Most Selective Colleges and Universities in the U.S.

These Colleges Send Out the Greatest Percentage of Rejection Letters

Academia, University of Chicago
An inner court by Culvery Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago. The area is a quiet area of the campus where traditional architecture prevails. Bruce Leighty / Getty Images

Here you'll find the most selective colleges and universities in the U.S. ordered by acceptance rate percentage, from lowest to highest. These schools accept a lower percentage of applicants than any others. As you read the list, consider these issues:

  • The list does not include colleges that are essentially free (although many have a service requirement). Nevertheless, College of the Ozarks, Berea, West Point, Cooper Union (no longer free, but still highly discounted), Coast Guard Academy, USAFA, and Annapolis all have extremely low acceptance rates.
  • The list does not include extremely small places like Deep Springs College, Webb Institute, and Olin College
  • The list does not include schools with a performance- or portfolio-based admissions process such as The Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music (but realize some of these schools are even more selective than Harvard).
  • Selectivity alone doesn't explain how hard it is to get into a school. Some schools not on this list have students with higher average GPAs and test scores than some schools on the list.
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Harvard University


All of the Ivy League schools are highly selective, but Harvard is not just the most selective of the Ivies, but it typically ranks as the most selective university in the United States. As both U.S. and international applications surge, the acceptance rate has steadily declined over the years. 

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Stanford University

Huang Engineering Center at Stanford University
Huang Engineering Center at Stanford University. Marisa Benjamin

Stanford reveals that selectivity isn't limited to elite East Coast schools. In 2015, the school accepted a lower percentage of students than Harvard, and with the most recent data, it ties the prestigious Ivy League school.

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Yale University

Yale University
Yale University. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Four of the five most selective universities in the country are Ivy League schools, and Yale falls just shy of beating out Stanford and Harvard. Like most of the schools on this list, the acceptance rate has been steadily declining in the 21st century. Over 25% of applicants get a perfect score on the SAT math or SAT critical reading exams.

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Princeton University

Princeton University Chapel. Lee Lilly / Flickr

Princeton and Yale give Harvard some stiff competition for the most selective of the Ivy League schools. You're going to need the full package to get into Princeton: "A" grades in challenging courses, impressive extracurricular activities, glowing letters of recommendation, and high SAT or ACT scores. Even with those credentials, admission is no guarantee.

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Columbia University

Low Library at Columbia University
Low Library at Columbia University. Allen Grove

Columbia's selectivity has been climbing faster than many of the other Ivies, and it isn't rare for the school to find itself tied with Princeton. The urban location in Manhattan's Upper West Side is a big draw for many students (for students who don't love the city, be sure to check out Dartmouth and Cornell).

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MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

The Rogers Building at MIT
The Rogers Building at MIT. Photo Credit: Katie Doyle

Some rankings place MIT as the #1 university in the world, so it should be no surprise that it is extremely selective. Among schools with a technological focus, only MIT and Caltech made this list. Applicants will need to be particularly strong in math and the sciences, but all pieces of the application need to shine.

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University of Chicago

University of Chicago
University of Chicago. Luiz Gadelha Jr. / Flickr

Highly selective colleges are by no means restricted to the East and West Coasts. The University of Chicago's single-digit acceptance rate makes it the most selective university in the Midwest. It's not an Ivy League school, but the admissions standards are comparable. Successful applicants will need to shine on all fronts.

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Caltech (California Institute of Technology)

Beckman Institute at Caltech
Beckman Institute at Caltech. smerikal / Flickr

Located three thousand miles from MIT, Caltech is equally selective and equally prestigious. With under a thousand undergraduates and an amazing 3 to 1 student to faculty ratio, Caltech can deliver a transformative educational experience.

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Brown University

Brown University
Brown University. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Like all the Ivies, Brown has gotten more and more selective in recent years, and successful applicants will need an impressive academic record along with true accomplishments on the extracurricular front. The school's campus sits next to one of the country's most selective art schools: The Rhode Island School of Art and Design (RISD).

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Pomona College

Pomona College
Pomona College. The Consortium / Flickr

Pomona College ranks as the most selective liberal arts college on this list. The school has begun edging out Williams and Amherst in some national rankings of the country's top liberal arts colleges, and it's membership in the consortium of Claremont Colleges provides numerous benefits for students.

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University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania. neverbutterfly / Flickr

While Penn's acceptance rate may be a bit higher than several of the other Ivies, the admissions standards are no less intense. The school may have an undergraduate student body that is twice the size of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, but you're still going to need "A" grades in challenging courses, high standardized test scores, and impressive involvement outside of the classroom.

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Claremont McKenna College

The Kravis Center at Claremont McKenna College
The Kravis Center at Claremont McKenna College. Victoire Chalupy / Wikimedia Commons

The Claremont Colleges are impressive: four members made this list, and Scripps is one of the top women's colleges in the country. If you're looking for a top-notch small liberal arts college that shares facilities with other top colleges, Claremont McKenna College is an excellent choice.

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Dartmouth College

Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College
Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College. Allen Grove

The smallest of the Ivy League schools, Dartmouth will appeal to students who want a more intimate college experience in a quintessential college town. Don't let the "college" in the name fool you--Dartmouth is very much a comprehensive university.

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Duke University

Duke University
Duke University. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

While not a member of the Ivy League, Duke proves that a stellar research university does not need to be in the cold Northeast. You'll need to be a strong student to get in--most admitted students have solid "A" averages and standardized test scores in the top percentile or two.

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Vanderbilt University

Tolman Hall at Vanderbilt University
Tolman Hall at Vanderbilt University. Photo Credit: Amy Jacobson

Vanderbilt, like all schools on this list, has rather daunting admissions standards. The school's attractive campus, stellar academic programs, and southern charm are all part of its appeal.

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Northwestern University

Northwestern University
Northwestern University. Photo Credit: Amy Jacobson

Located just to the north of Chicago, Northwestern University's selectivity and national ranking has climbed steadily over the past couple of decades. While slightly (very slightly) less selective than the University of Chicago, Northwestern is definitely one of the most prestigious universities in the Midwest.

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Swarthmore College

Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College
Parrish Hall at Swarthmore College. Eric Behrens / Flickr

Of all of Pennsylvania's many excellent liberal arts colleges (Lafayette, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Gettysburg...), Swarthmore College is the most selective. Students are drawn to the beautiful campus as well as the combination of a somewhat isolated location that nevertheless has easy access to downtown Philadelphia.

  • Acceptance Rate: 13% (2016 data)
  • Location: Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
  • Enrollment: 1,543 (all undergraduate)
  • School Type: Private liberal arts college
  • Swarthmore admissions profile
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Harvey Mudd College

Entrance to Harvey Mudd College
Entrance to Harvey Mudd College. Imagine / Wikimedia Commons

Unlike MIT and Caltech, Harvey Mudd College is a top-rate technological school with a focus entirely on undergraduates. It is the smallest school on this list, but students have access to the classes and facilities of the other Claremont Colleges.

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Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University. callison-burch / FLickr

Johns Hopkins has a lot to offer: an attractive urban campus, impressive academic programs (especially in biological/medical sciences and international relations), and a central location on the Eastern Seaboard. 

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Pitzer College

East and West Residence Halls at Pitzer College
East and West Residence Halls at Pitzer College. Lauriealosh / Wikimedia Commons

Yet another of the Claremont Colleges to make our list of most selective colleges, Pitzer College offers a curriculum that will appeal to socially-minded applicants with its emphasis on intercultural understanding, social justice, and environmental sensitivity.

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Amherst College

Amherst College
Amherst College. Photo Credit: Allen Grove

Along with Williams and Pomona, Amherst frequently finds itself at the very top of national rankings of liberal arts colleges. Students have the advantage of an intimate academic environment as well as the opportunities afforded by being part of the Five College Consortium.

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Cornell University

Cornell University Sage Hall
Upsilon Andromedae / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cornell may be the least selective of the eight Ivy League schools, but it is arguably the strongest for fields such as engineering and hotel management. It is also attractive to students who want to be in touch with nature: the huge campus overlooks Lake Cayuga in New York's beautiful Finger Lakes Region.

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Tufts University

Ballou Hall at Tufts University
Ballou Hall at Tufts University. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

Tufts University made this list for the first time this year, for the university continues to get more and more selective. The campus sits just north of Boston with ready subway access to both the city and two other schools on this list--Harvard University and MIT.