(See the list for 2022 at the end of the post.) What are the hardest colleges to get into? Anyone going through the college admissions process can’t help but ask the question at least once. It’s a lot like visiting a Parade of Homes that you know you’ll never afford or maybe like rubbernecking while driving past a car wreck on the freeway-which ever analogy works for you. Of course, you can just look at US News College Rankings and get a pretty good idea. And that’s the point, everything in the media seems to reinforce the perception that exclusivity equals quality. Even if when we know better, we can’t help but feel insecure when we choose a lesser-known college.

Instant Download of Hardest Colleges to Get Into List

So what am I doing talking about the hardest colleges to get into given the overall orientation of my website? Simple, I want to show you some numbers including the acceptance rates of these “exclusive” colleges. Also, I would like to remind everyone of one thing: these colleges do not guarantee a job with a minimum salary after graduation. They are happy to let students and families infer that going to their schools will result in better employment outcomes but none will guarantee it. Because they can’t.

Let’s face it, while they would if they could, why bother? They have successfully branded themselves in the same way companies that sell luxury items have convinced customers that their product will enhance their image in some way. There’s no proof, just pervasive marketing that seems to convince even those who don’t actually buy the product.

Colleges with the Lowest Acceptance Rates

Enough of my rant. Let’s talk about the schools. There are approximately 1,600 4-year institutions with at least 500 full-time undergraduates in the country. Generally I focus on those that have at least a 50% graduation rate and accept at least 50% of students. That list is approaching 600 institutions. To create the list of the hardest schools to get into, I selected only schools that accepted less than 50% of students and have a 4-year graduation rate greater than 50%. This leaves me with 126 schools.

Just in case you’re wondering, there are 30 schools that accept less than 50% of students and have graduation rates less than 50%. One thing to keep in mind is that Northeastern University doesn’t show up on the list because it lists it’s 4-year graduation rate as 0. It has an extensive coop program which adds time (for paid work) to graduation and has a 5-year graduation rate of 88%.

Back to the hardest schools to get into. The following is a breakdown of the number of colleges by acceptance rates.

Acceptance Rates Number of Colleges
40%-49% 27
30%-39% 23
20%-29% 17
10%-19% 35
Less than 10% 24

The fact is that when I say hardest schools to get into, most people are probably focused on the 76 that accept less than 30% of students. But here’s the first thing I would like people to think about. Over 75% of colleges and universities accept at least 50% of students. I know, I know, for those concerned with the hardest schools, the issue is are they the “right” colleges?

What a difference 20 years makes

Some of them have to be if for no other reason than demographics. The usual colleges and universities on the list of “elite” schools haven’t been expanding their class size to keep up with population growth. In 2001 there were only 47 schools with acceptance rates less than 30%. In 2001, Harvard accepted 11% of students, Princeton 12%, Stanford 13% which is 3 times the amount it did in 2021. All the students who didn’t get into those universities in 2021 had to go somewhere else which explains why the University of Chicago’s acceptance rate dropped from 44% in 2001 to just 6% in 2021. During the same period, Vanderbilt went from 46% to 7% and Tulane went from 61% to 10%.

Does that mean these universities dramatically improved over 20 years or just got harder to get into as more people were rejected from those schools topping US News College Rankings? If you believe that the quality of the students matter, then you’ve got to imagine many are going to be enrolling at colleges today that will be among the hardest to get into in another decade or two. Even if demographics are shifting to increasingly smaller cohorts of high school graduates, do you really think that Harvard is going to let its acceptance rate ever go past 10% again? I suspect it would lower its application fee before allowing its acceptance rate to go above 10%.

Hardest Colleges to Get Into Characteristics

Enough about the hardest colleges to get into in 2001 compared to 2021. Let’s talk about the characteristics of those on the 2021 list.

Location

The colleges can be found in 30 states. The top five states with the most institutions are:

California: 18
New York: 17
Massachusetts: 14
Pennsylvania: 11
North Carolina: 6
Virginia: 6

Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that these are the states with the most population but you notice that Texas doesn’t make the top five. There are eight states with only one institution on the hardest colleges to get into list and 21 without any. Location also includes geographic settings, think big city versus small town. It’s no surprise that half of the schools are located in large cities or their suburbs. Compared to those schools that didn’t make the list, the hardest schools to get into are overrepresented in these location settings. Surely location helps colleges appeal to students.

Size

As with all colleges, the majority of schools on the list, 73, have fewer than 5,000 full-time undergraduates. The rest are split between schools in the 5,000-9,999 category and 10,000 plus category. However, once again, the schools on the list are disproportionately represented in the largest categories. A total of 21% are in the largest category compared to just 13% of those not on the list while 21% are in the middle category compared to the 14% of schools who didn’t make the list.

Cost

If you’re hoping to attend one of the schools on the list, expect to pay a premium for the privilege. On average the total cost of attendance for the private schools on the hardest schools to get into list was $74,818 compared to $51,026 for those not on the list. The average out-of-state tuition for public universities on the list was much higher, $52,490, than the average of $35,960 for those not on the list. Even the in-state average total cost of $30,008 for public institutions on the list was higher than the $25,073 average for those not on the list.

Financial Aid

It’s common knowledge that very few students pay the actual sticker price (total cost of attendance) for college. Colleges are quick to tell you that 90 something percent of their students receive some sort of financial aid. And in general, that’s true. At private institutions, 94% of freshman receive some sort of financial aid. However, when you consider only private schools on the list of hardest colleges to get into, the average drops to just 74%. That means that at least a quarter of the freshman are full-pay students. Remember these are some of the most expensive colleges around.

This doesn’t mean that schools are stingy with financial aid. The list includes schools with some of the most generous financial aid policies in the country. It means that there are a lot of students that simply don’t qualify for financial aid because their families earn too much even under these generous policies. But it isn’t the case for all of the schools on the list.

The average net price for the private school on the list is $29,043 which is higher than the $24,105 for those not on the list. Average Net Price is the basic indicator of a college’s financial aid generosity. It’s the average price students pay after deducting all gift aid such as grants and scholarships. A total of 26 of the hardest schools to get into have average net prices below $24,105 indicating they are providing generous financial aid. However, there are 11 schools with average net price greater than $40,000 with two schools actually above $50,000. One is the California Institute of the Arts, not that surprising for an art school, but the other is NYU. Families should not assume just because a college is one of the hardest to get into, it will automatically provide generous need-based financial aid.

Pell Grants

This is true for Pell Grant recipients as well. Given the low percentage of freshman with Pell Grants at schools on the list, 18% at private institutions compared to 39% at those not on the list, you would think that low-income students could count on having their need fully met. It really all depends how you define need and remember, the schools get to define it.

The average net price for students in the lowest income category (less than $30,000) attending private schools on the list is $11,417 which is better than the $19,118 for those not on the list. Eight of the schools have an average net price less than $1,000 and another 19 are less than $6,000 which put the cost within the price of a student loan. Obviously, these are schools that do well-by low-income students who do attend. Yet, there are 13 schools where the average net price for students with family incomes under $30,000 is $20,000 or higher. And at least two of these schools, Lafayette and Bucknell, claim to meet 100% of freshman need.

126 Hardest Colleges to Get Into

The following is a list of the hardest colleges to get into based on data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS) in October of 2022.

Click here for Instant Download of the list in PDF format with average net price, percentage of freshman with Pell Grants, and 2001 acceptance rates.

Hardest Colleges to Get Into
(with at least a 50% 4-year graduation rate)

Name Type State Full-time Under-grads 4 yr Grad-uation Rate % Admitted 2021
California Institute of Technology Private CA 973 86 4
Princeton University Private NJ 4,746 90 4
Harvard University Private MA 6,161 86 4
Stanford University Private CA 6,157 77 4
Columbia University in the City of New York Private NY 7,792 88 4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Private MA 4,326 88 4
Yale University Private CT 5,898 88 5
Dartmouth College Private NH 4,700 86 6
Brown University Private RI 6,889 86 6
University of Chicago Private IL 7,351 91 6
Duke University Private NC 6,940 89 6
University of Pennsylvania Private PA 10,213 89 6
Northwestern University Private IL 8,404 86 7
Vanderbilt University Private TN 7,061 89 7
Pomona College Private CA 1,556 86 7
Swarthmore College Private PA 1,533 87 8
Johns Hopkins University Private MD 5,894 87 8
United States Naval Academy Public MD 4,594 89 8
Rice University Private TX 4,037 87 9
Amherst College Private MA 1,863 87 9
Bowdoin College Private ME 1,881 89 9
Colby College Private ME 2,232 81 9
Cornell University Private NY 15,121 88 9
Williams College Private MA 2,043 85 9
Tulane University of Louisiana Private LA 8,078 77 10
Harvey Mudd College Private CA 827 88 10
Barnard College Private NY 2,744 85 11
Grinnell College Private IA 1,536 82 11
Tufts University Private MA 6,082 89 11
Claremont McKenna College Private CA 1,305 80 11
University of California-Los Angeles Public CA 32,325 83 11
United States Military Academy Public NY 4,549 79 11
Georgetown University Private DC 6,764 90 12
United States Air Force Academy Public CO 4,403 85 12
New York University Private NY 27,464 78 13
University of Southern California Private CA 19,533 79 13
Emory University Private GA 7,119 83 13
Middlebury College Private VT 3,626 84 13
Washington University in St Louis Private MO 7,187 87 13
Carnegie Mellon University Private PA 6,441 79 14
Colorado College Private CO 1,969 82 14
Hamilton College Private NY 2,013 87 14
University of California-Berkeley Public CA 30,385 79 14
University of Notre Dame Private IN 8,949 90 15
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Private NY 837 64 15
Wellesley College Private MA 2,353 84 16
Georgia Institute of Technology-Main Campus Public GA 15,376 51 16
Colgate University Private NY 3,067 87 17
Bates College Private ME 1,922 88 17
Carleton College Private MN 1,952 87 18
Davidson College Private NC 2,029 86 18
Haverford College Private PA 1,342 84 18
Pitzer College Private CA 871 81 18
Rhode Island School of Design Private RI 1,818 70 19
Boston College Private MA 9,702 88 19
Boston University Private MA 17,431 84 19
Wesleyan University Private CT 3,031 86 19
Washington and Lee University Private VA 1,831 91 19
United States Coast Guard Academy Public CT 1,104 91 19
Vassar College Private NY 2,456 87 20
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Public NC 18,756 84 20
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Public MI 30,681 81 20
University of Virginia-Main Campus Public VA 17,173 89 21
American Musical and Dramatic Academy Private NY 1,664 67 22
Hillsdale College Private MI 1,448 78 24
Babson College Private MA 2,656 90 25
Villanova University Private PA 7,044 88 25
Wake Forest University Private NC 5,417 86 25
United States Merchant Marine Academy Public NY 1,047 74 25
University of Miami Private FL 11,307 73 28
Denison University Private OH 2,279 77 28
California Institute of the Arts Private CA 705 61 29
University of Richmond Private VA 3,172 84 29
University of California-Santa Barbara Public CA 23,527 70 29
The University of Texas at Austin Public TX 38,500 70 29
University of California-Irvine Public CA 29,867 68 29
Case Western Reserve University Private OH 5,355 67 30
Scripps College Private CA 908 77 30
Smith College Private MA 2,357 85 30
University of North Carolina School of the Arts Public NC 891 67 30
University of Florida Public FL 33,060 72 30
Skidmore College Private NY 2,561 81 31
Macalester College Private MN 2,080 85 31
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo Public CA 20,569 57 33
Oberlin College Private OH 2,741 72 34
Trinity University Private TX 2,510 69 34
University of California-San Diego Public CA 31,746 73 34
Howard University Private DC 7,696 53 35
Bucknell University Private PA 3,725 83 35
Hampden-Sydney College Private VA 895 57 37
Kenyon College Private OH 1,755 83 37
William & Mary Public VA 6,393 86 37
Florida State University Public FL 30,808 70 37
Corban University Private OR 916 56 38
Franklin and Marshall College Private PA 2,349 78 38
Occidental College Private CA 1,870 79 38
Trinity College Private CT 2,212 81 38
Bryn Mawr College Private PA 1,332 81 39
Brandeis University Private MA 4,487 82 39
University of Georgia Public GA 29,542 68 40
Lafayette College Private PA 2,550 85 41
Connecticut College Private CT 1,735 78 41
Regent University Private VA 2,823 52 41
University of Rochester Private NY 6,101 76 41
Austin College Private TX 1,296 65 43
College of the Holy Cross Private MA 3,047 90 43
Reed College Private OR 1,406 61 44
Binghamton University Public NY 14,607 75 44
Emerson College Private MA 3,923 76 45
Illinois Wesleyan University Private IL 1,654 76 45
Loyola Marymount University Private CA 6,711 72 46
Columbia International University Private SC 713 57 46
Lehigh University Private PA 5,076 78 46
State University of New York at New Paltz Public NY 6,253 58 46
William Jewell College Private MO 776 61 47
Union College Private NY 2,082 80 47
St Olaf College Private MN 2,982 81 47
North Carolina State University at Raleigh Public NC 23,751 64 47
Clark University Private MA 2,248 75 48
Dickinson College Private PA 1,969 79 48
Stony Brook University Public NY 17,676 64 48
Mississippi College Private MS 2,359 51 49
Rollins College Private FL 2,579 63 49
University of California-Davis Public CA 31,201 62 49
Clemson University Public SC 20,978 65 49
University of South Florida Public FL 31,946 59 49

 

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Michelle Kretzschmar

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