When we hear the phrase “Ivy League”, most of us probably think of rich people who tie sweaters around their necks. Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to it than that. The Ivy League is a group of elite colleges that have a long history of impressive achievements and notable alumni. But how did this come about? And what are these schools really like? Read on to learn more about the formation of the Ivy League, its member schools, and whether you should consider applying.
A Brief History of the Ivy League
The Ivy League consists of eight of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States. These schools originally formed a league based on their common interests in both academics and athletics.
The Complete List of Ivy League Schools:
- Brown University (founded 1746)
- Columbia University (founded 1754)
- Cornell University (founded 1865)
- Dartmouth College (founded 1769)
- Harvard University (founded 1636)
- University of Pennsylvania, AKA UPenn (founded 1740)
- Princeton University (founded 1746)
- Yale University (founded 1702)
Even though the schools themselves date back to well before the American Revolution, the term “Ivy League” has been around for a shorter time than you might think. The most popular origin story is that the term was coined in the early 1930s by a sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune who complained about covering a football game between Columbia and UPenn instead of a game featuring his alma mater, Fordham University. He somewhat disdainfully referred to Columbia and UPenn as old "ivy-covered" schools and was the first to use the term "Ivy League" in the article that followed.
The label didn't become official until 1945, when the presidents of the eight schools got together to form an agreement “for the purpose of reaffirming their intention of continuing intercollegiate football in such a way as to maintain the values of the game, while keeping it in fitting proportion to the main purposes of academic life.'' Essentially, they made it their mission to work together to balance athletics and academics at the colleges (originally just football, but later extended to other sports). They would call themselves the Ivy League.
The Ivy League is kind of like the Justice League, except back when it was originally formed only rich white dudes could be a part of it. Well, I guess that's mostly true for the Justice League too. Now I'm depressed.
Two inter-university committees were formed, one that enforced the rules of eligibility for Ivy League sports (mostly comprised of college deans) and one that established general athletic policies (comprised of athletic directors). Starting in the mid-1950s, these schools began to organize competitions amongst each other in a variety of sports. The Ivy League later added committees for admission and financial aid as the organization took on a more academic focus.
Although the creation of the Ivy League was rooted in athletics, nowadays these schools are known for their academic prestige and famous alumni. All the Ivy League colleges have large endowments that are the product of wealthy alumni contributions over the years. Ivy League schools are often seen as symbols of elitism because they attract students who come from legacies of wealth, but they offer some great financial aid packages to disadvantaged students because of their large endowments.
They represent some of the most selective and well-known colleges in the country. The schools of the Ivy League have had more time than most other colleges to build up their reputations through the accumulation of highly successful graduates. In addition to competitive undergraduate programs, Ivy League universities offer some of the best professional programs for law and medicine.
Gavel Banging 101 is by far the best law school class, but the finals can be a little chaotic.
Ivy League Schools: The Specifics
For each of the Ivy League colleges, I’ll list enrollment, admissions, and tuition statistics so you can get a better idea of how they differ from one another:
|School||Location||Undergrad Enrollment||Admit Rate||Yearly Cost||US News Rank|
|Columbia||New York City, NY||8,613||6%||$68,825||4|
|Cornell||Ithaca, NY||14,315||14%||$67,613 out-of-state; $50,869 NY residents||15|
Are Ivy League Schools Really Better Than Other Universities?
The members of the Ivy League may be some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, but will they actually give you a better education than other schools with similar acceptance rates?
The main reason an Ivy League school might be better than any other top-tier university is due to name recognition. A diploma from an Ivy League college may open doors for you because employers and graduate school admissions officers will know immediately that you went to an extremely competitive school. Ivy League universities have great international reputations that not many other colleges can claim. You’ll also get the opportunity to network with highly successful and influential alumni.
Still, you should keep in mind that there are major differences between schools within the Ivy League in terms of reputation. The traditional top three, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, are seen as somewhat more impressive than less selective Ivies like Cornell or Dartmouth. They're all well-respected schools, but getting into one Ivy League school isn't equivalent to getting into all of them.
For this and other reasons, it's risky to assume that Ivy League grads will end up more “successful” overall than other students. Success is more about a student’s inherent drive and ability than which school he or she ends up attending. One study found that “the better predictor of earnings was the average SAT scores of the most selective school a teenager applied to and not the typical scores of the institution the student attended.” In other words, students who applied to Ivy League-caliber schools but ended up attending less selective colleges fared no worse than their elite school counterparts.
Ambition is one of the most important factors in success. It's also a good idea to carry a heavy briefcase at all times. People are more likely to hire you if you have one disproportionately strong arm.
The truth is that Ivy League colleges don’t always have the highest quality of instruction for undergraduate students. Overall, they tend to be very focused on doing academic research to maintain their position at the forefront of academia. Professors may be less interested in teaching than they are in their personal projects. You could end up with a better learning experience at a small, highly selective college that exclusively enrolls undergraduate students because the professors are there primarily to teach.
Ivy League colleges also aren’t the only schools where you’ll derive inspiration from the amazing things the students around you are doing. There are many selective colleges and universities around the country that attract highly motivated students and have learning environments that will challenge you. Though the Ivies have high concentrations of intense students, they definitely don’t have a monopoly on undergraduate talent.
In summary, here's a chart that details how different types of non-Ivy universities compare to Ivy League schools. A plus sign indicates that this type of college is arguably better than Ivy League schools in the category specified on the left. A minus sign indicates that it's not quite as good. An equals sign indicates that the type of college is comparable to the colleges of the Ivy League.
Top Tier Research Universities
Top Tier Small Teaching Colleges
Slightly Lower Ranked Universities
(16-30 US News)
|Reputation (National and International)||=||-||-|
|Graduate School Potential||=||=||-|
|Caliber of Students||=||=||-|
Should You Apply to Ivy League Schools?
The prospect of going to an Ivy League university might sound great, but before you decide to apply, you should take a few different factors into consideration. Here's what you need to do before sending in an application.
Check Your Qualifications
For it to be worth applying to any of these schools, you should be performing at a very high level academically. Even at the Ivies with acceptance rates above 10 percent (Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn), serious applicants have very impressive high school transcripts and test scores. At Cornell, for example, the average SAT score for admitted students is a 2170.
If you want to have a strong chance of admission at most of the Ivies, you should shoot for at least a 2200 SAT score or a 33 ACT score. The GPAs of most students who are accepted to Ivy League universities are at or close to a 4.0. It’s expected that you will have taken the hardest courses in high school and be at least in the top 5-10 percent of your class.
As you might know, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are the most notoriously selective of the Ivies (although Columbia has snuck up on them in recent years). To get into these schools, you should have great test scores and grades plus other impressive and unique accomplishments that will distinguish your application. This could be anything from winning a national science fair competition to starting your own business to writing a novel. Read this article to learn more about how to get into the most ridiculously selective schools.
If most other applicants are the little pink flowers, you need to be the big pink tree. Or better yet, be the mountain.
Do Your Research
OK, so you think you probably have a chance of acceptance. Should you just apply to Princeton because the name sounds like some sort of magical kingdom of learning? Definitely not! Even though all the Ivy League colleges have great academics and highly motivated student bodies, some will fit your preferences better than others. You might decide that none of them are the right fit for you even though you have the appropriate qualifications.
You could be more interested in applying to colleges located in a different area of the country. There are some great schools on the west coast that are at the same level as the Ivies (think Stanford) without the nasty winter weather. If you’re interested in very small or very large colleges, you might not want to go to an Ivy League school. The smallest, Dartmouth, has between 4 and 5 thousand undergraduates, and the largest, Cornell, has between 14 and 15 thousand, so all of these schools are more in the middle range for size.
If possible, you should visit the campuses of schools that interest you, so you can get a feel for what they’re like. When I was looking at colleges, I considered applying to Princeton, but when I went on a campus tour, I decided that it seemed like too intense of a place for me. I ended up choosing Dartmouth because I felt like it had a more comfortable atmosphere with a close-knit community and a campus that encouraged outdoor activities.
These are just some of the factors you could consider depending on what’s most important to you. Other concerns might include financial aid, research opportunities and facilities, quality of undergraduate teaching, study abroad options, and more. Don’t apply to an Ivy just because you’ve heard of the school before. Check out my guide on how to do college research for more detailed information!
Plus, you'll get some practice for doing research in college! Fake fun fact: Ivy League libraries provide hideous complimentary glasses to all students to prevent them from flirting with each other while studying.
Make Sure the Decision Is Yours
I think this idea is important enough to be its own point even though it ties into doing your research. Most of us have it drilled into our heads from a relatively young age that going to an Ivy League university is the best way to prove once and for all that you’re a card-carrying smart person (even as I’m joking, I’m also cringing). It’s so hard not to be influenced by this societal norm, especially if your parents, teachers, and even peers are pushing you to go to one of these schools. I know I was influenced by it, and I sometimes wish I had made a different decision that was more firmly based on my personality and interests rather than what others expected of me.
Remember that going to an Ivy League university isn’t something that you have to do just because you can. If you genuinely love one of these schools, then go for it, but if there’s another college that fits your needs better, you shouldn’t feel pressured to go to an Ivy instead. There are plenty of great colleges out there, and you should take the time to think about what you really want before you make a choice. This will be your life for four years, so make sure you get to enjoy it!
"Dear Diary, I hate it here at Harvard. Crimson is a terrible color. I wish my parents weren't so obsessed with obscure shades of red."
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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.