Hey there! It’s the middle of second semester of your junior year (or sophomore, if you’re really getting a jump on things), and you’re facing a long college search. Good on you! Getting started early is great. But there are so many colleges out there, and you’ve heard many a rumor about how hard it is to get accepted into the mythological Ivy League. You’re probably wondering which Ivy League is easiest to get into — and what it takes to be accepted.
Let’s be upfront: Cornell.
But why? And does having the highest acceptance rate among the Ivies make Cornell the right college for you?
The college search is arduous and complicated, but this blog will break it down for you. Read on to learn why Cornell has the highest acceptance rates, what it means to be “Ivy League,” and whether going for the Ivies is worth it. Also, we’ve compiled some statistics on what grades and other activities will help you get a leg up in the college application process.
First Off: So What is the Easiest Ivy League to Get Into? What 3 Years of Data Says
Let’s be totally real: Cornell is the easiest Ivy League to get into because it has the highest student population. There are currently 21,904 enrolled students at Cornell, compared to below 10,000 for most of the other Ivies (note that University of Pennsylvania also has a large student body).
We’ve included a chart below for you to glance over relative acceptance rates. The Ivies are italicized. Notice that other top-ranked schools have equally stringent acceptance rates — in fact, many of these schools are ranked equal to or higher than the Ivy League.
Take a quick look at the chart, then read on to find out what makes the Ivy League special — and what doesn’t.
|College||2019 acceptance rate||2019 accepted||2019 applica-nts||2018 acceptance rate||2018 applicants|
|U. of Pennsylvania||7.4%||3,345||44,960||8.4%||44,482|
|U. of Chicago||5.9%||n/a||n/a||7.3%||32,283|
What are the Hardest Ivy Leagues to Get Into? The “Big Three,” Theoretically
So what is the Ivy League, really? It’s just that — a sports league. MIT and Stanford teams will not compete against Yale or Harvard in games of hockey or curling, whatever that signifies.
The Ivy League has a reputation of being among the top American universities, but note the word among. Rankings have consistently placed non-Ivy League schools on par with or above the Ivy League. The 2020 US News and World Report listed the top seven schools as Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yale, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. In past years, MIT, Stanford, Duke, and the University of Chicago have ranked among or above many Ivy League schools. So if ranking is what you’re looking at, look beyond the Ivy League.
Going back to leagues, the “Big Three” — that is, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard — were the original sporting group that eventually grew into the Ivy League. These three schools consistently rank high, and have very low acceptance rates. Note that they are not the hardest to get into: Columbia edged out both Princeton and Yale, with an acceptance rate of 5.1% (see table above).
So what does it take to get into these top-ranked schools, Ivy or not?
What are the Average Test Scores and GPA for Ivy League Schools?
A little personal anecdote: I am attending one of those top seven schools, and when I go to high schools to give ‘you should go to college’ talks, students often ask what sort of scores and grades they need to get in. I’m going to share a few insider tips here — first, it’s open information, free for the googling. Schools release their average scores, as well as acceptance rates, and most schools have websites or blogs explaining the application process and what they look for. Everything you find on this blog is open-source.
So, here are a few tables of the average grades and scores of current university students. Next, we’ll go into how much that really plays into your application.
Average SAT Scores (as of 2019)
Ivy League italicized, but more schools included to give context
|School||2019 US News Ranking||25th PercentileSAT Score||75th PercentileSAT Score||Average SAT Score|
|Johns Hopkins||10 (tie)||1460||1580||1520|
|UC Berkeley||22 (tie)||1330||1530||1430|
And here is
|Ivy League School||Average GPA of Admitted Students|
|University of Pennsylvania||4.04|
Source: Crimson Education
A quick note on GPA: it’s meaningless. Seriously. Some schools award 5 points for an A in an AP class; others award 7. Some schools offer only one or two AP courses, and make those courses ridiculously rigorous; other schools brand nearly every single course as ‘AP’ and gently encourage students to take the College Board AP tests… while grading every class out of 5, or 6, or 7 points.
So if you’re at a school where earning an A in an AP class is next to impossible, how are you supposed to compete with someone at a school where AP classes are easy-A’s? Or maybe you’ve challenged yourself to take a higher level math, and you’re getting a B because of it. Will that make you a less competitive college applicant?
No, it won’t! Colleges know that high schools’ grading systems aren’t standardized. That’s why there is so much emphasis on standardized tests, like the SAT and the ACT (which have their own issues, but we’ll investigate that in another blog). Furthermore, most colleges — especially big-name colleges, which receive thousands of applicants — have regional application readers.
How does that work? Basically, the first person to read your application is someone who reads applications only from your area — maybe your state, or your region (ie, Midwest), or maybe your particular county (especially in New York and California). That person has been reading applications for years, and is familiar with which schools grade harshly, and which are more lenient. The goal is that this first reader can look past the numbers on paper and be able to see if you have been working hard and challenging yourself.
So can you get into an Ivy League with a 3.7? A 3.5? What’s the difference between those? The answer is that generally, yes, and yes — if you have been working hard for that 3.7 or 3.5, and if it shows in your application that you have been challenging yourself. Whatever your grades are, they should be a reflection of how you have pushed your limits, not coasted at the top of an easy class.
Alright, that’s the spiel on grades. Keep ‘em up, but don’t stress too much if they aren’t what you wish they were.
Moving on: what else do you need to get in? You’ve probably heard the rumor that grades aren’t everything, and it is most certainly true.
What Else Do You Need to Get In?
So you’ve worked hard. You’ve scored in the top 1% on the SAT, you’ve taken your APs, you’ve never received less than an A in your life (however that shows up on weighted GPAs). You’re set to go, right?
The thing is, so have — ballpark estimate here — 20,000 other students in America. At least. And Harvard’s freshman class is not much bigger than 1,000.
This is the challenge that colleges face: there are so many qualified students, and many, many more who nearly qualify. What to do?
Most American universities have shifted to a holistic application process, meaning you are assessed on more than grades. They want to get to know you as a whole. Let’s break that down.
Here’s how it works, as near as anyone who’s not on an admissions board can tell:
There are certain standards in terms of grades and scores that you need to meet. Colleges don’t publish these. You can, however, get a good estimate by looking at Niche.com, which compiles pretty graphs of the GPA and SAT scores of various applicants, as well as whether those applicants were accepted. Here’s a link.
If you meet those standards, you get evaluated on a number of other areas, particularly extracurriculars, volunteer efforts, and leadership roles you’ve taken. Colleges want to see how hard you work, not just how smart you are — so if you’ve taken that more challenging class, and earned a B, that will reflect well on you. A few tips I have received from college admissions staff are:
Colleges like to see persistence. If there are any sports or activities you have stuck with for all your high school years, that works in your favor — definitely list those on your application.
Let your personality shine through in your essay. All schools require a personal essay of some sort, although most take the Common Application, which means you only need to write one essay. Make it good. It’s your best chance to let the application committee hear your voice.
If your situation, financial or otherwise, has challenged you, do state that. “If you can’t be on sports teams because you have to pick up a younger sibling from school,” one admissions counselor told me, “tell us! It’s better than not explaining your lack of extracurriculars.”
In summary: you need good scores in order to be considered, but once you’ve got your foot in the door, your extracurriculars and persistence help get you admitted.
Does Applying Early Action or Decision Help Your Chances?
Okay, so you’re going to get a bunch of volunteering done this summer, and has anyone heard of your newfound passion for basket-weaving? Now what else can you do to get a leg up?
Apply early action.
Apply early decision if you like — there are definite pros and cons — but if you choose not to, apply early action.
Let’s take a step back. What do these words mean?
Most schools have an application deadline around January 1st of your senior year, and they release decisions in mid-March. This is the ‘normal’ deadline, sometimes called ‘regular action.’
Early decision (or ED) is when you and the school enter a sort of agreement: you apply early, generally November 1st, and they release your admittance, rejection, or deferral early, generally November 30th. Deferral means that the school defers your application to the regular round, and your admittance or rejection will be given in March. The catch to this is that it is a binding agreement: if you are accepted, you must go to that school. You cannot apply anywhere else until (and unless) you are rejected.
Early action (or EA) is similar to early decision in that you apply early and receive a decision earlier, generally November 1st and November 30th, respectively. However, EA is non-binding: you can still apply to other schools after your decision is released, and if you are accepted to other schools, you may attend one of them instead.
Some schools offer restricted early action, which means that you can only apply early action to that school. However, you may apply to other schools on the normal deadline.
So, what are the pros and cons of these?
Acceptance rates are higher for EA applicants, and even more so for ED applicants. More slots are open, so logically, it is easier for the application commission to admit more students. Also, for ED, schools prefer to admit students who would be a good match for their school. Your undying devotion to their school is a sure sign, in their minds, that you would be a good match.
The only con is that Early Decision is binding — note the word ‘decision’ — and that can be difficult when all the top-ranked schools cost egregious amounts of money. If you aren’t rolling in dough, you are very likely to receive a need-based scholarship, but it is not guaranteed. This means that you could wind up paying more than you expected to — or that you can’t afford to attend that institution at all.
Even if you can afford any price, ED still has a negative financial impact. If you are accepted into multiple top-ranked schools, that gives you negotiating power; you can ask for more scholarship money. Also, some schools will match the aid given by other top-ranked schools; Cornell, for example, will match the aid offered to you by any other Ivy League, Stanford, or MIT. This can make it possible to attend a school whose full tuition you cannot afford. But with ED, you can’t apply to other schools, and you lose that negotiating power.
EA, being non-binding, does not have a financial con. The only thing to worry about is choosing which school to apply for, given that most top-ranked schools only offer restrictive early action, if they offer it at all.
Of the top-ranked schools, some only offer ED; some offer restrictive EA and ED. This can be found on their website, or on any number of college-search sites, such as US News and World or Niche.com. Of the top seven, only MIT and the University of Chicago offer non-restrictive EA.
Do Backdoor Ways to Get Into an Ivy League School Work?
While we would love to give you a run-down of backdoor ways to get into top schools, as well as statistics as to which are the most effective, we unfortunately lack the resources to do so — and it would be morally unfavorable.
Just hypothetically, you ask? Sorry. The statistics for this aren’t exactly open-source.
Search the dark web. Talk to your mysterious, rich uncle. Realistically, it’s difficult to finagle a backroom entrance because of the amount of record-keeping and electronic data. The vast majority of schools require applications to pass between one and three committees, as well as individual application readers. The systems are designed to avoid bias, and, presumably, bribery. But maybe your uncle knows something we don’t.
Wrapping Things Up: What’s the Easiest Ivy League to Get Into
If you’ve forgotten, Cornell has the highest Ivy League acceptance rate. Does that mean you must apply to Cornell? No. It’s your job to research the different schools and see which one is best for you — and which is the second best, and the third, because those acceptance rates aren’t high.
Maybe you would rather not apply to Cornell, because you would prefer a smaller school. Or maybe you don’t like snow, and will be applying early (restricted) action to Stanford. Maybe cities are your thing, so you are sending your applications to Columbia, Harvard, and MIT.
You understand that the Ivy League is a nice, shiny name, but is not a full reflection of the rankings. Other top-ranked schools serve just as well, in both education and reputation.
You know that grades and scores do matter, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all of a college application. Colleges also look at your extracurriculars and outside activities, as well as your volunteer and work experience. Make those essays shine!
Best of luck in the coming months!
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