The 25 Hardest Colleges to Get Into in 2023-2024

July 25, 2023

As we enter the 2023-24 cycle, the American college admissions process continues to be insanely competitive at the very top. Schools that are considered “elite” and “prestigious” are attracting more applicants than ever before. Test-optional policies enacted by many colleges at the start of the pandemic have caused tens of thousands of new applicants to throw their names in the hat at Ivy and Ivy-equivalent schools. In other words, the hardest colleges to get into have never had so many people wanting to “get in”.

In looking at the hardest colleges to get into, we want to first make a few things perfectly clear. Firstly, College Transitions does not want our readers to believe that colleges with lower acceptance rates are superior to those with slightly higher acceptance rates. While we mostly (for reasons explained later) ranked strictly by acceptance rate, we do not intend to convey that Columbia is superior to Yale because it has a 3% acceptance rate versus a 4% acceptance rate. Every school on this list is a world-class institution that provides an exceptional education to its undergraduates. Again, this is not an ordinal ranking of the “best” colleges. Nor is it intended to glorify absurdly low acceptance rates. Rather, this list is simply intended to inform the reader of exactly what the title implies—the 25 hardest colleges to get into, objectively (or close to it) and by the numbers.

The Top 25 Hardest Colleges to Get Into

*Acceptance rates are from the Class of 2027, unless otherwise noted. These numbers have been released by the university, but are not “official” as of yet. All SAT results are from enrolled students in the Class of 2026 (when available).

1) Caltech

Directly from the admissions office, five factors carry the heaviest weight in the process: rigor of secondary curriculum, standardized test scores (in a normal, non-test-blind year), essays, recommendations, and character/personal qualities. As tough as it is to gain admission, coursework at the school is perhaps an even more rigorous and consuming process.

  • Acceptance Rate (Class of 2026): 2.7%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 16,626
  • Mid-50% SAT: Caltech is currently test-blind and does not consider SAT scores.

2) Harvard University

Harvard is the envy of other universities and the dream destination for countless teenage geniuses and overachievers. An insanely high number—84%—of admitted students elect to enroll. In other words, Harvard is a second-choice school for few students.

  • Acceptance Rate: 3.41%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 56,937
  • Average SAT: 1510

3) Stanford University

Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley sits one of the tech industry’s top feeder schools and one of the premier research universities in the world. With so many top-shelf applicants for a limited number of spots, it helps to have a hook—an area in which you truly excel.

  • Acceptance Rate: 3.7% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 56,378
  • Median SAT: 1530

4) Columbia University

Infinitesimal chances at admission are not a new phenomenon here—the acceptance rate hasn’t been in the double digits since 2011. There are seven main factors that are given primary importance as part of the university’s holistic process: rigor of curriculum, class rank, grades, essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and character/personal qualities.

  • Acceptance Rate: 3.9%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 57,129
  • Mid-50% SAT: 1490-1560

Hardest Colleges to Get Into (Continued)

5) Yale University

The committee uses two overarching questions to guide its process: “Who is likely to make the most of Yale’s resources?” and “Who will contribute most significantly to the Yale community?” Fantastic credentials along with a record of special talents and accomplishments that scream “future leader” will fare best.

  • Acceptance Rate: 4.35% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 52,250
  • Median SAT: 1540

6) MIT

MIT is seeking the world’s sharpest and most innovative minds in engineering, the sciences, mathematics, and related fields who, one day, will create the world the rest of us will merely inhabit. Additionally, legacy status is not considered at MIT, a rarity among elite universities, meaning that the alumni connection of your mother, grandfather, or brother plays zero role in helping you gain admission.

  • Acceptance Rate: 4.7%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 26,914
  • Median SAT: 1550

7) University of Chicago

UChicago is now in a selectivity stratosphere with Stanford, Yale, and Columbia. In 2005, the university admitted 40% of applicants. The university in 2023-24 is both test-optional and extraordinarily selective.

  • Acceptance Rate: 5%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 37,522
  • Average SAT: 1545

8) Brown University

In a typical year, close to half of admitted students were either the valedictorian or salutatorian of their high school class. Those looking to come to Providence should be individuals at the top of their class who are intellectually curious, open-minded, and who possess intangible qualities that would allow them to flourish in Brown’s unique Open Curriculum.

  • Acceptance Rate: 5.1%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 51,302
  • Median SAT: 1520

Hardest Colleges to Get Into (Continued)

9) Princeton University

In short, getting into Princeton is a harrowing undertaking that will, more often than not, result in failure, even for some of the most accomplished applicants. Those who are successful typically have near-perfect to perfect test scores and GPAs and a “hook” to seal the deal

  • Acceptance Rate: 5.7% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 38,019
  • Median SAT: 1540

10) Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has positioned itself as not only one of the South’s most selective institutions but as one of the country’s ultra-elite universities. Seven categories are deemed “very important” by this university’s admissions committee: rigor of classes, GPA, class rank, standardized test scores, application essay, character/personal qualities, and extracurricular involvement.

  • Acceptance Rate: 5.6%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 47,120
  • Median SAT: 1530

11) University of Pennsylvania

Rigor of secondary school record, GPA, test scores, essays, recommendations, and character/personal qualities are deemed “very important” to the evaluative process. Penn rejects more students than ever, including thousands of teens who would have waltzed into the university a generation ago.

  • Acceptance Rate: 6.5% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 59,000+
  • Median SAT: 1540

12) Duke University

Duke is now more selective than several Ivies, which is no surprise given the university’s unique combination of academic prestige and extracurricular excitement. Like the Ivies, Duke routinely rejects valedictorians and teens with perfect standardized test scores. Successful applicants will have exceptional academic credentials, attention-grabbing essays, and special talents that set them apart from a crowded field of aspiring Blue Devils.

  • Acceptance Rate: 6.0%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 49,469
  • Mid-50% SAT: 1480-1570

Hardest Colleges to Get Into (Continued)

13) Dartmouth College

A decade ago, the acceptance rate was three times the current figure. Earning a spot on this bucolic Hanover campus has never been tougher. Those who wish to experience its renowned teaching faculty and intimate learning environment, rich with hands-on opportunities, will need to bring stellar credentials to the table.

  • Acceptance Rate: 6.0%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 28,841
  • Median SAT: 1520

14) Johns Hopkins University

Current students landed in the top 10% of their high school classes at a 99% clip, so impeccable grades in the most competitive curriculum available are pretty much a prerequisite for consideration. Johns Hopkins is now in the upper-upper tier of selectivity along with the Ivies, Stanford, and a small cadre of elite liberal arts colleges.

  • Acceptance Rate: 6.3%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 38,200+
  • Median SAT: 1540

15) Pomona College

Considered the preeminent institution among the Claremont Consortium, Pomona College in Claremont, California, is much like the elite liberal arts schools of the Northeast. If you are one of the rare individuals capable of gaining entrance, you won’t find a better or more rigorous liberal arts education anywhere.

  • Acceptance Rate: 7.0% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 10,666
  • Median SAT: 1520

16) Swarthmore College  

This liberal arts college has never been more difficult to get into as applications have tripled since the turn of the millennium. The admissions committee ranks six factors as being of paramount importance in the admissions process: rigor of secondary coursework, class rank, GPA, application essay, recommendations, and character/personal qualities.

  • Acceptance Rate (Class of 2026): 6.9%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 14,707
  • Median SAT: 1500

Hardest Colleges to Get Into (Continued)

17) Northwestern University

Firstly, according to the admissions office, rigor of courses, GPA, and class rank are among the eight factors that are “very important” in the admissions process. Northwestern has always been a highly selective school, but the bar has been raised even higher in recent years.

  • Acceptance Rate: 7%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 52,225
  • Median SAT: 1520

18) Barnard College  

Affiliated with Columbia University, this all-women’s college serves 3,043 accomplished young women in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Overall, sterling grades, solid test scores, and winning personal attributes are the right combination to receive serious consideration at one of, if not the best women’s college in existence.

  • Acceptance Rate: 6.5%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 11,803
  • Mid-50% SAT Range: 1430-1530

19) Amherst College  

Amherst offers a “New Curriculum” that requires no specific courses or distribution of credits. Students have the flexibility to pursue their areas of passion and interest from the very start of their collegiate experience. Successful applicants will be near (or at) the top of their high school class, have earned standardized test scores in the top 1-2%, and possess unique gifts/intangibles that help separate them from a mass of similarly qualified peers.

  • Acceptance Rate: 9.0%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 12,700+
  • Median SAT: 1520

20) Williams College  

Williams College is Massachusetts’ second-oldest school (behind only Harvard) and one of the most prestigious liberal arts schools in the entire country. Further, Williams seeks a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of uniquely talented students who will thrive in a close-knit academic community.

  • Acceptance Rate: 9.8%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 11,200
  • Median SAT: 1510

Hardest Colleges to Get Into (Continued)

21) Rice University

Rice is at once a powerhouse research institution and a place where world-class instruction is the norm. An intimidating 92% of Rice students placed in the top 10% of their high school class, and 98% were in the top quartile.

  • Acceptance Rate: 7.7%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 31,049
  • Median SAT: 1540

22) Cornell University   

The seven criteria deemed most important by the admissions office are rigor of coursework, grades, test scores, recommendations, essays, extracurriculars, talent/ability, and character/personal qualities. In sum, having joined the other Ivy League institutions with single-digit acceptance rates, becoming part of Big Red is only a possibility for strongest college applicants.

  • Acceptance Rate: 7.3% (Class of 2026)
  • Class of 2027 applicants: ~68,000
  • Median SAT: 1520

23) Tufts University  

Like all Ivy and Ivy-equivalent schools, Tufts is looking for the best and the brightest and is competing with even bigger names to haul in the best candidates. Therefore, demonstrating commitment through Early Decision can pay dividends for qualified applicants.

  • Acceptance Rate: 9.5%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: ~34,000
  • Average SAT: 1485

24) Carnegie Mellon University

Successful applicants to CMU have taken the most rigorous high school schedules available to them, and the school also lists character/personal qualities, volunteer work, and extracurriculars among the most important factors for admission.

  • Acceptance Rate: 11%
  • Class of 2026 applicants: 32,896
  • Median SAT: 1520

25) Georgetown University

The nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university also happens to be one of the best institutions in the country; there are few admissions surprises here. Test scores around the 97th percentile and near-perfect grades in an AP-heavy course load are virtually required.

  • Acceptance Rate: 12.8%
  • Class of 2027 applicants: 25,519
  • Median SAT: 1490

Additional Hardest Colleges to Get Into

Below you’ll find a few schools that actually have lower acceptance rates than some schools that cracked our Top 25 list. For example, Colby has a lower acceptance rate than Georgetown, but is a school that takes a large number of students during the Early Decision round. UCLA has a lower acceptance rate than Carnegie Mellon, but it is a public school that gives preference to in-state applicants. Additionally, UCLA is now test-blind, another factor that makes the admissions process there significantly different than at any other school on the list with the exception of Caltech.

College Name Acceptance Rate
Washington University in St. Louis 11%
UCLA 8.6%
Notre Dame 11.9%
NYU 8%
Bowdoin College 7.8%
Colby College 6%

Hardest Colleges to Get Into – Final Notes

Tulane and Northeastern had insanely low acceptance rates for the Class of 2026. However, we felt it was responsible to report them in a separate category. Tulane had an 8.4% acceptance rate, but takes an incredibly high percentage of their class through Early Decision. Further, the academic credentials of Tulane freshmen are, frankly, not on the same level of other schools with single-digit acceptance rates. Northeastern University had a 6.7% admit rate last year, down from 18% the previous year. This steep decline can be partially attributed to over-enrollment/overcrowding the previous year. Therefore, the acceptance rate is likely to rise a bit in subsequent years.

These rankings also do not include schools of music such as The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music which are among the most selective academies of music in the world.