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Top 10 List: World’s Toughest Academic Institutions to Get Into

Updated on January 17, 2018

Notice how the title of this hub isn’t called, “World’s Most ‘Selective’ Universities;” as I think the word selective mainly implies “objectivity”—i.e., the acceptance rate, which is the number of students accepted divided by the number of students applied. If you were to Google “World’s Most Selective Universities,” you should end up with a list of schools based on this number alone. In fact, the acceptance rate maybe great from an objective standpoint—as elite universities like Duke and Vanderbilt could use their 19% acceptance rates and compare it, to say, Yale’s 7% acceptance rate. Still yet, this number by itself doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the overall demographics and competitive environment that exist prior to a student attempting enrollment. To say the least, from the standpoint of some very nervous student at the secondary level this number, alone, does nothing to tell the whole story—e.g., weighted gpa, standardized test scores, class rank, extracurricular activities, family legacy, high school's prestige, student demographics and even the pressures of a pass/fail type scenario. Just what does it takes to get into one of the world’s most elite universities? And exactly where in the world do these so called “elite universities” exist? Enough with the intro, here’s my list:

1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

With about a 6% acceptance rate the average student has a better chance of winning the lottery….TWICE. Harvard University, given its northeastern demographics, is without question the toughest higher learning institute on this planet to get into. In fact, the second on the list is not even remotely close: the Harvard brand name has been "branded" so much into the academic subconscious of so many students in this country that if you were to ask embryos, “What college they’d like to attend?" Overwhelmingly, they would respond by saying "Harvard!” This said, the best way to get admitted into Harvard University is to delve off this same logic: if you’ve ever heard the term “Ivy Babies,” I’m sure you’d give some credence to the “My Baby Can Read” ideologies that it now takes to prepare a young child’s cognitive skills for the prospect of attempting admissions at an elite academic institution like a Harvard University. Harvard is so tough to get into that some people willl try any and everything to seek admission: Adam Wheeler, serial con artist and now convicted felon, lied his way into Harvard's prestigious ivy towers. Alas, when trying to gain admissions into a school like Harvard there’s literally very little room for trial & error: if you screw up your GPA…you’re out; bomb the SATs…you’re out; don’t participate in extracurricular activities…again, you’re out: admissions to an elite university like Harvard is a smorgasbord of about four to five really important admissions variables with, of course, a little luck thrown into the mix for good measure.

2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Mass/ California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

Both MIT and Caltech have natural affinities for one another….and for good reason, they both have acceptance rates of about 9%. In both MIT/Caltech’s cases the acceptance rate is a moot point because if you don’t score near perfect on the math section of the SATs, then there’s no way in hell you’re getting in either. As the names implies, Massachusetts Institute of ‘Technology’/California Institute of ‘Technology’are schools designed for math/science wiz kids—aka, future noble laureate engineers.

3. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA and Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT)

With about a 6% acceptance rate (comparable to Harvard's) Stanford University has rendered itself "most selective university" paragon. The only reason why it's third on my list is based purely on one fact: it's not Harvard. Obviously, there's a demographic factor: Stanford University, given its west coast location reigns supreme--that is, to say, other than Berkeley, and of course Cal tech, there's really no other university that can compete with Stanford's demand for elite educational services. Harvard, on the other hand, has six other schools in the Ivies to compete with--and it still manages to blow most of them out of the waters.

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT)

Just like its western counterparts in MIT and Cal Tech, the Indian Institute of Technology—aka, (IIT) is an institution built by engineers and for engineers: making it into one of IIT’s 4000 slots from a pool of about 150000 applicants meant that you stood only a 2.5% chance of getting into this very selective school. What further adds to a young Indian student’s dilemma is the very fact that admission is solely based on one exam: score above-average on the test…’re in; anything less…you’re out—it’s that simple.

4. Yale University, New Haven Conn. and Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

If you have dreams of going to Yale or Princeton, keep in mind that the acceptance rate for both schools hover around 7%. Perhaps many of you are wondering, "why MIT/Caltech over Yale and Princeton, both of which have lower acceptance rates?" As a matter of semantics, if one school has a lower acceptance rate than another, that doesn't necessarily make it "tougher to get into." In every sense of the word "tougher" you have to factor in what's required of an applicant and what's not. MIT, for example, will typically require its applicants to score higher on the math section of the SATs, which as we all know is the most difficult section of the test.

A prestigious school like Yale, albeit one of the better Ivies, doesn't need further embellishing. By and large, Yale is the only school (holding both Princeton and Stanford University at a constant) that can, at least, compete with Harvard's brand name. Let’s not forget, Yale’s alumni network is arguably the greatest of all the Ivies. This alone makes Yale University, by far, one of the most elitist schools in the entire academic world…and wherever there’s elitism, there could be a case for nepotism thus making Yale, demographically, extremely tough to get into.

Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

What else can you say about Princeton University, other than the fact that the school has been made famous for being home to some of the world's brightest minds. Did you know that both Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve Chairman and Albert Einstein, former theoretical physicist, called Princeton their homes? Thus, it goes without saying, in order to be admitted to Princeton, you have to be one bright kid. Furthermore, the Princeton brand name has largely become synonymous with academic excellence only rivaled by, oddly enough, it's two main rivals in Harvard and Yale. Thus, it can be left with very little doubt, (from an economic standpoint, at least) why the university is so tough to get into: demand for its elite educational services for exceed its supply.

5. Pomona College, CA and Amherst College, Mass.

There are a lot of students that never dream of going to an Ivy League school like Yale or an elite technology school like MIT. In fact, a very significant number of students prefer the feel of a small private institution. This is where Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) can get pretty competitive—that is, to say, if you’re dreaming of going to one of these really good (LACs) like Pomona College or Amherst then you better be on top of your game: they’re not easy to get into. With about a 15% acceptance rate and an enrollment of only 1700 student, these two very little (LACs) can, indeed, compete with the big boys when it comes to gaining admissions.

Seoul National University, South Korea (SNU) and École polytechnique, Paris, France

From the middle of the 20th century on to the present, very few societies have placed as much faith in the powers of education as the South Koreans. This ideology has manifested itself in South Korea’s (SNU). Colloquially known in Korean as Seoul-dae, (SNU) is without question one of Asia’s most affluent academic institutions thus have built up, over-time, a pretty substantial reputation for being a very tough university to matriculate into. With a 0.5% acceptance rate, one of the lowest in the world, this reputation seems justified.

École polytechnique, Paris, France

Over the years, the French have prided themselves on its post-secondary educational system. Similar to the U.S., what you have in France is a university system that tends to sell average to elite level educational services. Just like Harvard and MIT, École Polytechnique (one of France's most prestigious institutions of higher learning), has gained a domestic and international reputation for being extremely tough to get into. How does the average French student get into École Polytechnique? They don't! In fact, École Polytechnique has one of the hardest entrance exams in all of Europe, if not the entire academic world. Although there's no official acceptance rate, the school only admits about 2900 students--this includes graduate students.

7. Peking University, China (“Yan Yuan”) and Tsinghua, China (Chinese MIT)

China, the world’s fastest growing economy, is home to well over 2000 academic institutions of higher learning. Of all 2000, Peking University, China’s national university and Tsinghua University, China’s MIT, is hands down the two toughest to get into. I couldn’t find official acceptance rates for either school; nevertheless, have been told by some pretty credible sources that they could be even lower than South Korea’s (SNU)--that's scary!

8. Oxford University, U.K. and Cambridge University U.K.

Oxford University and The University of Cambridge, aka Oxbridge, perhaps two of the world's most prestigious academic institutions, doesn’t put as much emphasis on its selectivity as its American and Asian counterparts--choosing, instead, to confer a more self-selective image, which could, in theory, be mainly based on an applicant's economic standing. This isn’t to say, however, that they’re not tough to get into: what it really means in layman's terms is that both Oxford and Cambridge, theoretically, gets better qualified candidates. To put it more concretely, the type of kids that get accepted to Oxbridge are either: 1) borderline geniuses at what they do; or more importantly 2) economically comfortable enough to not have to worry about stressing themselves out about paying for such an elite educational service.

9. U.S. Air Force Academy, and U. S. Military Academy (WestPoint) , NY

A list about “tough to get into” isn’t a list without USFA and WestPoint: two highly prestigious military academies. With respective 13% acceptance rates, they, indeed, are two very selective institutions of higher learning. My freshmen year in high school I can recall our school’s Valedictorian being denied into WestPoint, but easily got accepted into Yale. Therefore, holding many different admissions variables at a constant, these two fine military academies are "no jokes" when it comes to choosing the future military leaders of this nation.

10. The Julliard School (Julliard), NYC and Curtis Institute of Music (CIM), PA

Last but not least, you can’t forget about the performing arts institutes—as many young adults do pursue music, drama and dance careers in this country. Julliard and (CIM), two very prestigious performing arts conservatories, were both founded in the early 19th century—so they’ve both been around for awhile. In addition, they both have very small enrollments thus over the years have become extremely tough to get into. With acceptance rates comparable to most top Ivy Leagues one could see why.


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    • right1 profile image

      right one 4 weeks ago from Pale Blue Dot

      Nice ranking

      I guess every university, irrespective of its ranking, is a tough deal for a studious and nerd individual. Quality is universal now a days, i think and, to win one need to be above average .

    • profile image

      bs 15 months ago

      Harvard has acceptance rate of 5 percent now, and the average person has twice the chance to win the lottery? Welp I guess we just gotta buy 10 lottery tickets at a couple dollars each and boom! Y'all rich.

    • profile image

      Nishant 15 months ago

      Now IITs accept about 9600 out of 1.4M applicants, with an acceptance rate of close to 0.7%

    • profile image

      James 19 months ago

      I did not like this part at all:

      "MIT, for example, will typically require its applicants to score higher on the math section of the SATs, which as we all know is the most difficult section of the test"

      It is extremely biased and untrue.

    • profile image

      Mahogany 2 years ago

      Actually, the IITs in general have an acceptance rate of 0.7%

      However, it may not be completely accurate to include IIT, because of the sheer number of people who apply

      The number of people who apply to Harvard or Stanford is reducing, yet they maintain a steady acceptance rate. However, there is a large amount of social pressure to apply for IITs and write the examination, which keeps the pool of applicants very large.

      I do believe CMI and ISI should be on the list, because one must be selected to write the preliminary test for these colleges, and their acceptance is crushingly low.

    • profile image

      thete13 2 years ago

      My comment is 4 years too late, but what you've written about Oxbridge is COMPLETELY wrong. University fees in the UK are government capped at £9000, so they cost the same as any other British university. Furthermore, admission is not based on "an applicant's economic standing" (where did you get this bull**** from? Oxbridge have the highest grade entry requirements of any university in the UK, and at no point during the application process is your wealth or economic standing made apparent. They DO put as much emphasis on selectivity as their American and Asian counterparts, but the emphasis is rather on academics rather than your ability to throw a football...

    • profile image

      kevin 2 years ago

      yo with all due respect... you should just list the TOP 10 schools with the hardest admission rate.... not 15 different schools tied for each other. If thats the case you should expand this list to top 15 not top 10

    • profile image

      not the truth 2 years ago

      Try to get in a Turkish university like Bogazici University, and say Electrical engineering department... You have to rank top 200 highest scores out of 1,987,488 students taking the same exam without saving any squirrels or helping any panhandlers... You do the math if you like to do so...

    • DebraHargrove profile image

      Debra Hargrove 2 years ago from North Carolina

      You would have to have super brains to get into these school.

    • profile image

      John 2 years ago

      Oxbridge costs the same as all the other universities in the UK....

    • profile image

      Santosh 2 years ago

      You sure as hell have not considered the acceptance rates of Indian universities and colleges (IIT, AIIMS, IISER) when making this list.Their acceptance rates are around 2 % which is lower than all the universities you have listed above.

    • profile image

      Harvey 2 years ago

      Columbia has lower acceptance rate than half of these universities. How is it not included?

    • profile image

      .... 3 years ago

      Stanford has the lowest acceptance rate in the US, how is it not on here?

    • profile image

      Darsh Bhatt 3 years ago

      Your survey was good but it doesn't include IIST , kerela,India which has acceptance rate of 0.3%

    • profile image

      Leclerq 3 years ago

      These schools are easy as hell to get into compared to École Polytechnique and the École Normale Supérieure d'Ulm. I'd be surprised if the top 10% of MIT, Caltech, IIT students can ace Polytechnique's Admissions Concours. These written exams are just round one to decimate the pool of candidates for the following round of oral exams.

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      Lily 3 years ago

      My sister applied to Oxford and Harvard amongst others, and got into Oxford but not Harvard. Her friend also applied to both and got into Harvard but not Oxford.

    • profile image

      sup 3 years ago

      IIT now has an acceptance rate of 0.84.

    • profile image

      June Boyyes 3 years ago

      Oxbridge!!!!! My dream

    • profile image

      Ken 3 years ago

      I would love to go to Oxbridge!

    • profile image

      mike 3 years ago

      It's an insult calling Tsinghua University a Chinese MIT. Ok, I get your point, it's a technical University but referring to it as a version of MIT is crap. MIT has produced numerous Nobel Winners, thousands of technical snin-off companies, leaders of industry, major politicians, etc. Tsinghua has done none of this....

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      Lunatique 3 years ago

      Just like IIT, NUST (National University of Sciences and Technology, Pakistan) grants admission based on test. Only students who score above average get admission. With 1800 slots and 90000 applicants, it has acceptance rate of 2% only, still not included in the list. So what is your criteria? NUST is also in QS ranking.

    • profile image

      Ken 4 years ago

      Wharton Undergrad's acceptance rate is around 5.7% but the school doesn't officially release it.

    • profile image

      Usman Alvi 4 years ago

      How is IIT not the toughest? 2.5 % acceptance rate? That's nuts!

    • profile image

      oh really? 4 years ago

      SO, a student has a better chance winning the lottery twice over getting into Harvard. From your math ~7% chance to get into Harvard; what's the % of winning the lottery?

    • profile image

      dumb article 4 years ago

      a far more revealing statistic is the SAT score of the applicants - because the Harvard applicant pool, for example, is bloated with thousands of entirely unrealistic students who are not that great academically, hence generating a misleading acceptance rate

    • idigwebsites profile image

      idigwebsites 4 years ago from United States

      Great and interesting list of universities -- you have to be really brainy (especially in math, well except in Juillard) to get into one of those schools.

    • profile image

      poopy diapers 4 years ago

      Wow. This is a very interesting article and it just demonstrates how intelligent students around the world truly are. Though they may not be as well rounded as students in the US, they are exceptionally ingenious and bright when it comes to academics.

    • profile image

      Matt 5 years ago

      Harvard has an 8% acceptance rate, with twice as many applicants per year as MIT. Do the math.

    • profile image

      jesus13 5 years ago

      hats off to ur survey. it looks really nice. but u have not added birla institute of technology and science pilani which has also acceptance rate below 2%.

    • profile image

      anmol sher 5 years ago

      why is bits pilani not in the list???

    • j80caldwell profile image

      j80caldwell 6 years ago

      Thanks phdast7! As you can see, I really love acadamia--as I'm sure most hubbers do. If the U.S. does one thing great it's intellectual capital. Our universities are without question the best in the world. But there are a lot of great international schools as well.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Another Great Hub. :)

    • j80caldwell profile image

      j80caldwell 6 years ago

      Thanks for kind words keithlipke!

    • keithlipke profile image

      keithlipke 6 years ago from Fort Wayne, Indiana

      Great article!