The most selective colleges admit only a fraction of their applicants. While over 43,000 students applied to Harvard in 2020, fewer than one in 20 received an admission letter.
Colleges with one of the lowest acceptance rates often appear on lists of the best schools. Thanks to their prestige and reputation, these schools rank among the nation's most elite institutions of higher education.
To calculate college acceptance rates, we took the total number of admitted students and divided by the total number of applicants. While most schools admit most applicants, many of the most selective colleges report an acceptance rate of under 10%.
We source our data from IPEDS, or the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. This database, created by the National Center for Education Statistics, tracks the number of applicants at each school, the number admitted, and the number enrolled.
IPEDS also monitors standardized test scores, enrollment numbers, and degrees granted. This data offers valuable information for prospective students. This page ranks the schools with the lowest acceptance rates and explains why acceptance rates matter.
Note: IPEDS did not report acceptance rate figures for all of the colleges on our list. We did not, however, want to penalize those colleges without data. To that end, we simply excluded those schools from the rankings in this category.
What to Consider When Researching College Acceptance Rates
College acceptance rates only provide a single data point about a school. Applicants should consider how many students apply to the school, the school's average GPA and SAT scores, the enrollment rate, and other data to understand the acceptance rate.
This section explores other factors applicants should consider when reviewing college acceptance rates.
1. How does the acceptance rate percentage break down in comparison to the total number of students applying to your preferred school?
A 6% acceptance rate from Harvard may seem daunting, but prospective applicants should consider the number of total applicants and what that 6% acceptance signifies. For example, if an elite university admits 5% of applicants, but the school receives 50,000 applications, that still means that 2,500 students have been accepted. In contrast, if you apply to a school with a 50% acceptance rate, but that school only receives 5,000 applicants, the school admits 2,500. Even though the acceptance rates differ greatly, the number of applicants is the same. Students should keep data in perspective when comparing schools, rankings, and data points.
2. Check how you (and that percentage from the first point) stack up against the average SAT and GPA of your desired school.
Prospective students can find a university's average SAT or GPA score for incoming accepted students. This information can help contextualize the admissions rate percentage. Your scores may stack up well against this data, especially if the average is lower. If the average SAT score is 1450 out of 1600 and the average incoming GPA is 3.7 out of 4.0, then the applicant pool is filled with better applicants and decreases your chances.
3. Evaluate the acceptance percentage compared to actual enrollment.
Universities often accept more students than they can take. This is due to the fact that not all students who are accepted will enroll. Evaluating the percentage of those who are enrolled against those accepted provides additional information. If the school has a 50% acceptance rate, but 90% of students enroll (45% of the total applicants), then you may have a different perspective on the college, knowing that most accepted students wish to attend.
4. Evaluate the acceptance rate percentage compared to the school's tuition, fees, and financial aid.
Price is one of the most important factors when choosing a college. Looking at tuition, extra fees, and potential financial aid can provide an idea of what it costs. Universities with high price tags and little financial aid available may get fewer applicants. Schools with a lower price tag and substantial financial aid often receive more applicants. Remember that cost does not necessarily speak to a school's education quality. Prospective students should examine these factors together in the schools they are considering.
5. Compare each school's acceptance rate percentage.
Always focus on comparing one college to another in each of the criteria outlined above and all of the criteria provided. You can also break down some areas of interest that may be more or less important to you specifically.
Ten Schools With the Lowest Acceptance Rates
- Stanford University with a 4.34% acceptance rate of the 47,498 applicants
- Harvard University with a 4.92% acceptance rate of the 43,330 applicants
- Columbia University with a 6.1% acceptance rate of the 36,250 applicants
- Princeton University with a 6.5% acceptance rate of the 29,303 applicants
- Yale University with a 6.9% acceptance rate of the 32,900 applicants
- The Juilliard School with a 7.2% acceptance rate of the 2,597 applicants
- The University of Chicago with a 7.9% acceptance rate of the 31,411 applicants
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a 7.9% acceptance rate of the 19,020 applicants
- California Institute of Technology with an 8% acceptance rate of the 6,800+ applicants
- Brown University with a 9.3% acceptance rate of the 32,390 applicants
Benefits of Low College Acceptance Rates
The colleges with the lowest acceptance rates also typically feature the greatest prestige and name recognition. This explains why so many Ivy League schools appear on our list of the colleges with the lowest acceptance rates.
Attending a selective school can translate into networking and career opportunities after graduation. Thanks to prestigious alumni networks, many of these schools help professionals advance their careers long after graduation. Many of these schools also focus on academic research, investing in the latest technologies and conducting cutting-edge experiments. Students interested in research careers benefit from attending these schools.
Attending a selective school may also bring salary benefits. For example, Ivy League graduates report higher earnings than other professionals. Ten years after gaining admission, an Ivy League grad earns double the salary of grads from other colleges.
Low acceptance rates also often correlate with high graduation rates. Enrolling at a selective school does not benefit students who drop out and never earn their degree. However, many of the most selective schools report graduation rates of over 90%.
Selective schools maintain different standards. Juilliard, for example, requires different qualifications than Harvard or Stanford, and applicants to the performing arts school must pass an audition to gain admission.
Applying to Colleges with Low Acceptance Rates
In a competitive applicant pool, how can you make your application stand out?
Colleges with the lowest acceptance rates look for a strong academic record. Students can consider boosting their GPA by taking AP classes. Transcripts should show the admissions committee that applicants can handle college-level work. Avoiding hard classes can backfire. Taking practice tests or an SAT or ACT prep course can also help students increase their standardized test scores.
In addition to academics, schools look for well-rounded applicants who bring something unique to the student body. Highlighting extracurricular activities, volunteer experience, and work experience can help applicants stand out.
College essays also play a major role in admissions. Applicants should spend several weeks writing and revising their essays. Ask for feedback from teachers or mentors to improve the essays, and make sure to customize the essay for each school.
Recommendation letters can make or break an application. Students should choose teachers or mentors who know them well. Contact letter writers at least one month before the application deadline. Rather than simply asking for the letter, provide as much information as possible. Students should offer a list of their academic achievements, extracurriculars, or papers they wrote for the class.
Before submitting an application, prospective students should review the entire application. Sloppy errors draw the wrong kind of attention during the admissions process.
Playing the Field When It Comes to Acceptance Rate Rankings
In 2015, 36% of first-time college students applied to seven or more colleges. That percentage more than doubled since 2005, when only 17% of first-time freshmen submitted applications at seven or more schools. As college acceptance rates decrease, applicants feel the pressure to increase their chances by applying to more schools.
But applying to multiple colleges brings its own challenges. Customizing applications for each school takes time and effort. Applicants can streamline the process by using sites like Common App that provide a single portal to apply to multiple schools. Tracking application requirements, deadlines for recommendation letters, and essay requirements can also help students manage the process.
On average, students spend $44 per application. The most selective colleges charge even more, with Stanford commanding a $90 application fee. The financial burden of application fees may prevent students from applying to multiple schools, which can limit their college options.
Fortunately, most schools offer application fee waivers for qualifying students. For example, applicants who show economic need can receive a Common App fee waiver.
Applicants should avoid only applying to the most selective schools. By also applying to an in-state public school or other institutions with higher acceptance rates, students increase their chances of acceptance.
Benefits of Schools with High Acceptance Rates
Most schools admit more than two-thirds of their applicants, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. What are the benefits of attending a school with a high acceptance rate?
For one, applicants are more likely to get in. Students who only apply to the most selective schools may wind up without an admission offer, which is a real danger when many selective schools admit fewer than one in 10 applicants.
A high acceptance rate can benefit students in several other ways. Students with a strong application might be more likely to receive scholarships or merit-based financial aid at a less-selective school. These applicants stand out in the applicant pool when the same GPA and standardized test scores might not impress selective schools.
The student body at schools with higher admission rates also looks different. The most selective schools admit more students from high-income households. For example, elite colleges enroll more students from the top 1% than from the bottom 40%, according to The New York Times.
Schools with higher admission rates often enroll a more economically diverse student body, and they do a better job of improving the economic outlook for low-income students.
In fact, students with strong applications and a solid work ethic tend to do well regardless of the school they attend. A school with a high acceptance rate can help these students reach their academic and professional goals.
College Acceptance Rates Do Not Translate to Learning Quality
Many students think the most selective colleges are the best. However, admission selectivity does not necessarily translate directly to academic quality and rigor.
Several other metrics provide more relevant data about a college's academic quality. For example, prospective students can research the outcomes for the school's alumni. Do they receive job offers in their field? Do they report high admission rates to graduate programs?
Other metrics to assess a school's academics include faculty qualifications. Applicants can research the percent of faculty with a terminal degree in their field and the percentage of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track professors as measures of academic quality. Many schools provide this data on their website.
Selectivity also does not indicate a student's fit with the school. Factors like the school's size, setting, and policies about on-campus housing can inform prospective students more about their college experience than the school's admission rate.
Similarly, less-selective schools with a high mobility rate might do a better job helping lower-income students move into higher income brackets than the most selective colleges.
Attending a school with the lowest admission rate does not guarantee academic or career success. While admission rates measure the number of students each institution accepts, the school's retention rate and graduation rate provides more direct information about whether current students thrive at the school.
For each college, we gathered data on the number of full-time faculty per part-time faculty member, institutional financial aid, acceptance, retention, graduation, job placement, default rates, years accredited, and undergraduate tuition. Learn more.