The Top 20 Most Selective Colleges


Posted by Chris Zhang

July 30, 2019 at 1:00 PM

College Admissions

Knowing a school’s acceptance rate is important. It’s a good tell on whether you have a chance to be admitted. If a school’s acceptance rate is 20%, that means only 2 out of 10 students that apply get admitted. And those 10 people applying aren’t just your average person, they’re people who think they have a chance at actually getting in. Do you think you’ll be that 2 out of 10?

This isn’t to scare you, but it’s important to be strategic and realistic with the colleges that you choose to apply to. Most students divy up the colleges they apply to into “safeties,” “possibles,” and “reaches,” and generally, colleges with high acceptance fall into “safeties,” colleges with low acceptance rates fall into “reaches,” and everything in between falls into “possibles.”

Note: Schools like the University of Michigan (23.5% acceptance rate) and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (21.9% acceptance rate) have “high” acceptance rates compared to some other schools but that acceptance rate isn’t necessarily the acceptance rate for you. What I mean is a lot of state schools have “inflated” acceptance rates because they must accept a certain number of in-state residents. If you are from out of state, you will be in a different applicant pool so your acceptance rate will be considerably lower (UNC Chapel Hill has an in-state acceptance rate of 41% and an out-of-state acceptance rate of 13% while UMichigan has an in-state acceptance rate of 41.1% and an out-of-state rate of 19.4%).

Why Are Some College’s Acceptance Rates So Low?

As mentioned above, a college’s acceptance rate can be attributed to multiple factors, but generally, the main factors for a college’s acceptance rate are their high academic standards and their popularity. At highly competitive schools, you’ll see an average SAT score of around 1500 and an average ACT score of around 33. That means that the average admitted student scored in the 99th percentile or close to the 99th percentile on the SAT or ACT. Popularity means that schools like the Ivy League schools get large applicant pools every year, but they only have a certain number of students that they can admit so they reject the majority of applicants.

Note: Even if you meet all the academic standards of a certain college, that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed admission into that college. Since elite colleges have such high academic standards and such huge popularity, many other applicants will meet the academic standards too. You have to have a complete and well-rounded application. That means your application needs to show extra-curricular activities, a strong personal character, and an ability to contribute to your community among others. You can’t just start developing these traits right before you send in your applications and expect colleges to believe that you’re actually passionate about what you do. Colleges are interested in getting to know you, so as long as you demonstrate your passion, you’ll be a strong applicant. These are some things that Harvard looks for when reviewing applicants.

Some colleges are popular for reasons outside of academics. Schools like West Point and the US Naval Academy have low acceptance rates because applicants must pass physical fitness tests and need a nomination from a US Representative, Senator, or the Vice President. Schools like Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music have low acceptance rates because they are looking for talented student musicians, and in Juilliard’s case, you have to audition in front of a faculty member. And there are schools like the Curtis Institute of Music that promise full-tuition scholarship or to meet financial need. That’s not to say that when applying to these schools you can have a low GPA or low standardized test scores, but these are examples of colleges with low acceptance rates out there that may consider other aspects of your application even more strongly than they consider academics.

If you’re applying to a Military School and you can’t do cardio for your life, you should probably reconsider. If you’re applying to a music school and you haven’t touched an instrument until your senior year, unless you’re the next coming of Beethoven, you’re probably not good enough to be admitted. Like non-specialized colleges, specialized colleges require you to have implicitly built your application from an early age, whether that be through academic excellence or pursuing your passions.

The Top 20 Most Selective Colleges

This is a list compiled by US News. I’m only going to list the top 20 most selective colleges since it just so happens that the top 20 have an acceptance rate of 10% or lower.

It’s important to note that these colleges and any college with an acceptance rate below 15% are reaches for all students. Just because you are a strong applicant does not mean you are guaranteed admission to any of these schools.

School Name # Accepted # of Applicants Acceptance Rate
Minevra Schools at Keck Graduate Institute 306 16,000 1.9%
Curtis Institute of Music 18 428 4.2%
Harvard University 2,024 42,749 4.7%
Stanford University 2,114 43,997 4.8%
Columbia University 2,214 40,203 5.5%
Princeton University 1,941 35,370 5.5%
Julliard School 157 2,545 6.2%
Yale University 2,224 35,308 6.3%
California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) 542 8,208 6.6%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 1,427 21,312 6.7%
University of Chicago 2,348 32,283 7.3%
Pomona College 779 10,245 7.6%
Brown University 2,718 35,437 7.7%
Northwestern University 3,396 40,426 8.4%
University of Pennslyvania 3,740 44,491 8.4%
United State Naval Academy 1,373 16,086 8.5%
Dartmouth College 1,925 22,033 8.7%
Duke College 3,219 37,330 8.6%
Claremont McKenna College 584 6,272 9.3%
United States Military Academy (West Point) 1,210 12,294 9.8%

Note: Since Minevra Schools at KGI is a new school, there isn’t a lot of information about them so I pulled information from their 2016 incoming freshman class. The rest of the information was pulled from either collegefactual.com or the respective college’s most recent incoming freshman profile (students who applied in 2018-19 and will graduate in 2023).

What’s Next?

Getting into schools with low acceptance rates is hard and ultimately requires a lot of work and dedication. There’s no telltale way to be accepted into these schools. As Harvard puts it, “there’s no typical Harvard student.” Are you a quarterback? Well you better be better than Uncle Rico and be able to throw it over the mountains. Are you a musician? You better have a hit single before applying.

You don’t actually have to accomplish these nearly impossible feats, but you do have to show dedication to your crafts and interests, especially when applying to specialized schools like Juilliard or the Curtis Institute of Music. If you’re applying to non-specialized schools, you’ll have to have a high GPA and strong standardized test scores. Even if you’re getting recruited to play a sport, highly selective colleges still require certain GPA and standardized test scores (albeit lower than the average student). The college application process is a stressful time, but once you’re finished and admitted into a list of colleges, you’ll have some of the best 4 years of your life to look forward to!

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Posted by Chris Zhang

Chris scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT in high school and is currently studying Economics and Data Science at Colby College. Fun Fact: The only movie he ever cried in was Fast and Furious 7.