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.
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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.
*Updated on June 21, 2017 by Mariya Khan to include student quotes about the admissions experiences and links to test prep books.