15 Colleges and Universities with the Lowest Acceptance Rates

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Updated: February 28, 2024, Reading time: 16 minutes

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The hardest colleges to get into are those with the lowest acceptance rates. These colleges and universities send admission offers to 10% or less of the total number of applicants for the academic year. California Institute of Technology, for example, only sends admission offers to 2%, on average, of its pool of applicants, while Amherst College and Cornell University accept only 7% of their applicants per year.

Colleges and Universities with the Lowest Acceptance Rates - fact

For this reason, the 15 institutions featured here are considered among the most selective colleges and universities in the United States and the world. Their respective acceptance rate, which is expressed as a percentage (i.e., the ratio of the total number of applicants to the number of students accepted for a specific year), strengthens their prestigious reputations as centers for academic excellence. 

Note that the acceptance rate is different from the yield rate (i.e., the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll in the college). Emphasis must also be made that the average college acceptance rate is 68%, although many colleges and universities have a 99% acceptance rate (e.g., Liberty University).

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Main Reasons for Low Acceptance Rates

Why do the most selective colleges and universities have low acceptance rates in the first place? We can mention several factors for the low acceptance rates among elite schools, most of which are private institutions.

High demand

With elite colleges and universities, particularly the Ivy League institutions, attracting a large number of overachievers from around the world, the decision to limit the number of admitted students maintains their elite status.

These sought-after institutions also have a limited capacity because of their commitment to maintaining a low student-to-faculty ratio – the college can provide the fewer students, the more personalized attention and services, the higher the quality of academic instruction received by students. The selective admissions process ensures the achievement of academic excellence, among other goals.

Brand reputation 

The most selective colleges and universities have a history of academic excellence, cutting-edge research, and breakthrough innovations that strengthen their brand. For example, Caltech’s brand is recognized worldwide for scientific breakthroughs that have changed the world.

As such, more students aspire for admission, but there’s limited capacity in these elite schools, not to mention that even among the wealthiest schools (e.g., Harvard), the resources aren’t inexhaustible. 

Nonetheless, we must emphasize that low acceptance rates or a low GPA aren’t the be-all and end-all of a meaningful college education! You must also consider other equally important factors, such as your personal goals and interests, your suitability for the campus culture, and your finances. 

But if you’re determined to be admitted to one of the hardest colleges to get into, we suggest starting your preparation during your high school years, perhaps even as early as your freshman year.

While the most selective colleges and universities don’t have a magic formula for their selection process, their most important considerations are academic excellence, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities, such as intellectual curiosity and vitality, resilience and resourcefulness, and leadership skills. By presenting a well-rounded portfolio of achievements, your chances of admission increase.

10 Selective Colleges and Graduate Schools with the Lowest Acceptance Rates

California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology

Pasadena, CA

Overall Acceptance Rate: 2.03% (Class of 2027)

The California Institute of Technology, a private research university, is among the hardest colleges to get into – and the Class of 2027 can attest to it! With just 267 students chosen from 13,136 applicants, the freshmen students joined the small 1,000+ undergraduate student body, of whom 99% placed in the top tenth of their secondary graduating class.  

Caltech’s emphasis on academic excellence and ambition, combined with the ultra-low student-to-faculty ratio, hands-on research opportunities, and varied learning opportunities, means students enjoy the best possible education. 

Caltech looks for the following traits among applicants: 

Applicants must use either the Common App or QuestBridge Application form, as well as submit a school report, teacher evaluations, official transcripts, and mid-year report. 

Harvard University

Harvard University

Cambridge, MA

Overall Acceptance Rate: 3.41% (Class of 2027)

Harvard University, a private Ivy League research university, has such prestige that it’s among the most selective colleges in the world, with only 1,942 students accepted from 56,937 applications for the Class of 2027! 

Despite its low acceptance rate, Harvard doesn’t have a set formula for its admissions criteria. While academic accomplishments are considered important, an applicant’s extracurricular activities, community involvement, and personal qualities are just as crucial in admissions decisions.

For this reason, the admissions committee considers the information shared by teachers, counselors and even peers as well as alumni regarding an applicant’s academic performance and potential, resilience and resourcefulness, and leadership qualities, among other traits signifying extraordinariness. 

Application requirements include: 

Columbia University

Columbia University

New York, NY

Acceptance Rate: 3.9% (Class of 2027)

Columbia University, a private Ivy League research university, offered admission to 2,246 students out of the 57,129 total applications for the Class of 2027. These offers of admission were for The Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science and Columbia College, as well as for both Regular Decision and Early Decision cycles. 

Applicants are evaluated based on holistic criteria, with their respective application being the primary source of information. Columbia’s admissions officers consider every applicant’s intellect, curiosity and dynamism, which are the three traits that characterize the diverse student body.

There are no cut-off standardized test scores and GPAs that the admissions officers consider since the entirety of the application package, which includes a personal statement, a school report, academic transcripts, and teacher recommendations, has more weight. 

Once admitted, freshmen students are guaranteed four years of on-campus housing. Columbia meets 100% of the students’ demonstrated financial need for all its freshmen students regardless of their citizenship.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, MA

General Acceptance Rate: 4.8% (Class of 2027)

MIT, a private land-grant research university, has a worldwide reputation for breakthrough innovations in the STEM fields. With its 4.8% acceptance rate – only 1,291 first-year admits out of 26,914 first-year applications for the Class of 2027) – it’s among the hardest colleges to get into. 

Senior admissions officers consider every application holistically before strong applications are summarized by more admissions officers for the Admissions Committee’s final consideration. The student-centered selection process means every applicant will be considered based on their own merit, with the primary criteria being: 

Application requirements include biographical and personal information, essays, activities and academic transcripts, letters of recommendation, Secondary School Report, standardized test scores, and creative portfolios. Qualified applicants will undergo an intensive interview.

Stanford University

Stanford University

Stanford, CA

Acceptance Rate: 3.68% (Class of 2026)

Stanford University, a private research university, is among the most selective colleges with a 3.68% acceptance rate for its Class of 2026 – of the 56,378 applicants, only 2,074 received offers of admission, the lowest in its history. The admissions officers recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and, thus, use a holistic selection process wherein every piece in the application package tells a story. 

What Stanford values most in their applicants are: 

The application requirements include: 

Stanford is a test-optional school but accepts an art portfolio (optional).

Brown University

Brown University

Providence, RI

Acceptance Rate: 5.23% (Class of 2027)

Brown University, a private Ivy League research university, received 51,316 applications for its Class of 2027 but only offered admissions to 2,686 students. About 1,700 enrolled as first-year students, with the majority in the 10% of their high school graduating class, a testament to Brown’s selectivity.

Once enrolled, students thrive in the Open Curriculum setup where they become the architects of their own program of study, as well as benefit from the diverse, inclusive and dynamic campus life. 

Brown’s holistic selection process considers the totality of an applicant’s academic performance and potential, extracurricular activities and community involvement, and individual circumstances that demonstrate resilience, drive and determination. The contextual approach not only considers high school accomplishments but also an applicant’s potential for meaningful contributions to the Brown community. 

Application requirements include: 

Curtis Institute of Music

Curtis Institute of Music

Philadelphia, PA

Acceptance Rate: 4% 

The Curtis Institute of Music,  a private conservatory, encourages applicants to submit their applications even when they don’t think they qualify. Applicants are evaluated based solely on their artistic promise and their potential to become extraordinary artists that the Curtis community can be proud of. Technical proficiency in the chosen arts is obviously a must, but artistic promise has equal, if not greater, weight in the selection process. 

The two-step admission process involves applying and auditioning, and applicants who have submitted a complete application package aren’t guaranteed an invitation for an audition. The Curtis selection process emphasizes curiosity, desire for learning and its applications, time management skills, and an abiding passion for music. 

Once admitted, students polish their talents and skills through rigorous academics and solo and orchestra performances. All Curtis students receive free education (i.e., Curtis doesn’t charge tuition). 

Application requirements include: 

Voice and opera applicants must submit additional application requirements. 

University of Chicago

University of Chicago

Chicago, IL

Acceptance Rate: 4.75% (Class of 2027)

The University of Chicago, a private research university, is known for its distinctive core curriculum, emphasis on academic excellence, and love for being different. No wonder then that it’s among the world’s most selective colleges with a 4.75% acceptance rate for its Class of 2027 – of the 38,800 applications received, only 1,849 applicants were offered admission. 

UChicago values well-rounded students whose academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and personal life experiences contribute to their potential for life success. For this reason, every applicant is evaluated based on three distinct factors: 

Application requirements include: 

Optional requirements include standardized test scores, financial aid application, video profile, and portfolio. Applicants must create their personalized UChicago account as well as choose from regular decision, early action, or early decision (I and II) cycles.

Yale University

Yale University

New Haven, CT

Admission Rate: 4.5% (Class of 2027)

Yale University, a private Ivy League research university, enrolled 1,647 students from its applicant pool of 52,303 for its Class of 2027. With its emphasis on being an excellent academic institution, first and foremost, Yale’s selection process values academic strengths above all else. 

Applicant evaluations are based on their academic performance, as determined through their high school transcripts and their teachers’ evaluations, including their intellectual curiosity, peer relationships, and classroom impact. Note that while there are no standardized test score cut-offs, Yale students have excellent SAT-Math scores (740-790) or ACT Composite scores (33-35). 

Applicants must submit the following requirements: 

Qualified applicants are invited to an interview.

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH

Acceptance Rate: 6.2% (Class of 2027)

Dartmouth College, a private Ivy League research university, attracts the best and brightest with more than half (55%) of the Class of 2027 from public schools and more than half (57%) also financial aid recipients. Of the 28,841 applications received, only 1,797 applicants were accepted, thus making Dartmouth among the world’s most selective colleges. 

Dartmouth believes that every student brings unique experiences, perspectives and contributions to its community and, thus, adopts a holistic selection process. Students praise the D-Plan which allows them greater flexibility in their academic planning, even encouraging them to pursue study-abroad and international internship opportunities. 

The most valued traits among applicants are curiosity, risk-taking and adventurousness, which can be demonstrated through the writing supplement. The required application components include: 

Applicants may also be requested to submit standardized test scores, a peer recommendation, and an art portfolio.

Duke University

Duke University

Durham, NC

Acceptance Rate: 6.3% (Class of 2027

Duke University, a private research university, is distinguished by the wide range of academic programs and customized majors offered to its students, including Program II and IDEAS. Such is its long-standing tradition of academic excellence that it’s among the world’s most selective colleges – for the Class of 2027, for example, only 1,743 students were enrolled out of 49,476 applicants. 

Duke looks for students who have the abilities, aptitude and desire to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities offered to them in an intelligent, creative and enthusiastic manner. There’s a high value placed on curiosity, energy, humanity, persistence, talent and ambition, too, which are considered during the holistic admission process. 

Applicants are also evaluated based on their: 

Alumni interviews are optional.

Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton, NJ

Acceptance Rate: 5.7% (Class of 2027)

Princeton University, a private Ivy League research university, seeks students whose outstanding academic ability, diverse backgrounds and interests, and community impact contribute to the university’s prestige and influence. Applicants can choose from regular decision and single-choice early action cycles, but all applicants are evaluated based on their intellectual curiosity, academic performance, and strong personal achievements. 

Interested high school students are advised to take English, math, history, laboratory science, and foreign language courses – and excel in them – as well as AP, honors and IB courses. Other required application documents include: 

Optional application requirements include an arts supplement and alumni interviews.

Amherst College

Amherst College

Amherst, MA

Acceptance Rate: 7% (Class of 2026)

Amherst College, a private liberal arts college, has an unusually open curriculum where students can design their own program of study and even take courses based on their interests (i.e., not necessarily according to their year level). But it’s among the most selective colleges, with just 1,898 freshmen enrolled for its Class of 2026. 

Applicants are evaluated based on the following application requirements and with context in mind: 

Standardized test scores are optional, as is an arts supplement for applicants to arts programs. Applicants may also include brief descriptions of their athletic accomplishments, research projects, and special circumstances. Every application is evaluated based on a holistic selection process that largely considers academic performance, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities.

Cornell University

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY

Acceptance Rate: 7% (Class of 2027)

Cornell University, a private Ivy League land-grant research university, is known for its residential campus community, with most of its student body enrolled in its outstanding undergraduate programs. But being accepted is no mean feat, with only 4,994 students offered admission for its Class of 2027! 

Like all of the hardest colleges to get into on this list, Cornell doesn’t have a foolproof formula for its selection process for first-year applicants. Instead, the admission team adopts a holistic selection criteria that considers an applicant’s academic performance and intellectual potential, love of learning, and strength of character and motivation.

Indeed, academic excellence, extracurricular activities, and volunteer work, among other aspects, can hold equal weight during the selection process. 

Application requirements include: 

Applicants may submit standardized test scores, alumni meetings, and an art portfolio.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD

Acceptance Rate: 4.15% (Class of 2027)

Johns Hopkins University, a private research university, believes in the crucial importance of sharing knowledge and discoveries for a better world. Applicants should then be mindful of their presentation of their academic performance and potential, personal qualities, and potential contributions to the JHU community and the world. 

From 38,294 applicants, only 1,306 students were enrolled in JHU’s Class of 2027, and, thus, it’s among the hardest colleges to get into not only in the United States but worldwide. Of the admitted students, nearly 100% graduated from the top 10% of their class with a 3.9 unweighted GPA! 

Applicants choose between Regular Decision and Early Decision (I and II). Cornell uses both the  Coalition on Scoir and Common Application, but applicants must choose only one application portal. JHU is also a QuestBridge College Partner. 

Application requirements include: 

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