What Is the Hardest College to Get Into?

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It's late March. You are hunched over your laptop, fingers hovering over the keypad. A flash of movement from the corner of your screen. It's time. The 59 minutes have morphed into the 00 minutes of the next hour. This is it.

You click "open admissions decision."

This is a scene that has faced countless students across the country as they prepare for the next chapter in their life. Unfortunately, in order to secure a top notch education, many students must compete against hundreds of thousands of peers across the country. In this article, we will explore the hardest colleges to get into and what each of these colleges is looking for in an applicant.

Many of the hardest colleges to get into are also the most costly ones. Sign up for a free profile on Bold.org to unlock thousands of scholarships to fund your higher education!

acceptance rates for college

Acceptance Rates

Before we can dive into pitting different colleges against each other to produce "the hardest college to get into," we need to understand the metric upon which we will be judging this -- acceptance rates.

Acceptance rates are calculated very simply. Divide the number of accepted applicants by the number of total applicants, and you will get a percentage. We will only be considering undergraduate acceptance rates, which are different from graduate school acceptance rates.

It is important to preface acceptance rates as an apathetic number and a representation of the average probability. This means the acceptance rate does not take into account your specific academic record, extra-curricular, and personal essay but presents an aggregated percentage of how likely it is for a generic student to be accepted.

So even though an acceptance rate may be, for example, 5%, it doesn't mean your chances of getting in are 5%. Ultimately, your application is made up of many different factors, each of which increases or decreases your chances of getting in. The 5% acceptance rate is just an average.

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Early Decision & Early Action

A general acceptance rate can further be divided into the early decision (ED)/early action (EA) acceptance rate and the regular decision (RD) acceptance rate. Typically, ED/EA acceptance rates will be higher because fewer students submit during this cycle.

Whether this is because they do not want to be caught in a binding contract (as with ED) or simply need more time to prepare their application, students will typically have a better chance at securing a spot in the ED/EA admissions cycle.

Another reason acceptance rates are higher during the ED/EA cycle is that applicants are typically applying to their #1 school during this time. Early decision applicants, for example, must attend the college if accepted and will usually have done lots of research and have a deep desire to attend. This produces higher-quality applications that fit the university's criteria a bit more.

Still have questions about early decision or early action? Check out our blog on early action to find out more!

Regular Decision

The regular decision cycle is when most applicants will submit. This means that the regular decision acceptance rate will be lower than the general acceptance rate because of the higher volume of applicants. The hardest colleges to get into will have tens of thousands of students applying in the regular Decision cycle.

While there are pros and cons to submitting ED/EA or RD, generally, it is suggested that if you are set on attending one college, apply for ED/EA. If you're still uncertain and want to evaluate different options, go for RD.

Just remember that all acceptance rates displayed will be a composite of the ED/EA and RD acceptance rates and that depending upon which cycle you submit to, you may have a higher or lower "chance" of gaining admission.

Without further ado, let's explore the hardest colleges to get into!

california institute of technology student studying

1. California Institute of Technology

The California Institute of Technology, also known as Caltech, is one of the country's foremost scientific innovators. Nestled in Pasadena, California, this private research university fosters a rigorous academic environment that allows students to contribute ground-breaking research toward STEM fields. Due to its small class sizes and reputation as a premier institution for science and technology, Caltech has the lowest acceptance rate in the country.

  • Class of 2028: n/a (numbers not yet released)
  • Class of 2027: 3.14%
  • Class of 2026: 2.69%

"We're increasing our focus on evaluating your academic preparedness," the admissions team at Caltech states on their admissions website. "Caltech is looking for students with incredible potential in STEM." Without a doubt, an extremely strong academic record is the most important factor to gain admission to Caltech. Additionally, there are requirements for specific STEM classes to be taken prior to arriving at Caltech.

  • Average ACT Score: 34-36
  • Average SAT Score: 1530-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

2. Harvard University

Harvard University is arguably the most prestigious university in the US. Founded in 1636, this university has produced countless Nobel Prize laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and exceedingly distinguished alumni in every field imaginable. Due to its world-class education and hallowed reputation, it is one of the hardest colleges to get into, and it has very low acceptance rates.

  • Class of 2028: 3.59%
  • Class of 2027: 3.41%
  • Class of 2026: 3.19%

"There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard," says its admissions team on their website. They stress a strong academic record but also want to see leadership, community involvement, and distinction in extra-curricular activities. Accepted students are able to demonstrate their strength of character, ability to overcome adversity, and other positive traits that would benefit Harvard's campus.

  • Average ACT Score: 33-35
  • Average SAT Score: 1460-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

As a prestigious Ivy League school, Harvard offers immense opportunities for those who get in. For more information about how to capitalize on your college experience, browse through our scholarship blog, written by and for students.

columbia university

3. Columbia University

Located in New York City, one of the most vibrant and dynamic cities in the world, Columbia University stands as a bastion of intellectual stimulation and cultural diversity. Its strong commitment to global citizenship has led to generation after generation of empowered and proactive students seeking to make positive changes in the world. With many students seeking high-quality education in one of the world's nexus cities, Columbia University is one of the most competitive colleges.

  • Class of 2028: 3.85%
  • Class of 2027: 3.9%
  • Class of 2026: 3.73%

"In the process of selection, the Committee on Admissions considers each applicant's academic potential, intellectual strength, and ability to think independently," Columbia's admissions website says. In addition to academic potential, Columbia also looks for students with maturity, curiosity, and passion in their applicant pool. They want to ensure that all admitted students will make "productive use" of their four years at the college.

  • Average ACT Score: 34-35
  • Average SAT Score: 1490-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

Columbia also has a world-renowned writing program. Interested in writing and are looking for ways to fund higher education? Look no further than our writing scholarships!

4. Stanford University

Stanford University, centered in the heart of Silicon Valley, is a world-renowned institution dedicated to academic excellence and diverse intellectual pursuits. From unprecedented innovations in STEM fields like artificial intelligence and biotechnology to a strong commitment to social responsibility and sustainability, Stanford continues to shape the world's future leaders and innovators. For this reputation, it is also one of the hardest colleges to get into in the world.

  • Class of 2028: n/a (numbers not yet released)
  • Class of 2027: 3.91%
  • Class of 2026: 3.68%

Directly from their admission website: "At Stanford, we practice holistic admission." This means the admissions committee wants to evaluate who you are as a person, with academics, extra-curriculars and character being used to place your achievements in the context of your circumstances. That being said, Stanford does state academic excellence as its "primary criterion for admission."

  • Average ACT Score: 33-35
  • Average SAT Score: 1470-1570
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has consistently topped global rankings for the best universities. As a global leader in scientific and technological innovation, MIT continues to push the limits of what a higher education institution can do for the world. Cutting-edge research, entrepreneurial spirit, and a transformative impact on society make MIT one of the best colleges in the world to attend.

  • Class of 2028: 3.92%
  • Class of 2027: 3.83%
  • Class of 2026: 3.37%

"Our process is a student-centered process," MIT says in their website. A strong academic transcript just means that you're competitive with other qualified applicants. To really differentiate yourself, your passions, your unique hobbies, and your personality need to take center stage. MIT wants to see that you've embraced life to the fullest and are prepared to take it to the next level in college.

  • Average ACT Score: 35-36
  • Average SAT Score: 1530-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

Interested in attending MIT and have a strong background in STEM subjects like computer science, math or engineering. Check out these scholarships tailored specifically towards STEM students!

students

6. Yale University

Established in 1701, Yale University is one of the oldest and most esteemed universities in the US. Particularly well-known for distinguished faculty, interdisciplinary learning, and global engagement, Yale prepares its students to pursue their passions with untamed curiosity and wisdom. Its venerated legacy for artistic expression and social impact laces every inch of its hauntingly beautiful halls.

  • Class of 2028: 3.73%
  • Class of 2027: 4.35%
  • Class of 2026: 4.46%

"We are looking for students we can help to become the leaders of their generation in whatever they wish to pursue," the Yale admissions committee writes on their website. Applicants will demonstrate a concern towards something larger than themselves and have a strong drive towards making the world a better place. To get into this Ivy League college, their recommendation is to pursue what you love and tell them about it.

  • Average ACT Score: 33-35
  • Average SAT Score: 1500-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

7. Brown University

Brown University, situated in cozy Providence, has a long tradition of academic freedom and student-driven learning. Its renowned Open Curriculum, unique among Ivy League schools, allows students to shape their higher education journeys and generates impassioned and dynamic scholars able to draw upon multiple disciplines in their studies. Truly the epitome of a liberal arts college, Brown University attracts tens of thousands of applicants every year to its halls, making it one of the hardest colleges to get into.

  • Class of 2028: 5.22%
  • Class of 2027: 5.08%
  • Class of 2026: 5.03%

Brown University's admissions website states that they consider how "your unique talents, accomplishments, energy, curiosity, perspective, and identity might weave into the ever-changing tapestry that is Brown University." While still academically rigorous, Brown is much more interested in how your passions drive you to embody positive change for your local and wider community.

  • Average ACT Score: 34-36
  • Average SAT Score: 1510-1570
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)
hardest college to get into for incoming students

8. Princeton University

In the quaint town of Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University rises from a rich history of academic excellence, innovation, and timeless tradition. With world-renowned academic programs and faculty, Princeton offers an intimate learning environment where students can continuously redefine the limits of their passions. A prestigious liberal arts curriculum combined with a commitment to research and innovation makes Princeton a highly sought-after institution for students from all backgrounds.

  • Class of 2028: n/a (numbers not yet released)
  • Class of 2027: n/a (numbers withheld)
  • Class of 2026: 5.7%

Princeton's admissions officers say this about their admissions process: "Our goal is to find students who will thrive in Princeton’s rigorous academic environment." For this Ivy League school, not only are strong transcripts important, but so are personal achievements outside of the classroom. The admissions offers seek to know applicants beyond statistics and are interested in their personal stories, too.

  • Average ACT Score: 34-35
  • Average SAT Score: 1540-1580
  • Average GPA: 3.9-4.0 (unweighted)

As a small liberal arts school, Princeton offers generous financial aid, but often it may not cover all expenses. If you're worried about the cost of attending college, don't hesitate to look through our scholarships!

Other Colleges With Low Acceptance Rates

  1. Vanderbilt University - 5.1%
  2. Duke University - 5.1%
  3. Dartmouth College - 5.3%
  4. Johns Hopkins University - 6.2%
  5. Pomona College - 7%
  6. Cornell University - 7.4%
  7. Rice University - 7.5%
  8. Bowdoin College - 8%
  9. United States Naval Academy - 8%
  10. Amherst College - 9%

Some honorable mentions for the hardest colleges to get into include the United States Military Academy at West Point (10%), Tulane University (13%), and Georgia Institute of Technology (14%).

admissions process for colleges

Admissions Process

Now that you've seen all the low acceptance rates, you may be feeling a little disheartened, but do not fret. While there is no clear way to guarantee your admission into one of the hardest colleges to get into, there are many things you can do to make your application stand out.

Let's look at the different parts of an application and how you can make each one shine!

Academic Record

For many universities, the most important part of any application is your academic record. This usually comes in the form of your high school GPA, either weighted or unweighted, and your high school transcript. This transcript will include the individual letter grades for each of your classes.

For the most selective colleges, a GPA of 3.9+ is recommended, along with a slew of AP classes that demonstrate that you can excel in rigorous academic programs. Admissions officers often look for ways in which you have gone beyond the required academic rigor needed to pass. Challenging yourself with college courses or APs is a sure way to make your academic record stand out beyond the numerical data point of your high school GPA.

Looking to secure extra funds for college with a strong academic background? Look no further than our guide on how to apply for academic scholarships!

Extra-Curriculars

However, academics aren't all that admissions officers look for. Many colleges in the US, especially liberal arts schools, are seeking well-rounded individuals who can contribute to their campus beyond the classroom. They look for ways in which you've engaged in athletics, community service, clubs, and more. Nurturing your passions and improving your non-academic skills can make selective schools see you as a more holistic candidate.

There's more to extra-curriculars than just the quantity of clubs you do. Admissions officers specifically look for ways in which you have demonstrated leadership and been proactive in your community. Whether this means taking on a leadership role within a club or creating novel solutions to address problems you see, admissions officers want to see someone who actively tries to improve the lives of those around them.

Personal Essay

The third crucial component of any college application process is the personal essay. There's a variety of forms this may take. For many Ivy League colleges, they require the Common App essay, which is sent to every school you apply to, and supplemental essays specific to that university. Some schools have no supplementals, others may not require a Common App essay.

What your academic record and extra-curriculars have in common is that they appear as cold data on a page. Your GPA is a number and your leadership positions in extra-curriculars are just titles. A personal essay allows you to expand beyond the highly-regimented confines of your statistics to show admissions officers who you truly are.

This is your chance to appeal to officers on a more personal level, and to demonstrate your personality, character, and authenticity. In my opinion, this is the most important part of the application and is what will set you apart from thousands of other applicants with the same stats and community involvement.

Check out our guide for how to craft a compelling personal statement to increase your chances of getting into a selective university!

hardest colleges

Frequently Asked Questions About the Hardest College to Get Into

What are the hardest colleges to get into in the world?

The California Institute of Technology still comes out on top with an acceptance rate of 3.14% for the Class of 2027. The closest international competitors are the University of Oxford (UK), with an acceptance rate of 14%, and the National University of Singapore (Singapore), which has an acceptance rate of around 7-10%.

What is the best university in the world?

The Times Higher Education lists University of Oxford (UK) as the best university, followed by Stanford then MIT. The QS World Universities rankings lists MIT first, followed by University of Oxford (UK) and University of Cambridge (UK).

It is important to keep in mind that different websites use different metrics to evaluate the "best" university in the world, so there isn't a consistent #1. Ultimately, the best university for you is one that fits your interests and offers the best support for your desired program of study. A school's acceptance rate, for example, is one of the minor components that you might consider.

Are SAT and ACT scores important?

In recent years, many colleges have opted to go test-optional, which means that it is up to the student whether they want to submit their scores or not. If submitted, the college will consider it as another component in your application.

For many students, standardized test scores are a way to demonstrate their academic prowess if their school was lacking in academic rigor or extra-curriculars. For others, it may be just a number. Ultimately, it will not make or break your application, but test scores can enhance certain parts of it.

If you're still worried about how big an impact SAT and ACT scores can have on your application, read through our SAT and ACT guide to feel more confident on your test day!