The Elite Schools
For the purposes of this guide, “elite” represents the
roughly 70 schools with the most restrictive admissions criteria.
These colleges generally accept fewer than 30 percent of all applicants
and have a highly selective reputation to match.
But the great thing about higher education in the United
States is that if you dream big, work hard, and have a personality
that shines through, you may be just the right student for one of
these elite schools. The most important question, however, is if
an elite college is right for you.
Because these schools have such high standards for admissions,
you might think that the student bodies look more like a Mensa reunion
than regular people. True, the elite colleges have far more applicants
than slots, so they can pretty much make their campuses look any
way they choose. But for the most part, they understand the importance
of a diverse student body. So it might surprise you that the students
at the elite colleges come from all walks of life. Your classmates
will come from upper, middle, and lower economic classes and from
various cultures, races, and nationalities. What these students
will generally have in common are superior academic records, a drive
to be the absolute best, and the confidence that big things are
headed their way.
These colleges accept an extremely small number of students.
While you will always hear of a few “average” students who gain
admission, for the most part you will need a high GPA, stellar test scores,
superior writing ability, and a solid record of extracurricular
achievement. But even with all these elements, you still may need
a little luck. Graduating in the top 5 percent of your high school
class and scoring 2100 on your SAT alone won’t cut it at many of
these institutions. For this reason, even if you have a stellar
academic record, you will probably want to consider applying to
a few colleges with less selective admissions as part of your backup
The Ivy League refers to eight schools—Brown, Columbia,
Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—that
formed an agreement in 1945 to regulate their football competitions.
These days, most people know the Ivy League schools as representing
the pinnacle of academic superiority.
Add to their stellar reputation a list of alumni who have
become leaders in the worlds of business, politics, and the arts,
and the result is an unequaled level of selectivity. But it’s not
just high-achieving students who are attracted to these colleges.
The teachers at Ivy League schools come from the upper echelon of
their fields as well.
The Public Ivies
If you dream of attending a highly selective college with
state of the art facilities and world-class instruction, but dread
the thought of dishing out a small fortune in tuition, you may still
have an option. Among the nation’s most competitive schools are
several public universities, often referred to as the “public ivies.”
And if you qualify for state residency at any of these institutions, you
could pay up to $25,000 less in tuition each year than the private
Ivy League colleges. The public ivies include:
Another difference is the number of the students. Even
the largest Ivy League school—Cornell University, with around 14,000
enrolled students—is only one-third the size of the University of
Florida. So these colleges are good choices if you seek a high level
of instruction and a big college experience.
The Other Elites
Depending on whom you talk to, the most difficult colleges
to get into are neither Ivy League schools nor public ivies. A diverse
range of colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
the Juilliard School, and the United States Military Academy, are
even more selective. They represent a small sample of the other
elites, schools that are extremely competitive, offer outstanding
academic programs, and attract the best and the brightest students
Many of these elite colleges, such as Stanford, Notre
Dame, Duke, and Vanderbilt, are well known. But you may never have
heard of some of the others, like Davidson College in North Carolina,
Macalester College in Minnesota, or Washington University in Missouri.
Typically, but not always, these colleges are similar in atmosphere
to the Ivy League schools. They often have relatively small enrollments,
diverse, but competitive student bodies and rigorous course loads.
They can also charge a small fortune, with many such as Bowdoin
College, George Washington University, and Wesleyan University costing
even more than the Ivy League schools.
Quality of Education
With high tuition, large endowments, and countless federal
grants, the elite colleges can often afford to hire the best and
brightest professors and purchase the latest equipment and facilities.
Add small class sizes and meaningful student–faculty interaction
to the formula, and you have a recipe for academic success.
Quality of People
The elite colleges attract the top-notch faculty, students,
and staff. Those who have excelled in their fields naturally want
to surround themselves with other accomplished individuals. But
the elite colleges also do an admirable job of creating extremely
diverse student bodies, so don’t allow fears of an old-boy network
keep you from applying.