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When choosing a college, students must consider how selective the school is and the type of applicants it seeks. Many well-known institutions, like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, are among the most selective, admitting only a fraction of the highest-quality candidates who apply.Although the odds of acceptance are lower at selective colleges, that shouldn’t discourage students from applying. In this article, college admissions and educator advisor Blanca Villagomez, a program counselor and coordinator at UC-Irvine, provides insight into what makes some schools harder to get into than others, the quality of selective schools, and how to prepare an application to a selective college. It also includes’s top picks for the hardest colleges to get into in 2023.

What is considered a selective college?

Individual colleges and universities set their own admissions standards, policies, and enrollment goals, meaning the student selection process varies significantly from school to school.

Generally speaking, colleges and universities are considered selective if they only accept a small percentage of their applicants in a given year, typically 20% or less.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of 2017 acceptance rates, 17 out of 1,364 four-year colleges and universities admitted fewer than 10% of applicants, and 29 accepted 10%-20%. Meanwhile, 53% of colleges accepted two-thirds or more applicants for the same academic year.

Why are some colleges so hard to get into?

“Some colleges can be more selective than others for a variety of reasons, including their location, academic reputation, specialized resources, and state-of-the-art facilities,” says Villagomez.

She adds, “If a college has a proven track record of academic excellence and career development opportunities, it inevitably attracts a large and highly qualified applicant pool.” As the applicant pool becomes more competitive, admissions criteria must become more selective and rigorous. This helps Ivy League schools like Yale and UPenn and prestigious public institutions like UC Berkeley and UNC-Chapel Hill maintain their reputations.

This applies to many Ivy League colleges, like Yale and UPenn, as well as prestigious public institutions like UCLA and UNC-Chapel Hill.

How a school chooses to allocate its resources can also make it selective. Starting in 2022, Harvard is covering the cost of attendance for students from families with an annual income of $75,000 or less. This policy makes it easier for admitted students to attend but limits the number of students Harvard can accept. Meanwhile, specialized schools like MIT and Juilliard are selective because they offer resource-intensive programs that function best with smaller classes.

In other cases, schools are selective simply because they can be. The number of college applications has been increasing for nearly a decade, meaning many colleges have more applicants than they could possibly enroll. For example, Brown University had 50,649 applicants for fall 2022, a 9% increase from the previous year. They admitted 2,546 of those applicants.

Are colleges that are hard to get into better than less selective schools?

It’s logical to equate exclusivity with quality, but students shouldn’t always assume that a school that’s harder to get into is better, says Villagomez.

“When selecting a college, don’t mistake an institution’s lower acceptance rates as the only marker of prestige and higher quality of education,” she says. “The best college for you is ultimately the one that aligns with your interests, goals, and needs.”

Alongside selectivity, Villagomez also encourages students to consider location, size, majors, and campus culture. “There are many colleges with higher acceptance rates that offer a high-quality education with distinguished academic programs, faculty, and growth opportunities,” she says.

Admissions requirements for the hardest colleges to get into

There are similarities and differences between applying to a regular college and a highly selective school.

In both cases, students typically submit an admissions packet, including an application, high school transcripts (and college transcripts for transfer students), personal essays, and recommendation letters. Standardized tests like the SAT or ACT were traditionally part of college applications, but an increasing number of schools are adopting test-optional or test-blind policies.

According to Villagomez, what’s different is the higher standards applicants are held to, the more rigorous application process they face, and the competition for financial aid and acceptance.

“Applicants to highly selective schools are expected to be well-rounded students who invested time in extracurricular activities and leadership opportunities,” Villagomez says. “Applicants are typically required to have higher GPAs and experienced academically rigorous classes. These high standards shape the admissions process, so students should be prepared to put their best foot forward. It’s never too early to start participating in activities and opportunities that increase competitiveness.”

She adds, “The second key difference is the depth and breadth of application requirements. Highly selective schools require well-crafted essays, standardized exams, recommendation letters, and even interviews.”

Villagomez encourages students to stay organized and on top of application requirements with a comprehensive checklist to track deadlines, submissions, and progress throughout the admissions process.

The final key difference is that selective colleges tend to have higher tuition costs because of high demand. Therefore, access to financial aid, particularly merit-based scholarships, and grants, can also be more competitive.

How to improve your application for a selective college

There’s no magic formula for getting into a selective college, but there are certain steps students can take to ensure they’re submitting the strongest application possible.

“Preparation is key,” says Villagomez. “By investing time early on [in high school], students can be in a better position to showcase their strengths, highlight their accomplishments, and demonstrate their potential to succeed.”

Villagomez recommends focusing on the following areas to prepare a well-rounded, stand-out application.


Applying to selective colleges requires a clear understanding of one’s own strengths, interests, and goals, as well as the ability to showcase those traits in application materials. The more time students spend getting to know themselves, the more confident they’ll feel in their abilities and goals. Students can explore these personal development areas with a trusted counselor or mentor.

Academic Rigor

“Selective schools expect students to demonstrate a high level of preparedness to handle academically rigorous classes,” Villagomez says. She recommends students meet with school counselors for guidance on which classes will best prepare them for a selective college. Students should seek AP, IB, Honors, or college-level courses when possible.

However, as Villagomez notes, these classes and resources may not be available to everyone.

“Students from underrepresented backgrounds and low-income neighborhoods often face systematic barriers to accessing the proper resources to help them become competitive candidates,” she says. Villagomez recommends seeking out college outreach programs and consulting with a trusted teacher or counselor for guidance for students in these situations.

Extracurricular Activities

“Selective schools expect students to demonstrate a high level of preparedness to handle academically rigorous classes,” Villagomez says. She recommends students meet with school counselors for guidance on which classes will best prepare them for a selective college. Students should seek AP, IB, Honors, or college-level courses when possible.

That’s where extracurricular activities come in. Villagomez recommends students get involved as early as possible in clubs, sports, and community service, to demonstrate their leadership, collaborative, and teamwork skills and show selection committees their interests and aptitudes.

Application Materials

All of this groundwork will be essential in crafting a thoughtful, compelling application. In addition to strong academic records and a well-rounded extracurricular resume, students should also have a well-crafted essay to accompany their application.

“The college admissions essay is a great opportunity to stand out,” Villagomez says. “I recommend that students write about topics that are meaningful to them and showcase their strong writing skills, character, and perspectives.”

Villagomez also reminds students that specificity is preferable to vagueness. “Simply listing your accomplishments or filling the page with bold statements won’t make you stand out,” she says. “Readers are more interested in learning how you have developed as a person. Using concrete examples, demonstrate how a specific experience helped you grow or develop a new perspective and how you’ll use this new knowledge going forward.”

Students should seek out feedback from teachers, mentors, or advisors to ensure their essay provides a nuanced understanding of the applicant’s character, challenges, abilities, and potential contributions.

What to do if you’re not accepted

Even if you’re a qualified, well-prepared applicant, there’s still a high likelihood that you won’t get admitted to a highly selective school. In that situation, feeling disappointed is a natural reaction.

“You put a lot of effort and time into the process, and unfortunately, it didn’t yield the results you wanted,” Villagomez says. “It can be discouraging.”

However, she says, it’s key for students to remember that their worth and success aren’t defined by the college they attend. Students also control how they react to the disappointment of not getting admitted to a selective school.

“It’s ultimately the students’ choice to shift their perspective and keep an open mind about other opportunities that come their way,” Villagomez says. “There are plenty of colleges and universities that can provide a great education and growth opportunities. You may discover new passions and interests at a different college, and you can still achieve your goals through hard work and determination.”

It’s also about more than just where you go to school but who is supporting your educational journey. Says Villagomez, “I encourage students to surround themselves with supportive people who believe in their potential.”

The Hardest Colleges to Get In To

The Hardest Colleges to Get Into Badge

Harvard University

California Institute of Technology

Stanford University

Columbia University

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Princeton University

Yale University

Brown University

University of Chicago

University of Pennsylvania

Duke University

Vanderbilt University

Dartmouth College

Northwestern University

Pomona College

Johns Hopkins University

Swarthmore College

Rice University

Amherst College

Cornell University

Barnard College

Bowdoin College

Harvey Mudd College

Williams College

Minerva University

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