Hardest Colleges to Get Into: Factors & Terms Every Freshman Must Know

Hardest Colleges to Get Into: Factors & Terms Every Freshman Must Know
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Every year, senior high school students face the same challenge—polishing their educational portfolio for college application season. From researching college application costs to obtaining recommendation letters, students jump through many hoops just to have a shot at getting an admissions acceptance letter, especially from the hardest colleges to get into.

In fact, several of the reports our research team analyzed suggested that students often prepare for college admissions well before their senior year. What is more, one study revealed that 55% of students begin researching career paths during their high school years (Educational Credit Management Corporation Group, 2022). In fact, in some U.S. states, students start their career planning as early as the ninth grade (Institute of Education Sciences, 2021). However, as the number of applicants in top schools rises (Nierenberg, 2021), it increasingly has become more competitive to get into them.

At Research.com, we understand how nerve-wracking this can be for students. We wanted to simplify the process of selecting academically challenging institutions and allow you to gauge your chances of admission. So, in this guide, we analyze why it is much harder to get into college nowadays. Our team also evaluated recent statistics and outlined some factors that affect how tertiary schools have adjusted their first-year selection process and what this mean for soon-to-be college students.

Hardest Colleges to Get Into Table of Contents

  1. Why are college admissions more competitive today?
  2. What do admission boards look for?
  3. Factors to Consider When Applying for College
  4. List of the Hardest Colleges to Get Into
  5. Revisit the Admission Process and Foster Transparency

Why are college admissions more competitive today?

It is no secret that most public universities and several of the hardest colleges to get into the U.S. use grades as the main basis of their admission process. In fact, 75% of colleges believe that this was the most important deciding factor in admissions while 73% considered grades in Advanced Placement (AP) or college prep courses as also relevant in their decision-making (National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2019).

For tertiary schools that are more selective with their processes, they usually have a more comprehensive approach when it comes to assessing applicants. This means that apart from grades, they also view the student as a whole, considering aspects like extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, personal essays, and interviews. These additional details provide college admission committees with a pool of diverse and unique applicants who could potentially contribute to the success of their universities (NCAC, 2022).

Narrowing down on student grades, the two most influential factors that affect college admissions are the grade point average (GPA), or the yearly median grade based on the courses taken, and the scores garnered from standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT). The last two tests measure a student’s ability to answer college-level core topics, such as reading, writing, comprehension, and problem solving, within a given time. The average GPA of college students in four-year programs is roughly 3.15 and above (Lindsay, 2022). Meanwhile, the average scores of 2021 SAT takers are 533 in Evidence-based Reading and Writing and 528 in Math, and the average 2021 ACT score is 20.3 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021).

Source: NCES

With a set grade and score, applicants have an idea of which schools they can go to even before they apply since they can gauge whether or not their academic performance can meet college-level requirements. On the plus side, it also means that they have enough time to improve their grades and scores until the application day arrives.

Between GPA and SAT scores, though, a study by Allensworth and Clark (2020, p. 198–211) suggests that the one that has more weight and can actually predict a student’s academic preparedness and success in college is the GPA since it calculates many different factors. In their research titled “High School GPAs and ACT Scores as Predictors of College Completion: Examining Assumptions About Consistency Across High Schools,” they concluded that, “students’ efforts to improve their HSGPAs would seem to have considerable potential leverage for improving college readiness. The fact that HSGPAs are based on so many different criteria—including effort over an entire semester in many different types of classes, demonstration of skills through multiple formats, and different teacher expectations—does not seem to be a weakness. Instead, it might help to make HSGPAs strong indicators of readiness because they measure a very wide variety of the skills and behaviors that are needed for success in college, where students will also encounter widely varying content and expectations.”

In addition, their work, which was published in the Educational Researcher, also notes that high ACT grades will only be beneficial if students eventually end up in competitive colleges. They add that, “the existence of large school effects among students with the same ACT scores suggests that if high schools are not tracking the success of their students in college and are relying solely on students’ test scores as indicators of their students’ college readiness, they may be misestimating the effects of their practices on students’ college readiness.”

If this is indeed the case, then we can safely conclude that first-year applicants have a better chance at getting into the hardest colleges, especially now that most of them have shifted to a test-optional scheme, offering students the choice of whether to disclose their SAT or ACT scores or not. This shift was mainly brought about by the pandemic because most students were unable to take their tests due to the lockdown. Additionally, the two testing organizations also suspended their operations at the height of the pandemic (Strauss, 2020).

This created a surge of applicants in most of the hardest colleges to get into since the academic barrier that has hindered most students from applying has been finally lifted. Anyone can apply, and it is anyone’s game. Consider the following statistics that show an increase in applicants and enrollees:

  • From 16.6 million first-year college enrollees in 2019, the pandemic caused an enrollment dip in 2020, resulting in 15.9 million enrolled students. (NCES, 2022)
  • From this 2020 data, there will be an 8% increase in enrollees by 2030. (NCES, 2022)
  • Projected 2021 enrollees were 17.1 million students. (NCES, 2022)
  • Undergraduate applicants increased by 36% from 3 million in A.Y. 2019-2020 to 4 million in A.Y. 2022-2023. (Common App, 2022)

average gpa

However, college hopefuls only have one foot in the door as highly selective schools are also motivated to size down their acceptance rates to maintain their status in university rankings. Consequently, higher rankings mean good publicity and public perception. In turn, this attracts more applicants, and the cycle begins again (Levine, n.d.).

This pattern seems tiresome for both students who need to improve their scores and for admission committees that sift through mountains of applicants. This is why most of the top-performing schools opt for a more stringent screening process since it provides them with other criteria that can distinguish potential enrollees.

All these give a bird’s eye view of the main reason why it is much more difficult to get into colleges and universities. Furthermore, there are other factors that could affect the selection process.

What do admission boards look for?

With rigorous requirements that affect college acceptance rates, we recommend that soon-to-be college students gain a deeper understanding of them to make the best choices before the next college applications open. Below, we have narrowed down the most common admission factors that schools look for during application season,

Early Applications

Most of the hardest colleges to get into academically provide early application submission dates to students who are perfectly sure about their school choice. The advantage of choosing this option is that students are guaranteed their spot in that college. They can enjoy the rest of their senior year without having to wait until March or April to hear back from universities. Some schools like Dartmouth College, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania even admit that they fill their freshmen slots from early applications by up to half, and sometimes more.

Inversely, two possible drawbacks to this is the unpredictability of an applicant that might change his or her mind about enrolling in a certain university and the amount of pressure students feel to cram on their requirements and improve their grades, especially if they started career planning late.

Quality of Essays and Interview Responses

Now that colleges and universities are going with the test-blind or test-optional score submission, we have observed that the main factor that could affect admission placement now lies in the quality of the students’ essays and interview responses. College essays make up around 25% of applications (Desai, 2022), which is why it is even more significant to be guided by the different writing types in order to answer them accordingly. Be sure to have a clear thesis statement so readers can pick up the voice and stand of the essay immediately.

As for interviews, it is always better to research past or possible interview questions so that answering them will be a breeze. There might be no universal cheat sheet for correct responses to interview questions, but reading up on the university’s history and recent achievements definitely shows that applicants did their homework. Students can also clarify or add some details that they missed mentioning in their essays during the interview. Additionally, if the college offers a face-to-face interview, applicants should take up on their offer, especially if they have the means to go to the campus. It demonstrates an applicant’s interest clearly and lets admission boards know that they are committed to attending that school.

Source: NCES

AP Courses

Advanced Placement (AP) courses are classes taken in high school that provide college-level credits in a particular topic or subject. In 2021, there was a 34.9% increase in public high school students who took at least one AP exam, showing a 28.6% increase since 2011 (College Board, 2021). Students who take AP courses and get good exam scores are often one step ahead of other applicants since they can show admission boards how determined they are in learning beyond high school-level tasks (College Board, n.d.).

Students taking AP courses also get to save money from college course fees since AP classes are credited, meaning students do not have to take them twice. Lastly, it also allows applicants to fully decide which program to take in college since they can get an overview of what subjects to take from their AP classes (College Board, n.d.).


An applicant’s extracurricular activities can also affect the decision of the selection committee. Extracurriculars can include a student’s hobbies, club or athletic involvement in high school, involvement in the community or volunteer work, internships or part-time jobs, or artistic achievements. These things matter to the application board because it shows them what skills applicants have outside the classroom.

Extracurriculars, apart from college essays, should reflect how applicants are as people, showing values, principles, and interests beyond being a student (NACAC, 2022). This helps selection committees decide if a particular student can contribute not only as a member of the school community but also as a law-abiding citizen of the nation.

Financial Standing

As the entire world faces the impact of COVID-19 and inflation, certainly, college fees are one of the biggest factors that affect both the applicant’s and the admission board’s decisions. According to a recent study, 68% of high school students believe that the cost of tuition is their top deciding factor when choosing their paths after graduation (ECMC, 2022). Additionally, because of the impact of the pandemic, 29% of students are less likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 47% believe that completing a two-year degree is more sensible than a four-year one (ECMC, 2022).

Universities that spot potential top-performing students would want to keep them, even if they have financial concerns. Because of this, many of the hardest colleges to get into the U.S. offer various financial aid programs to low-income applicants. In A.Y. 2019-2020 alone, the total financial help that was given to full-time freshmen college students with four-year degrees was 87% and 82% for two-year degree takers (NCES, 2022). However, colleges can only shell out so much, and not everyone might be granted the same opportunity, so applicants might need to seek other sources of financial aid outside of the school’s scope.

Source: Statista, U. S. Department of State

Diversity and Location

When COVID-19 emerged, international students in the U.S. in A.Y. 2020-2021 dropped to 914,095 from 1.07 million in A.Y. 2019-2020 (Statista, 2021). However, as travel bans are becoming more relaxed and as the number of vaccinated individuals increases, the number of international applicants is also gradually increasing. In 2022, 948,519 foreign students applied to colleges and universities, rising 4% from the 2021 data (U.S. Department of State, 2022). While diversity is always something that should be present and nurtured in a school setting, it also means that incoming local first-year college students need to amp up their records in order to have a bit of an edge.

Additionally, if the colleges and universities that applicants choose are too far from their hometowns, this might make admission committees furrow their eyebrows. They might look at some aspects, like commute cost, travel time, and cultural differences, that could affect student performance (CollegeData, n.d.). Applicants then need to find a cost-effective and hassle-free solution to this before sending their acceptance replies.

Factors to Consider When Applying for College

Aside from those that mentioned, we have noted down a few more factors that might need attention based on the different studies that we have evaluated. These might not directly affect the selection process, but it is still relevant to keep them in mind as applicants choose the best school to attend since it provides a glimpse into how colleges foster their students.

  • Enrollment rate. This refers to the number of applicants enrolled in colleges by level. While a college might have a high acceptance rate, meaning many applicants passed, a low enrollment rate might indicate that those applicants decided not to study in that school.
  • Retention rate. This is the percentage of students who continue their education in the same school for the following academic year. On average, the retention rate of tertiary schools for a four-year degree in 2019-2020 is 82% (NCES, 2022). A high retention rate could mean that the university was able to meet student expectations and provide them with outstanding services (Morris, 2021).
  • Graduation or completion rate. This is the percentage of students who entered a university in the same year and graduated within six years. High completion rates show that classes in a university are attainable and that students are not entirely affected by delays or could handle them and still graduate on time.

college retention rate

List of the Hardest Colleges to Get Into

Now that you have a more concrete idea of the admission process, we will now take a look into the hardest colleges to get into the U.S. We arranged this list in alphabetical order, providing data from the universities’ official websites and data archives from 2020-2022. We have also evaluated data from DataUSA to offer more insights into each school’s admissions details. Hopefully, this will provide you with a clearer view of what to expect and possibly prepare when applying to these selective schools.

1. Boston University

Acceptance rate18.6%Enrollment rate/number7% / 4,010
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate93%
Number of applicants75,778Graduation rate85%
Number of admissions14,129Admitted ED1,820

Boston University offers more than 300 programs under 17 schools, colleges, and its Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences. Its applicants could get the chance to work with its stellar roster of faculty, including professors who are Presidential Award winners or included in Time’s 100 Most Influential People, to name a few. Its average class size is 30 with an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio, which is the ideal classroom setup for college students.

2. Brown University

Acceptance rate5%Enrollment rate/number1,723
SAT/ACT 750-800/35-36 (optional)Retention rate98%
Number of applicants50,649Graduation rate95.8%
Number of admissions2,560Admitted ED895

Brown University, founded in 1764, has a 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio, with 69% of classes not having more than 20 students. It offers more than 2,000 courses each year and more than 80 undergraduate concentrations. In addition, It fully met the needs of students who requested financial aids and allotted $186 million just for scholarships in 2022-2023. The institution also encourages a unified community built from partnerships between teachers and students and aim to prepare students with great usefulness.

3. California Institute of the Arts

Acceptance rate31.62%Enrollment rate/number35.43% / 501
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate89.8%
Number of applicants4,472Graduation rate72.4%
Number of admissions1,414Admitted EDN/A

CalArts is the result of the talented minds of Walt and Roy Disney, Nelbert Chouinard, and Lulu May Von Hagen who forged a unified school that nurtures young, artistic souls. It fosters a community of artists and wishes to transform the world through it. CalArts offers 70-plus degrees in the fields of visual, performing, media, and literary arts. It also provides a BFA General Education as well as further studies.

4. Carnegie Mellon University

Acceptance rate13.5%Enrollment rate/number1,896
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate97.4%
Number of applicants32,896Graduation rate92.8%
Number of admissions4,453Admitted ED592

The Carnegie Mellon University aims to cultivate transformative students who are diverse, talented, and well-rounded. It has seven colleges and schools that offer programs, ranging from engineering to fine arts. Its global campuses include locations in Qatar, Africa, and Australia. The university prides on partnering with big companies that help widen its students’ abilities and talents.

5. Cornell University

Acceptance rate7.2%Enrollment rate/number3,514
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate97%
Number of applicants71,164Graduation rate94.77%
Number of admissions5,168Admitted ED1,930

Cornell University has a community of students who challenge themselves to carve their own paths to self-discovery. Founded in 1865, Cornell aims to educate students who live through public service by sharing knowledge and brightening the lives of people. It offers more than 4,000 undergraduate courses across 16 colleges and schools and has campuses in Ithaca and New York City.

6. Emory University

Acceptance rate13%Enrollment rate/number1,494
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate94.85%
Number of applicants33,435Graduation rate90%

Number of admissions4,364Admitted ED844

Emory University prides itself on persevering and teaching knowledge in the service of humanity and encourages students to think beyond oneself. It has more than 80 undergraduate programs for students to choose from across nine colleges and schools. Its undergrad programs include degrees in liberal arts, business, and nursing with a recognized faculty roster from different fields.

7. Georgetown University

Acceptance rate12%

Enrollment rate/number1,585
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate97.6%
Number of applicants27,629

Graduation rate94%

Number of admissions3,311

Admitted EDN/A

Living by the Jesuit teaching of cura personalis or to care for each other, Georgetown University is a Catholic school that nurtures students who are well-rounded and talented. It offers several areas of study, ranging from anthropology to cybersecurity risk and management under more than eight schools and colleges. The institution offers housing and has over 150 clubs, cultural groups, and social clubs.

8. Harvard University

Acceptance rate3.2%

Enrollment rate/number4%
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate98%
Number of applicants61,221Graduation rate98%
Number of admissions1,984Admitted EDN/A

Established in 1636, Harvard University is home to its undergraduate Harvard College and 12 graduate and professional schools. The school looks for students who are critical thinkers and curious to learn about the world. It has a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio with an average of 12 course size. The university also offers over 40 undergraduate programs, ranging from astrophysics to women, gender, and sexuality.

9. John Hopkins University

Acceptance rate7.5%

Enrollment rate/number1,310
SAT/ACT 1520-1560 / 34-35 (optional)Retention rate95.65%
Number of applicants37,156Graduation rate94.4%
Number of admissions2,972Admitted ED849

John Hopkins University is anchored on teaching and research, which is why it is noted as the country’s first research university. It cultivates to form bright and useful scholars to help the nation and the world. The institution has a 7:1 faculty ratio and 74% of classes have less than 20 students, making for an ideal learning experience. It also offers more than 400 programs across different disciplines like the humanities, engineering, arts and music, education, and health, to name a few.

10. New York School of Interior Design

Acceptance rate67.3%

Enrollment rate/number621
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate67%
Number of applicants171Graduation rate80%
Number of admissions115

Admitted EDN/A

An exclusive school, the New York School of Interior Design aims to foster an immersive and transformative interior design community and education to its students. Founded in 1916, the New York School of Interior Design has an average class size of 12 and offers three undergraduate programs and four graduate programs on two campuses. Additionally, it provides student social activities such as group trips to fully expose students to the discipline of interior design.

11. New York University

Acceptance rate12.2%

Enrollment rate/number5,723
SAT/ACT 1350-1530 / 31-35 (not required)Retention rate94%
Number of applicants105,000+Graduation rate87%
Number of admissionsN/AAdmitted EDN/A

New York University was founded in 1831 and offers 270 degrees across 18 schools and colleges. It aims to be the top international center for scholarship, research, and teaching, and wishes to encourage cultural and intellectual experiences for its students. Their programs range from arts and media to science and technology. In addition, they also have two campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

12. Northeastern University

Acceptance rate18.38%

Enrollment rate/number22,314
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate97%
Number of applicants75,244Graduation rate91%
Number of admissions13,829Admitted ED1,014

Northeastern University aims to provide data and evidence-driven education to its students while engaging them to the experiences of life. It offers 280 majors, including applied physics, bioengineering, and business administration. The school provides more than 500 sports, clubs, and organizations for students to explore and has campuses in London, Toronto, Vancouver, and Miami, to name a few.

13. Stanford University

Acceptance rate3.9%

Enrollment rate/number1,757
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate98.3%
Number of applicants55,471Graduation rate95.6%

Number of admissions2,190Admitted EDN/A

Stanford University opened in 1891 and has since focused on research, education, and service. It has a 5:1 student-to-teacher ratio, which is perfect for focused individuals and offers 69 programs or studies. It offers more than 600 student organizations and fosters a vibrant community with its traditions like the Fountain Hopping, a tour of the university’s fountains, and the Wacky Walk where freshmen enter the stadium in costumes.

14. The Juilliard School

Acceptance rate7.64%

Enrollment rate/numberN/A
SAT/ACT N/ARetention rate94%
Number of applicants2,434Graduation rate90-100%
Number of admissions186Admitted EDN/A

Founded in 1905, The Juilliard School is a leader in teaching performing arts. It aims to attract young talents and engage them in activities that could elevate their potential. The university offers major programs across dance, drama, music, and liberal arts disciplines, as well as summer and music advancement programs. In addition, well-known professors who have performed in various stages are ready to share their knowledge with hopeful applicants.

15. Tufts University

Acceptance rate9.7%

Enrollment rate/number1,804

SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate96.70%

Number of applicants34,882Graduation rate93.8%
Number of admissions3,381

Admitted EDN/A

Tufts University fosters students who are collaborative, civically engaged, and global minded. It aims to provide an interdisciplinary community of scholars who can help change the world. Apart from having a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio, the university has 10 schools and colleges that provide programs in fine arts, medicine, nutrition science, and even veterinary medicine, to name a few. Its list of 300 student organizations also gives students a chance to explore their talents and capabilities.

16. University of California – Los Angeles

Acceptance rate9%

Enrollment rate/number6,462

SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate96.9%
Number of applicants149,815

Graduation rate92%
Number of admissions12,844

Admitted EDN/A

UCLA looks for driven and creative students who want to effect change. It aims to preserve and share knowledge as well as cultivate a diverse and responsible community that values access to information. The university offers more than 3,000 courses with students in each class ranging from 10 to 30, and subjects ranging from aerospace engineering to marine biology.

17. The University of Chicago

Acceptance rate6.4%Enrollment rate/number2,053
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate99%
Number of applicants37,974Graduation rate95.9%
Number of admissions2,460Admitted EDN/A

Founded in 1890, the University of Chicago commits itself to a diverse community of students and faculty that are well-versed in different disciplines. It promotes free speech and aims to protect it as the institution believes that it urges its students to rethink perceptions and be open-minded. Some university traditions that might sound familiar to aspiring students are the Harper Lectures where experts attend debates and discuss relevant topics and the Scav Hunt, which is a 72-hour scavenger hunt full of riddles, games, and fun.

18. University of Pennsylvania

Acceptance rate6%Enrollment rate/number2,418
SAT/ACT (optional)Retention rate97.7%
Number of applicants56,332Graduation rate96.2%
Number of admissions3,304Admitted ED1,183

UPenn looks for students who are able to self-reflect in order to help themselves and the community. Its 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio helps build not only rapport between students and teachers but also a concentrated classroom. It has three schools and one undergraduate college that offer more than 80 courses, including accounting, history, sociology, and urban studies.

19. Washington University in St. Louis

Acceptance rate11%Enrollment rate/number1,858
SAT/ACT 1500-1570 / 33-35 (optional)Retention rate94%
Number of applicants33,214Graduation rate94%
Number of admissions3,764Admitted ED(27%)

Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1853 and takes pride in being “need-blind,” meaning it will not consider financial standing and demonstrated interest as factors in its admission processes. The university has a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio and four undergraduate schools with tons of programs and courses to choose from, including archeology, dance, global studies, and drama. It also has a list of student activities that freshmen can look forward to, such as the Art Prom, which is a formal dance, and the DUC N’ Donuts, for free donuts every first Friday of the month.

20. Yale University

Acceptance rate6.3%Enrollment rate/number1,786
SAT/ACT 730-780 / 33-35 (optional)Retention rate98%
Number of applicants47,240Graduation rate96.9%
Number of admissions(53%)Admitted EDN/A

Established in 1701, Yale aims to nurture a community that is diverse and interdependent and will serve society well. It has  a 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio and offers a catalog of programs and courses, ranging from art to economics, linguistics, and even religious studies. Its school traditions include Class Day, which gives celebration and love to undergraduate students, and pays tribute to the famous Handsome Dan statue of Yale’s dog mascot.

Revisit the Admission Process and Foster Transparency

College applications are no easy feat, and from what we have experienced when we were students, it not only entails a lot of paperwork but also a lot of effort in taking the right classes, extracurricular activities, and the like in order to stand out. To recap, because of the effects of the pandemic, many colleges lifted the requirement to submit SAT or ACT scores. With this being suspended or optional, thousands of undergraduate freshmen applicants try their luck in the hardest colleges to get into academically. This created a surge in applications, which in turn continues to urge universities to tighten or lower their acceptance rates, making it difficult for students to get in.

While this cycle increases the university’s overall ranking, it undeniably creates pressure and even pushes high school students to start career planning as early as middle or junior high school. Tertiary institutions and education department officials might need to revisit their admission policies in order to create more transparent ways to inform the public about their acceptance criteria. We believe this will help appease the minds of parents, high school teachers, and counselors who need to guide teenagers throughout the application process. Most importantly, it will give students a more concrete idea of what to expect so that they can better prepare for the requirements, stress-free, especially for those who will meet the Fall 2023 college application deadlines. After all, students with sound minds and bodies perform the greatest.



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