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 plan.

The Ivies

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 and faculty.

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.

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