What Makes the Ivy League Universities So Hard to Get Into?
During every admissions season, one of the most common questions we get from our students and parents is “How did student X get into this and that Ivy League school, while the other student with the perfect GPA and test scores didn’t?”
The truth is we don’t know. And we may never know how that student got in unless we were actually the ones who worked with the student. The factors that can go into an acceptance are endless: it could be meritocratic (though in this day and age, this is getting rarer and rarer), sports recruitment, family legacy, or maybe they just donated a library “anonymously”. Still, this doesn’t mean that entry into the Ivy League is completely shrouded in mystery.
Over the years, we have accumulated hundreds of successful Ivy League application cases and years of working experience with the admissions officers (AOs), providing us with insight into just why it is so difficult to get into the Ivy League.
Factor #1: The Athletic Nature of the Ivy League
Let’s start with an often overlooked fact: what even is the Ivy League?
Its members, in alphabetical order, are Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University.
To many people outside the U.S., the Ivy League is synonymous with the best schools in the states. However, if you look closely at its origins, the Ivy League is simply “an American collegiate athletic conference comprising [of] eight private universities in the Northeastern United States”1En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Ivy League. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_League#:~:text=The%20Ivy%20League%20is%20an,in%20the%20Northeastern%20United%20States> [Accessed 12 November 2020].. This means top schools that are not from the Northeastern part of the U.S., like Stanford University, California Institute of Technology (CalTech), and the University of Chicago are not included in this league. Similarly, other top Northeastern US schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Johns Hopkins University are not members either, for one reason or another. So, if so many incredible schools are excluded, does the term “Ivy League” really indicate the best of the best?
As an athletics league by definition, it is only natural that the Ivy League schools reserve a good portion of their freshman year classes for their athletes every year. Our research has shown that about 14% of the admitted class are NCAA Division I recruits2Scholarshipstats.com. 2020. Chances Of Playing Sports At Ivy League Schools | Scholarship Stats.Com. [online] Available at: <https://scholarshipstats.com/Ivies> [Accessed 12 November 2020].. However, my personal estimate would put the number of athletes closer to 20% because many of the admitted athletes are not at NCAA level but are nonetheless meeting the institution’s needs. For example, some sports are not governed by the NCAA, such as Rugby, which is overseen by USA Rugby. Thus, many Ivy League schools are especially interested in athletes (not casual sports players!) who can pay full tuition and are academically competitive.
So, if you are one of those “perfect students” who is not a competitive athlete, please know that around 20% of the Ivy League seats are, by design, not available to you.
Factor 2: The Social Club Nature of the Ivy League
In the wealthy Back Bay district of Boston, Massachusetts, you will find the Harvard Club of Boston. Technically, the club’s membership is available for anyone who is interested and can afford the fee. But when you examine the membership application closely, priority is given to those who are students or alumni of Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the Fletcher School of Law at Tufts. Members of this club are entitled to the club’s athletic facilities, speaker events, seminars, cocktail parties, and exclusive networking opportunities.
Being a part of this very “special” circle is one of the biggest reasons people want to get into the Ivy League schools.
One of the main reasons the Ivy League has been extremely difficult to get into is that historically, legacy students have been the dominant population on campus. Legacy students are those whose parents and/or grandparents have also attended the same university. The rationale behind these universities’ preference for legacy students is their increased commitment to the Ivy League means an increased likelihood of donations. For example, in 2008, the University of Pennsylvania admitted 41.7% of legacy students who applied via the Early Decision round and 33.9% of legacy students who applied during the Regular Decision round. In 2009, Princeton admitted 41.7% of legacy applicants3 En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Legacy Preferences. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_preferences#cite_note-5> [Accessed 12 November 2020]..
As the times change, social justice movements have provided strong social pressure for elite schools to perform their social responsibility to close the racial and gender gaps, which has led to a drop in legacy student acceptances to around 15%4Statista. 2020. Ivy League: Legacy Students In The Class Of 2023 | Statista. [online] Available at: <https://www.statista.com/statistics/941399/ivy-league-legacy-students-class/#:~:text=Share%20of%20legacy%20students%20in%20Ivy%20League%20schools%20in%20Class%20of%202023&text=This%20statistic%20illustrates%20the%20share,Harvard%20University%20were%20legacy%20students.> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
. However, there are colleagues of mine in the industry who have revealed findings of a somewhat higher number of around 20%5Top Tier Admissions. 2020. Ivy League & College Early Admissions Statistics For The Class Of 2024 – Top Tier Admissions. [online] Available at: <https://www.toptieradmissions.com/resources/college-admissions-statistics/ivy-league-college-early-admissions-stats-class-of-2024/> [Accessed 12 November 2020]..
Regardless of progressive movements that have pushed the Ivy League schools to open more spaces for the “average households”, the truth is, alumni donations remain a significant source of funding for these schools. According to a 2018 survey, “alumni giving represented 26.1% of total voluntary support of higher education”. In the same survey, 5 of the 8 Ivy league schools are ranked among the Top 10 Fund-Raising Institutions in the US6Seltzer, R., 2020. Personal Giving Pushes Donations To Colleges And Universities To New Level In 2017. [online] Insidehighered.com. Available at: <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/02/06/personal-giving-pushes-donations-colleges-and-universities-new-level-2017#:~:text=Alumni%20giving%20represented%2026.1%20percent,30.4%20percent%20the%20year%20before.> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
. The implication here is that legacy students will always be a big part of the Ivy League student body.
In fact, legacy admissions is such a big part of the US college admissions decision-making process that among the top 75 nationally ranked universities in the US, only California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have openly claimed that they do not practice legacy admissions7En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Legacy Preferences. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legacy_preferences#:~:text=Currently%2C%20the%20Ivy%20League%20institutions,entering%20class%20using%20legacy%20admissions.> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
So, once again, for that “perfect student” who is not an athletic recruit and does not have legacy, 35% to 40% of spots were simply never available to you in the first place.
Factor 3: The (supposedly) Socially Responsible Nature of the Ivy League
All private non-profit colleges and universities in the US are exempted from paying federal and state corporate income tax, as well as state and local property tax. Hence, there is an expectation for these private schools to be socially responsible by:
1. Accepting Americans;
2. Accepting more students from local communities than from faraway places; and
3. Creating positive social change by providing financial aid and scholarships to the underprivileged students in the country.
Elite US schools like the Ivy League love to boast about the amount of financial aid given to students in need, as well as the percentage of “First Generation” students (those who are the first in their family to attend college) and “Low Income” students they have in their freshman class8 Fu, B. and Kim, D., 2020. Harvard College Admits 4.92 Percent Of Applicants To Class Of 2024 | News | The Harvard Crimson. [online] Thecrimson.com. Available at: <https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/3/27/harvard-admissions-2024/> [Accessed 12 November 2020].. In general, all elite schools in the U.S., including the Ivy League, have at least 10+% of their freshmen classes designated as “First Generation”. However, through many private conversations and investigations with admission officers, my personal estimate of around 20% is probably the number these Ivy League schools are aiming to achieve9Strauss, V., 2020. Low-Income, First-Generation Students Have — Finally — Established A Beachhead At Ivy League Schools. Now The Real Work Starts.. [online] Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/13/low-income-first-generation-students-have-finally-established-a-beachhead-at-ivy-league-schools-now-the-real-work-starts/> [Accessed 12 November 2020]..
So, for a “perfect student” who is a non-athlete, non-legacy, with a middle-class family background and parents with college degrees, please know that about 55% to 60% of the Ivy League seats are, by design, not available for you.
Factor 4: The (supposedly) Diverse Nature of the Ivy League
When I was doing research on the admissions decision-making process in the late 2000s, I interviewed several elite schools’ admissions officers on the subject of a “quota” for Asian students. While no one said anything directly about whether there was a limit to the number of Asian students they would admit into their freshman class every year, all of them brought up the subject of “racial or ethnic representation” in the student body. Basically, the university student body should ideally reflect the racial or ethnic mix of the American population. The following is a chart of the racial/ethnic background of respective Ivy League schools’ student bodies in 202010The College Monk. 2020. The Demographics Of The Ivy League. [online] Available at: <https://www.thecollegemonk.com/blog/ivy-league-demographics> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
|College:||Asian American||African American||Hispanic||White, Non-Hispanic||Native American|
*Please note that a portion of the student body refused to identify themselves ethnically.11En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Demographics Of The United States. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States> [Accessed 12 November 2020].
As you can see in the chart, Asians are the only “minority” group to have been consistently over-represented. Therefore, “being Asian” is not going to bring any advantage to the student in terms of racial diversity because there are already technically too many of us there.
A word of warning, we should not take all the numbers in this chart at face value because surveys about student demographics are only done voluntarily. Many “white” students in the US choose not to answer the demographic question because they are not entirely sure if there were any interracial marriages in their ancestry (considering America’s complicated history). These students would likely mark themselves as “mixed race” or “unknown”.
According to my research and conversations with the admissions officers, I estimate the Ivy League schools aim at having a combined 20% of their student body composed by African American, Hispanic and Native American students.
So, once again, after going through four factors of why the Ivy League schools are difficult to get into, we can now safely say that 75% to 80% of Ivy League seats are simply unavailable to our non-athlete, non-legacy, non-first-generation, and middle-class “perfect” student.
Factor 5: The “American” Nature of the Ivy League
We have briefly discussed how all private non-profit colleges and universities in the US are exempted from paying federal and state corporate income tax, as well as state and local property tax. As a result of their tax exempt status, these institutions have the responsibility to give back to the country, and they do so by admitting a large number of U.S. citizens or Green Card holders.
There is no official information anywhere to tell us what the “quota” might be for the non-citizens (or if there even is any). But the approximation I could give you, according to my professional experience, is around 8% to 12%.
If our “perfect student” is a non-citizen, regardless of his/her family background, as long as the student is not an athlete or a legacy, only 8-12% of the total seats are available for this student to compete for.
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By Ally Ip, Director of Research