difficulty for me was that they did not fully comprehend the exams that I took in England and how they compare to American AP exams. What I found most interesting about the application process was how it really makes you analyze yourself. Yes they’re looking at your academic accomplishments but they’re also looking at you as a person.” – Bella Hindley, Yale University, Class of 2019.
“I applied to UChicago early decision, but I also planned to apply to Barnard, Tufts, Middlebury, NYU, Northwestern, Emory University and the University of Vermont. I was able to fill out all of my applications on the Common App, so most of the info was the same everywhere I applied, but the essays were different. They were more fun to write than the other schools, because they required more creativity and weren’t so repetitive or predictable.” – Rebecca Wixted, University of Chicago, Class of 2021.
“Make sure you’re really able to show a well-rounded image of yourself, but also, be real. I got into Stanford not because I had good grades, but due to my history of activism in my community. Show them a passion that consumes you, in all the best ways. Also, have fun with the roommate essay. I wrote about the clothes in my closet representing the multitude of personalities I donned. It was kinda silly, but also really fun and creative, and, well, it worked. So, don’t limit yourself. Make sure you have others edit. I probably wrote at least 8-9 drafts of my personal statements…Most of all, be yourself.” – Manisha Rattu, Stanford University, Class of 2019.
“Generally, students mistake the prompts for being restrictive when in reality, you can interpret the prompt however you like—and admissions officer actually enjoy reading something that adds a little twist and is unexpectedly ingenious. If you have a fantastic idea, but are uncertain about submitting, don’t be afraid to reach out to an admissions officer and ask for a clarification…Focus less on how your accomplishments can impress your reader; rather, focus on your growth from the most genuine and raw human experiences. Finally, never underestimate typos because your writing is a reflection of your effort and professionalism.” – Rimsha Malik, Princeton University, Class of 2020.
If you go to one of the hardest colleges to get into, stand out with your smarts and your style.
Check out these 10 Test Prep Books to Get You into the Most Selective US Colleges.
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*Updated on June 21, 2017 by Mariya Khan to include student quotes about the admissions experiences and links to test prep books.