Which Ivy League is Right for You?
The Ivy League. For many, these three words represent the pinnacle of American higher education. As hotbeds of brilliance, ambition, and (perceived) social elitism, the Ivies annually receive tens of thousands of applications from ambitious students worldwide. Though there are 8 Ivy League schools, they are often referred to collectively, and indeed the general public doesn’t perceive much of a distinction between the 8 separate schools.
However, each school in the Ivy League has a distinct, unique culture with its own strengths and weaknesses, and not all students are equally suited to each school. Since compatibility with the school is a significant factor not only in your admissions decision but also how well you’ll perform in college, we’ve decided to put together a basic guide to each Ivy League school to help you figure out which is the best for you.
Need help navigating the elite college admissions process? We’ve worked with over 6,000 students and can help you craft applications that maximize your chances of getting in.
Class Size: ~1625 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 8.5%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2160/32
Location: Brown University is located in Providence, the capital city of Rhode Island. Providence is relatively small, so Brown students don’t fully experience the urban lifestyle that Penn or Columbia students may enjoy. However, the nearest major city, Boston, is only an hour-long bus ride away.
Academics: Brown has a reputation for having the least competitive academic environment in the Ivy League. This is evidenced by Brown’s open curriculum, which doesn’t include any required or core classes and allows students, for the most part, to take whatever they want (besides one required writing class). Additionally, students at Brown can take as many classes as they want Pass/Fail, essentially making grades optional. In general, the academic culture at Brown encourages exploration and experimentation, and it is specifically designed to allow students to branch out to areas outside their majors without fear of their GPAs suffering as a result.
Student Life: Brown is also famous for being among the most progressive schools in the nation. Discourse about issues of gender, sexuality, race, and inequality is prevalent on campus, and the university administration prioritizes creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students. Brown regularly ranks highly on lists of happiest colleges, perhaps due to its relatively relaxed environment. Brown students are also given free access to museums and other cultural centers in Providence that enrich the student experience.
Class Size: ~1430 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 6.1%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2240/33
Location: Columbia University in the City of New York, as its full name suggests, is located in NYC’s Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, sandwiched between West Harlem and the Upper West Side. Morningside Heights, which is also home to Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Jewish and Union Theological Seminaries, is often referred to as the “college town” of New York City. For students looking to further explore the city, downtown Manhattan is only a 20-minute subway ride away.
Academics: The undergraduate experience at Columbia is defined by the Core Curriculum, a set of classes all students in the liberal arts college (Columbia College) are required to take. Students in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science are also required to take some core classes, although the requirements are less stringent. The Core Curriculum features a heavy emphasis on reading and writing, especially of classical literature; detractors of Homer beware!
Student Life: With a record of student activism dating back to the protests of the 60’s and beyond, Columbia tends to attract students who are passionate about political engagement. Its location in New York City is also a huge draw for international students, as Columbia has the highest percentage of international students of any Ivy League school and among the highest of all schools in the country. Columbia also has the distinction of being the most racially diverse Ivy, with 62% of the Class of 2019 identifying as students of color. The diversity of the student body and the excitement of NYC provide for an intellectually stimulating undergraduate experience.
Class Size: ~3820 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 14.8%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2120/32
Location: Cornell University is located in Ithaca, a town in upstate New York. Cornell’s campus features a stunning natural environment and its campus is among the largest in the Ivy League.
Academics: Cornell’s undergraduate experience is made unique by its seven undergraduate schools, including its highly ranked agriculture and engineering schools, as well as the completely distinctive School of Hotel Administration. Cornell’s specialized and often unconventional programs in a variety of fields allow undergraduates to pursue an education tailor-made to their interests. Boasting 80 majors and 90 minors, Cornell describes itself as a pioneer in education.
Student Life: Cornell features by far the largest undergraduate enrollment of any Ivy League school, with over 14,000 full-time students. Its large size and unique blend of public and private funding differentiate Cornell from other Ivies, giving the university an atmosphere similar to that of a large public university. Like Dartmouth, Cornell’s rural setting and the prevalence of Greek life stand in contrast to smaller, more urban Ivies. Campus life and recreational activities at Cornell take advantage of the natural setting and relative isolation of the campus. Many student groups involve outdoor activities; athletics, hiking in the surrounding wilderness, and canoeing in the nearby Finger Lakes are common pastimes for Cornell students.
Class Size: ~1120 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 10.3%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2190/32
Location: Dartmouth College is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, a town with a population of just 11,000. The suburban location and picturesque greenery of Dartmouth’s campus attract a more outdoorsy crowd than some of the other Ivies.
Academics: Dartmouth is renowned for its commitment to and emphasis on undergraduate education, as evidenced in its decision to refer to itself as Dartmouth College despite being host to four graduate schools. As an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, you can be sure that you will receive ample attention and resources, without worrying that your needs are being put second to those of graduate students. Dartmouth is also unique in that it is the only Ivy that uses the quarter system as opposed to the semester system, in which there are three grading periods in a typical school year (four year-round) as opposed to two.
Student Life: Dartmouth prides itself on its beautiful surroundings, as the surrounding New Hampshire wilderness provides students with an environment for numerous outdoor student groups. Greek life also plays a larger role at Dartmouth than at any other Ivy, with 51% of the undergraduate community participating. Dartmouth is significantly smaller than its peer institutions, featuring total undergraduate enrollment of just over 4,000 students. As a result of its relatively secluded location and small size, the undergraduate community at Dartmouth is very close-knit.
Class Size: ~1660 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 5.3%
Average SAT/ACT score: 2260/33
Location: Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a 20-minute subway ride away from the heart of Boston. Surrounded by numerous other colleges — including MIT, Wellesley, Boston College, Tufts, and Boston University — the Crimson enjoys access to Cambridge and the greater Boston area, which feature numerous events and opportunities for students to network with peers and faculty. Boston’s proximity to the campus also allows Harvard students to take advantage of a big city’s resources while still enjoying the comforts of a smaller, quieter urban setting.
Academics: Harvard features a set of general education requirements that all freshmen in the college must complete in addition to the courses for their major. The general education requirements at Harvard are designed to expose students to broader ranges of subject material and enhance their understanding of the world outside the school’s hallowed halls. The school’s considerable resources allow for undergraduate research and a great degree of freedom to pursue academic interests, opportunities that Harvard students are sure to take advantage of.
Student Life: The residential college system at Harvard is designed to foster tight-knit relationships between students and faculty masters. There are 12 residential houses that students are placed into their sophomore year, each with a distinct culture and personality. Students remain a part of their houses until graduation, coming to form close relationships with fellow students in their house and enjoying all the amenities the houses offer. Due to the presence of Harvard’s infamous final clubs, Greek life plays a small but growing role in the social scene at Harvard, though it does exist for students who are interested.
University of Pennsylvania
Class Size: ~2430 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 9.9%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2230/33
Location: Like Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania’s location in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia offers students an urban setting, including opportunities for internships and employment as well as cultural events.
Academics: Penn features 4 undergraduate schools: The College of Arts and Sciences, The School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Nursing, and the Wharton School of Business. The School of Nursing and the Wharton School set Penn apart from other Ivies, which tend to focus more on a liberal arts education. The College of Arts and Science’s curriculum requires instruction both in various disciplines as well as specific skill sets, evidencing Penn’s emphasis on a practical, worldly education.
Student Life: Penn is integrated into the surrounding neighborhood, and students are encouraged to make the most of Philadelphia for recreational, academic, and extracurricular engagement. Greek life is more prominent at Penn than some other Ivy League schools, but does not totally dominate the social scene. Those seeking opportunities to socialize beyond fraternity and sorority life can turn to one of Penn’s 450+ student organizations or the College House system, which features 11 distinct communities where students can network with like-minded peers as freshmen, upperclassmen, or throughout the entirety of their time at Penn.
Class Size: ~1310 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 6.9%
Average SAT/ACT Score: 2240/33
Location: Often heeded as the most quintessentially “Ivy” school in the Ivy League, Princeton has a large, stately campus in the New Jersey town of the same name. Interestingly, Princeton also features the largest amount of actual ivy of any Ivy League campus.
Academics: Like Dartmouth, Princeton University emphasizes undergraduate education as their top priority. Princeton offers two degrees, either A.B. for liberal arts students or B.S.E. for students of engineering and applied science. Both programs feature general education requirements, as well as a focus on independent research. The required courses provide Princeton students with a diverse and thorough liberal arts education, a hallmark of the university’s undergraduate experience.
Student Life: A defining component of student life at Princeton is the group of famous eating clubs. Eating clubs are private social organizations, some with a rigorous application process referred to as “bickering.” While eating clubs make up a large part of the social scene at Princeton, there are also a variety of student groups and several Greek organizations that offer opportunities to network and socialize with fellow students. Housing at Princeton varies from typical dormitory-style arrangements to themed residential colleges, communities centered on a common interest that allow students to live alongside like-minded peers.
Class Size: ~1300 students
2015 Acceptance Rate: 6.5%
Average SAT/ACT Scores: 2250/33
Location: Yale University resides in the small city of New Haven, Connecticut, less than two hours away from New York City. While New Haven offers opportunities for social, cultural, and professional activities, most of the action for Yalies takes place on the university’s beautiful campus, famous for its gothic architecture.
Academics: All undergraduates attend Yale College, the liberal arts college within the university. Yale has loose general education requirements, although they are less stringent than those at Columbia or Princeton. Yale is celebrated for its exemplary English and creative arts programs, which consistently place near or at the top of national rankings. Writing is an important part of the Yale undergraduate curriculum, with over a hundred introductory writing courses to choose from featuring a broad range of topics.
Student Life: Yale, like Harvard, is host to a residential college system that makes the undergraduate experience truly unlike any other. The tight-knit communities that Yale students live in their sophomore through senior year allow students to make connections with both their peers and faculty, as well as live in an environment best suited to their own personal interests and ambitions. As one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the country, Yale also has a wealth of time-honed organizations and institutions, including several purported “secret societies,” all of which contribute to the remarkable pride Yale students and alumni take in their school.
For more information about narrowing down your college list, check out these CollegeVine posts:
- The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools
- 3 Reasons You Should Start Drafting Your School List Now
- Resources to Make Your College Search Easier
- Early Action vs. Early Decision vs. Restricted Early Action
- The Best Apps to Organize Your College Planning
- Is Freshman Year Too Early to Start College Planning?
- The Best Apps to Organize Your College Planning
- Is Freshman Year Too Early to Start College Planning?
Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!
Want more college admissions tips?
We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.