What is the Ivy League? (And How to Get In)

Today, we are going to be discussing the Ivy League. Many people have unexamined assumptions about what this group of schools is. We’re going to take a look at exactly what the Ivy League is, what it isn’t, and end things by offering some tips on gaining admission to the United States’ most competitive universities.

The Ivy League: A Definition

Most people believe the Ivy League to be a collection of the top colleges/universities in the United States. The confusion around this has led people to believing that schools like MIT, Stanford, and the University of Chicago are also in the Ivy League, because they are top-tier universities.

Let’s create some clarity around this once and for all. The Ivy League is very simply an athletic conference (organization) of eight universities in the northeastern United States. That’s it! Members of the Ivy League compete against each other in sports and are located within a relatively short distance of each other.

These are the members (in no particular order)

  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Cornell University

Obviously, these are all excellent academic institutions, but we need to make it clear that being members of the Ivy League has nothing to do with that. They just happen to be in the same athletic conference.

Other Top-Tier Universities

Earlier, we mentioned universities like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago. These are also top-tier universities with just as much academic prestige as the Ivy League schools, but they are not themselves members of the Ivy League. Clearly, nobody would say that these schools are not some of the best of the best. And yet, they are not in the Ivy League. As such, it should be obvious that you don’t have to be a member of the Ivy League to be a top university in the United States.

If you are considering applying to top universities in the United States, you cannot go wrong with the Ivy League, but please do not limit yourself to it. There are over 4000 universities in the United States and there are many that would be considered top schools.

Getting In to Top Universities

“Okay, I understand that top universities in the United States go beyond the Ivy League, but how do I get in?” That’s the big question on most people’s minds. I wish the answer was simple, but it isn’t. Admission to the most competitive universities in the US (<10% admission rate) can feel almost random at times. Ultimately, we will never be able to step into the room when the admissions committee is deciding on a particular student’s application, so we can never really know why one student got in over another. That being said, there are some important things to keep in mind.

  1. Academic performance is a critical prerequisite. In order to stand a chance at getting into any of these schools, students must demonstrate that they are academically capable of succeeding at the highest levels of course rigor offered by their schools. That means you ought to be in the highest level classes you can take and getting very high grades in them, consistently throughout high school. It’s okay if you got a B one time in 10th grade, or if you missed out on one AP class you could’ve taken and instead took an honors. These things happen, and admissions officers understand. The important thing is that the overall, big picture you are painting is one of a student that is highly competent in terms of academics (that doesn’t mean totally perfect, though). Also, note that we wrote that this is a critical prerequisite. It is not a guarantee that you will get in. It simply means that they will consider your application – if you are not a top academic performer, your chances of admissions will be drastically cut down.
  2. Set yourself apart with engaging, unique extracurricular activities. Given that stellar academic performance is only a prerequisite, how do you set yourself apart when every applicant to Brown, for example, has the same (or better) GPA as you? The answer is extracurricular activities. We’ve written an entire blog post on building a competitive extracurricular profile for college admissions. Check it out if you’re interested in learning more about what you can do on this front.
  3. There are things that are completely out of your control. Each year at many major universities, the President and Board of Trustees gather together to develop “strategic objectives” for the university. This may be something like “in our 2020 admissions cycle, we want to see more people from Florida public schools be admitted,” or “we need more competitive swimmers to build up our program’s reputation.” These strategic objectives are never made public, but play a very important role in deciding what kind of student will be admitted to a top university in any given year. These things are completely out of your control. You may have the grades, extracurriculars, recommendations, and everything else that checks the boxes, and still not get admitted to a top school. Why? It isn’t because you weren’t qualified enough – chances are you were more than qualified. It was because you weren’t exactly what the university was looking for that specific year. Maybe the previous year they were looking for students just like you and they got plenty of them, so they don’t want any more at this time. This cannot be emphasized enough – all you can do in this process is make yourself into as competitive of an applicant as possible, but that will not guarantee anything, as many parts of the process are totally out of your control. That’s why it is critical that you do not put all of your eggs in one basket a build a balanced list to ensure you have options to choose from at the end of the day.

We hope we have offered clarity on the Ivy League, other top schools, and how to gain admission to the most competitive programs in the United States. At American College Counselors, we work one-on-one with students to help them develop a unique strategy that will maximize chances of admissions success at America’s top universities.

If you need help on your college list, interviews, applications, essays, resumes, or anything else related to the admissions process, please contact us to set up a free initial consultation where we can get to know each other a bit better and explain exactly what we do. Send us an email at [email protected] or call/text us at +1(954)-593-6230.

The American College Counselors Team