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The Most Selective Colleges, Why, and How to Get In

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Oct 18, 2015 5:00:00 PM

College Admissions


Selectivity is one of the factors that defines a college. Students will often judge the quality of a school based on its admissions rate. While this is a reasonable way to assess schools in most cases, there are also some special circumstances that may result in extremely low acceptance rates at less academically demanding colleges.

In this article, I'll go through a list of the most selective colleges in the United States, why they accept so few of their applicants, and how you can strategize to get in. 


What Are Selective Colleges, and Why Are They So Picky?

Selective colleges are schools that only admit a small percentage of the students who apply. In this article, I will be focusing on the most selective schools in the country, which I've defined as schools that admit less than ten percent of applicants. There are several reasons why certain colleges end up with such low acceptance rates. 

Some schools are extremely selective because they’re looking for a very specialized type of applicant, and few students will fit the bill. This category would include a school like Juilliard, which is only interested in admitting students who demonstrate excellence in music. Students have to audition in front of members of the faculty as one of their application requirements. This group also includes military schools like West Point, where candidates must pass a physical fitness assessment and obtain a nomination from their representative in congress or the senate in order to be accepted. 

Other colleges are extremely selective because they’re looking for students who have excellent overall credentials, and they can only afford to take the most high-achieving individuals out of the huge applicant pools they attract. These schools represent an intersection of popularity and very high standards. This includes Ivy League schools and schools like Stanford and MIT.

These schools have strong name recognition even on an international level, so they attract a huge number of applicants. In 2014, Harvard offered admission to only 2,023 students out of 34,265 total applicants! In order to maintain their reputation, these schools can only choose the most outstanding students for each class. Usually it takes more than just excellent grades and test scores to get in; you'll need those qualifications on top of other unique academic and extracurricular accomplishments. 

I'll go over the schools that fall into each of these categories in the next section. 


body_shredder.jpgI assume this was the fate of most applications in the primitive time before the Internet.


The Most Selective Colleges

Non-Specialized Selective Schools

First, I will list schools that are selective because they are extremely popular and can only choose the strongest overall applicants. I’ve only included schools that have acceptance rates under 10 percent. I’ll list them in descending order, starting with the most selective school (Stanford). I will also list their statistics for average GPA, SAT, and ACT scores of admitted students. 

Keep in mind that even if your scores and GPA are technically at the same level as the average at these schools, you can’t count on being accepted. Any school that has an acceptance rate of less than 15 percent is a reach school even for the best students, and any school with an acceptance rate of less than 30 percent is still extremely selective. 

College Name Acceptance Rate Average GPA Average SAT Average ACT
Stanford University 5.1% 4.18 2210 33
Harvard University 6% 4.04 2260 34
Yale University 6.3% 4.19 2265 33
Columbia University 7% 4.13 2215 33
Princeton University 7.3% 3.9 2250 33
MIT 7.9% 4.13 2220 34
Brown University 8.7% 4.05 2155 32
California Institute of Technology 8.8% 4.23 2300 34
University of Chicago 8.8% 4.23 2228 33


body_universityofchicago.jpgUniversity of Chicago: Subtly (or not so subtly) trying to inch its way into the Ivy League?


Specialized Selective Schools

Now I’ll list schools that are extremely selective because they have specialized programs and are looking for specific types of applicants. Again, I’ve only included schools that have acceptance rates of less than 10 percent. I will also include the average GPA and test scores for each of these schools, although some of them do not report these facts. In the case of the highly selective music schools, statistics are less relevant to a student’s likelihood of acceptance. These schools consider musical talent more strongly than academic performance. In this section I’ve included a description of exactly why each school is so selective as well.

College Name Acceptance Rate Average GPA Average SAT/ACT Why Is It So Selective?
Curtis Institute of Music 4.8% Not reported Not reported This school is only looking for the most elite music students, and admission is “based on artistic promise alone.” Curtis Institute also provides a full tuition scholarship to all of its students. These factors combined create an acceptance rate below that of even the most competitive colleges on the first list.

Alice Lloyd College 7.1% 3.52 1437 / 21 This is a very unique scenario, and is an example of why “selective” doesn’t always mean “great school.” Alice Lloyd College is selective because many local students are attracted to it based on its tuition guarantees for residents of 108 Central Appalachian counties. These guarantees are given out regardless of income. As you can imagine, this makes the school very appealing to students from the area. The school is also very small, with less than 600 students in total. This is why Alice Lloyd maintains an extremely low acceptance rate despite the fact that GPA and test score standards are not especially high. The six-year graduation rate is only 36%, so the overall quality of education is questionable.

US Naval Academy 7.9% 3.86 1332 / N/A In order to attend the US Naval Academy, students must apply for and receive a nomination from a US Representative, US Senator, or the Vice President. Students must also pass a physical fitness assessment and a medical examination in order to be eligible for admission. Academic standards are very high as well, so there is only a small subset of students who meet all the necessary requirements.

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art 8% 3.6 1987 / N/A Cooper Union is an all-honors college where every student receives a half tuition scholarship and is automatically considered for additional merit scholarships through the admissions process. It also has highly specialized programs in architecture, fine arts, and engineering. Students applying to each of the schools must take "home tests" designed by Cooper Union to determine their skill level. Admission is based significantly on creative abilities in addition to high academic standing, which makes Cooper Union both popular and picky. 
College of the Ozarks 8.3% 3.63 1582 / 22 College of the Ozarks only accepts students who demonstrate adequate financial need. Ninety percent of each admitted class of students must meet financial need requirements. It is essentially a tuition-free college where students are assigned jobs on campus and are required to work fifteen hours a week. Earnings from this work study program, combined with scholarships given out by the college and federal grants, cover the full cost of tuition.

The Juilliard School 8.4% Not reported Not reported Like Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard is only looking for a very specific and very talented subset of students. Students must audition for faculty members as a part of the application process, and performance standards are extraordinarily high.

US Military Academy (West Point) 9.5% 3.74 1894 / 29 West Point has such a low acceptance rate because it requires students to pass muster in other ways besides earning high test scores and grades. Applicants must complete a physical fitness assessment where they have to do as many pushups as they can in two minutes (for me, this would be about 0.5), run a mile as fast as possible, and do a few other tests for agility and strength. They also have to apply for a nomination from a congressperson or senator from their state or from the vice president. Only students’ whose requests for nominations are granted will be offered a spot at West Point.


body_westpointgraduation.jpgWest Point graduation looks fun, but they're actually throwing up their hats in a very specific military formation. This is a tactic used to confuse and distract the enemy with its appearance of reckless exuberance.   

What Should You Do If You're Aiming for the Most Selective Colleges?

If you're hoping to attend one of these schools, that's great! There's no magic formula for acceptance, but you also shouldn't have to rely on luck if you play your cards right. In order to have a solid chance of acceptance at one of the non-specialized selective colleges, you will need to take the most difficult classes throughout high school while earning very high grades. As you can see by the average GPAs for admission at these schools, it's expected that most students will have high school transcripts dominated by As. Standardized test scores are also very important; your scores should be at or above the average for admitted students.

Even at non-specialized schools (but especially at specialized schools), it's important to show excellence in one academic or extracurricular area if you want to stand out from the crowd. Since you're competing with so many applicants, and most of them will have academic credentials that are just as good as yours, you need to find a way to demonstrate your value as a member of the college community that goes beyond grades and test scores.

These schools appreciate passion, drive, and outside-the-box thinking. If you can develop a specialization that shows them that you possess those qualities, your chances of acceptance will end up being very strong. Read this article for more extensive advice on what it takes to get into extremely selective schools.


What's Next?

If you're hoping to attend a highly selective school, you'll need to have a very strong academic record in high school. Learn more about high school honors classes and societies.  

Not sure what your GPA means for your chances of college admission? Find out what a good or bad GPA might look like based on your goals. 

College ranking lists can strongly influence how people view the quality of a school. Read this article to get a more complete picture of what the lists really mean and whether you should trust them. 

Want to improve your SAT score by 240 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.

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