The Hardest Colleges to Get Into in 2021

Students walking to classes at Princeton University
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Not surprisingly, the hardest colleges to get into are some of the most prestigious and rigorous universities in the country. If you've always dreamed of the intellectual challenge offered by these schools, take a look at this list. Remember, every university is different, and it's important to think beyond the numbers. Learn about each school's culture and consider which one might be the best fit for you.

The following list is based on 2019-2020 admissions statistics (acceptance rates and standardized test scores) provided by the U.S. Department of Education. 

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Stanford University

Stanford University Campus
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Located just 35 miles south of San Francisco in Palo Alto, California, Stanford University's lush, sprawling campus (nicknamed "The Farm") affords students plenty of green space and great weather. Stanford's 7,000 undergraduates enjoy small class sizes and a 5:1 student to faculty ratio. While the most popular major is computer science, Stanford students pursue a wide range of academic specializations, from art history to urban studies. Stanford also offers 14 joint degrees that combine computer science with the humanities.

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Acceptance Rate 5%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1420 / 1570
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 31 / 35
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Harvard University

Harvard University in Boston
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Harvard University is one of the most respected and well-known universities in the world. Founded in 1636, it's also the oldest university in the United States. Students admitted to Harvard choose from over 45 academic concentrations and gain access to an impressive alumni network that includes seven U.S. presidents and 124 Pulitzer Prize winners. When students need a break from their studies, a quick 12-minute subway ride transports them from Harvard's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts to the bustling city of Boston.

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Acceptance Rate 5%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1460 / 1590
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 33 / 35
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Princeton University

Nassau Hall, oldest building on Princeton campus, 1754, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Located in leafy Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University is home to 5,200 undergraduates, more than double the number of graduate students. Princeton takes pride in emphasizing undergraduate learning; students have access to small seminars and graduate-level research opportunities as early as their freshman year. Princeton also offers newly admitted undergraduates the opportunity to defer their enrollment for one year to pursue service work abroad through the tuition-free Bridge Year Program.

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Percent Admitted 5.6%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1450 / 1600
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 32 / 36
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Yale University

The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University
Andriy Prokopenko / Getty Images

Yale University, located in the heart of New Haven, Connecticut, is home to just over 5,400 undergraduates. Before arriving on campus, every Yale student is assigned to one of 14 residential colleges, where he or she will live, study, and even dine for the next four years. History ranks among Yale's most popular majors. Though rival school Harvard is the oldest university in the country, Yale has claim to the oldest college daily newspaper in the U.S., the Yale Daily News, as well as the nation's first literary review, the Yale Literary Magazine.

Admissions Statistics (2018-19)
Acceptance Rate 6.2%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1460 / 1570
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 33 / 35
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Columbia University

Students In Front Of The Library Of Columbia University, Manhattan, New York, USA
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Every student at Columbia University must take the Core Curriculum, a set of six courses that provides students with foundational knowledge of history and the humanities in a seminar setting. After completing the Core Curriculum, Columbia students have academic flexibility and can even register for classes at nearby Barnard College. Columbia's location in New York City provides students with unparalleled opportunities to gain professional experience. Over 95% of students choose to live on the Upper Manhattan campus for their entire college career. 

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Acceptance Rate 6.3%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1500 / 1560
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 34 / 35
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California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology, Cahill Center For Astronomy and Astrophysics
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

With just under 1,000 undergraduates, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has one of the smallest student populations on this list. Located in Pasadena, California, Caltech offers students a rigorous education in science and engineering taught by some of the most distinguished scientists and researchers in the world. It's not all work and no play, however: the most popular course is "Cooking Basics," and students maintain a tradition of friendly prank wars with Caltech's East Coast rival, MIT.

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Acceptance Rate 6.4%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1530 / 1570
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 35 / 36
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT Campus
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) admits approximately 1,500 students to its Cambridge, Massachusetts campus every year. 90% of MIT students complete at least one research experience through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which enables students to join professors' research teams in hundreds of laboratories on campus. Students can also conduct research around the world with fully-funded internships. Outside the classroom, MIT students are known for their elaborate and sophisticated pranks, referred to as MIT hacks.

Admissions Statistics (2019-20)
Percent Admitted 7.3%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1520 / 1580
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 35 / 36
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University of Chicago

Rockefeller Chapel at sunrise, University of Chicago (Matty Wolin) / Getty Images

Recent college applicants may know the University of Chicago best for its unusual supplemental essay questions, which in recent years included "What's so odd about odd numbers?" and "Where is Waldo, really?" University of Chicago students praise the university's ethos of intellectual curiosity and individualism. The campus is renowned for its beautiful Gothic architecture as well as its iconic modern structures, and since it's located just 15 minutes from the center of Chicago, students have easy access to city life. Quirky campus traditions include an annual multi-day scavenger hunt that sometimes takes students on adventures as far away as Canada and Tennessee.

Admissions Statistics (2017-18)
Acceptance Rate 7.3%
SAT 25th/75th Percentile 1510 / 1560
ACT 25th/75th Percentile 34 / 35
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Valdes, Olivia. "The Hardest Colleges to Get Into in 2021." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Valdes, Olivia. (2021, August 1). The Hardest Colleges to Get Into in 2021. Retrieved from Valdes, Olivia. "The Hardest Colleges to Get Into in 2021." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).