The Most Selective Colleges, Why, and How to Get In


It’s tempting to judge the quality of a school based on its admissions rate. Although this is a reasonable way to assess schools in most cases, there are some special circumstances that might result in extremely low acceptance rates at less academically demanding colleges.

In this article, I’ll list the most selective colleges in the United States, tell you why they accept so few applicants, and provide you with some advice on how to apply successfully.


What Are Selective Colleges, and Why Are They So Picky?

Selective colleges are schools that only admit a small percentage of the students who apply. For this article, I’m focusing on the most selective schools in the country, which I’ve defined as schools that admit 10% or fewer applicants.

There are several reasons why certain colleges end up with such low acceptance rates.

Some schools are extremely selective because they’re looking for a certain specialized type of applicant, and very few students fit the bill. This category would include a school like Juilliard, which is only interested in admitting students who demonstrate virtuosity in music. Students must audition in front of faculty members as one of their application requirements.

This group also includes military schools like West Point, where candidates must pass a physical fitness assessment and obtain a nomination from their representative in Congress or the Senate to be considered for admission.

Other colleges are extremely selective because they’re looking for students with excellent credentials overall, and they can only afford to take the most high-achieving individuals out of the huge applicant pool they attract. These schools represent an intersection of popularity and very high standards. This includes Ivy League schools and schools like Stanford and MIT.

These schools have strong name recognition even on an international level, so they attract a huge number of applicants. In 2022/2023, Harvard offered admission to only 1,984 students out of 61,221 total applicants!

In order to maintain their reputations, these schools can only choose the most outstanding students for each class. Usually, it takes more than just excellent grades and test scores to get in; you’ll need these qualifications on top of other unique academic and extracurricular accomplishments.

I’ll go over the schools that fall into each of these categories in the next section.


body_shredder.jpgI assume this was the fate of most applications in the primitive time before the internet.


The Most Selective Colleges

I’ve grouped the following selective colleges into two main categories: non-specialized schools and specialized schools.


Non-Specialized Selective Schools

First, I’ll list some schools that have low admission rates because they’re extremely popular and can only choose the strongest overall applicants. These schools are listed in descending order, starting with the most selective school.

I’ll also give you the statistics for the average GPA and SAT/ACT scores of admitted students.

Keep in mind that even if your SAT/ACT scores and GPA are technically at the same level as the averages at these schools, you can’t count on being accepted. Any school that has an acceptance rate of less than 15% is a reach school even for the best students, and any school with an acceptance rate of less than 30% is still very selective.


*2021-22 data not available; 2020 data used instead
**Test data reported by the school


body_universityofchicago.jpgThe University of Chicago: subtly (or not so subtly) trying to inch its way into the Ivy League?


Specialized Selective Schools

Now I’ll list schools that are extremely selective because they have specialized programs and are looking for specific types of applicants. I’ll also include the average GPA and test scores for each of these schools, though be aware that some of them do not report these statistics.

In the case of highly selective music schools, test scores and grades are far less relevant to a student’s likelihood of acceptance. These schools consider musical talent much more strongly than they do academic performance.

I’ve also included a description of exactly why each school is so selective.

SchoolAcceptance RateAverage GPAAverage SAT/ACTWhy Is It So Selective?
Curtis Institute of Music2%Not reportedNot reportedThis school is only looking for the most elite music students, and admissions are “based on artistic promise alone.” Curtis Institute also provides a full tuition scholarship to all students. These factors combined create an acceptance rate below that of even the most competitive colleges on the first list.
The Juilliard School7%Not reportedNot reportedLike the Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard is only looking for a very specific and very talented subset of students. Students must audition for faculty members as part of the application process, and performance standards are extraordinarily high.
US Naval Academy7%3.661310 / 29In order to attend the US Naval Academy, students must apply for and receive a nomination from a US representative, a senator, or the vice president. Students must also pass a physical fitness assessment and a medical examination. Academic standards are very high, so there is only a small subset of students who meet all the necessary requirements.
US Military Academy (West Point)11%3.901320 / 31West Point has such a low acceptance rate because it requires students to pass muster in other ways besides earning high test scores and grades. Applicants must complete a physical fitness assessment in which they have to do as many push-ups as they can in two minutes (for me, this would be about 0.5), run a mile as fast as possible, and do a few other tests for agility and strength. They also have to apply for a nomination from a congressperson, a senator, or the vice president. Only students whose requests for nominations are granted will be offered a spot at West Point.
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art15%3.751460 / 33Cooper Union is an all-honors college where every student receives a half-tuition scholarship and is automatically considered for additional merit scholarships; it also has highly specialized programs in architecture, fine arts, and engineering. Students applying to each of the schools must take “home tests” designed by Cooper Union to determine their skill levels. Admission is based significantly on creative abilities in addition to high academic standing, which makes Cooper Union both popular and picky.
United States Merchant Marine Academy16%Not reported1270 / Not reportedThe United States Merchant Marine Academy is a federal service academy that educates students to become licensed Merchant Marine Officers and commissioned officers in the Armed Forces. USMMA’s academic programs are rigorous: the school requires more credit hours for a baccalaureate degree than any other federal service academy.
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering18%3.901540 / 34The small size of the student body (fewer than 100 students are accepted each year), combined with the half-tuition scholarship all accepted students receive, make Olin a desirable and competitive college to get into. Because Olin is an engineering school, students must demonstrate aptitude in areas such as calculus and physics in addition to overall academic excellence.



body_westpointgraduation.jpgWest Point graduation looks fun, but they’re actually throwing up their hats in a very specific military formation. This is a tactic used to confuse and distract the enemy with its appearance of reckless exuberance.


What to Do If You’re Aiming for the Most Selective Colleges

If you’re hoping to attend one of these selective schools, that’s great! There’s no magic formula for acceptance, but you also don’t have to rely on luck if you play your cards right.

To have a solid chance of acceptance at one of the non-specialized selective colleges, you’ll need to take the most difficult classes throughout high school while earning very high grades. As you can see by the average GPAs for admission at these schools, it’s expected that most students will have high school transcripts dominated by As.

SAT/ACT test scores are also very important; your scores should be at or above the average for admitted students.

Even at non-specialized schools (but especially at specialized schools), it’s important to show excellence in one academic or extracurricular area if you want to stand out from the crowd. Since you’re competing with so many applicants, and most of them will have academic credentials that are just as good as yours, you’ll need to find a way to demonstrate your value as a member of the college community that goes beyond grades and test scores.

The most selective schools appreciate passion, drive, and outside-the-box thinking. If you can develop a specialization that shows them that you possess those qualities, your chances of acceptance will be very strong.

Read this article for more advice on what it takes to get into extremely selective schools.


What’s Next?

If you’re hoping to attend a highly selective school, you’ll need to have a very strong academic record in high school. Learn more about high school honors classes and societies.

Not sure what your GPA means for your chances of college admission? Find out what a good or bad GPA might look like based on your goals.

College ranking lists can strongly influence how people view the quality of certain schools. Read this article to get a more complete picture of what ranking lists really mean and whether you should trust them.


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