Applying for university is a nerve-wracking process. From the initial pressures of studying and meeting exam grades to the potential minefield that is choosing the right school, it can be a truly daunting experience. Spare a thought, then, for those who are applying to one of these prestigious educational institutions...
Based on acceptance rates, the average SAT/UCAS scores required for entry, and the difficulty of the admission process itself, we’ve compiled a list of the 20 hardest schools to get into across the globe. So, if you’re planning to submit an undergraduate application to one of these universities, prepare yourself – things may be about to get tricky.
20. Northwestern University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 10.7%
Average SAT requirements: 1,400–1,560
Based in Evanston, Illinois, the majority of Northwestern’s major programmes contain class sizes of 20 or fewer students, with a student-faculty ratio of around 7:1. In terms of competition for places, economics, psychology and journalism are particularly popular choices.
Several of Northwestern’s alumni have since found success in Hollywood, including Scrubs star Zach Braff, Friends actor David Schwimmer and the original Tinseltown leading man, Charlton Heston.
19. Dartmouth College (USA)
Acceptance rate: 10.4%
Average SAT requirements: 1,350–1,560
Nestled in the scenic New Hampshire town of Hanover, Dartmouth College boasts a similar student-faculty ratio to Northwestern, although class sizes tend to be slightly larger. With a superb reputation as a research university, and offering outstanding programmes in social sciences, biomedical/biological sciences and engineering, entry into Dartmouth is a tough cookie to crack.
Notable alumni include General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, comedienne Mindy Kaling and writer Theodor Seuss Geisel – perhaps better known by his pen name, Dr Seuss.
18. Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) (India)
Acceptance rate: 4.3%
Despite being one of the less globally prestigious universities on this list, the IIT - spread nationally across 23 campuses - is incredibly difficult to get into. This is primarily due to its high number of applicants; in 2017, well over a million candidates sat the initial entry test (known as the JEE Main), from which 220,000 progressed onto the second stage (the JEE Advanced). Just over 50,000 undergraduates were then granted places on one of the school’s sought after BTech courses.
For the ‘lucky few’, success beckons, though. Notable alumni include Google’s senior vice president Sundar Pichai, billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy.
17. Duke University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 9%
Average SAT requirements: 1,380–1,570
Although perhaps more recognisable for its prowess on the basketball court, Duke University’s academic institutions – based in the city of Durham, North Carolina – are not to be sniffed at either. Boasting a student-faculty ratio of 6:1, there is intense competition for places on its biology, economics and social sciences programmes.
Unsurprisingly, the ‘Blue Devils’ have graduated a significant number of current and former NBA stars, such as Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum; Apple CEO Tim Cook is also a Duke alumnus.
16. University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) (USA)
Acceptance rate: 9.1%
Average SAT requirements: 1,380–1,570
Based in the city of Philadelphia, UPenn also boasts a student-faculty ratio of 6:1, with undergraduate competition particularly high in its Arts and Sciences department. Additionally, Wharton, the university’s famed business school, also attracts huge numbers of applications at graduate level.
Two such successful applicants and subsequent alumni are current US president Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, while entrepreneur Elon Musk, business titan Warren Buffet and renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky have all passed through the university’s doors, too.
15. Vanderbilt University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 10.9%
Average SAT requirements: 1,420–1,590
At 8:1, Vanderbilt University has a relatively high student-faculty ratio, but its notably steep SAT requirements ensure that undergraduates are capable of a more independent study approach. Economics, mathematics and political science are particularly popular choices, while its campus – based in Nashville, Tennessee – features a notably high number of fraternity and sorority houses.
Notable alumni include former US vice president Al Gore, best-selling novelist James Patterson and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus.
14. Brown University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 8.3%
Average SAT requirements: 1,370–1,570
With an open curriculum and popular courses in economics, entrepreneurial studies and political science, Brown – located in the centre of Providence, Rhode Island – is an attractive choice for many school leavers. The current student-faculty ratio is around 7:1.
Media mogul Ted Turner, Harry Potter actress Emma Watson and former governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal are all among its notable alumni.
13. The Juilliard School (USA)
Acceptance rate: 6%
Average SAT requirements: None required
Widely regarded as one of – if not the - most elite performing arts school in the world, Juilliard's Manhattan campus hosts an undergraduate body of just under 600 students, all of whom must undergo a fierce audition process to secure their place. The fictional 'Schaffer Conservatory' - subject of the 2014 film Whiplash - is allegedly based on Juilliard.
As you would expect, the school’s alumni list reads like a who’s who of Hollywood; Robin Williams, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Spacey, Miles Davis, Christine Baranski, John Williams and Kelsey Grammar are just a small sample of Juilliard’s contribution to the entertainment world.
12. Columbia University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 5.8%
Average SAT requirements: 1,410–1,590
Just a short hop across Manhattan lies Columbia University, one of the oldest educational institutions in the US, where undergraduates benefit from a student-faculty ratio of 6:1 in class sizes that are largely below 20. Social sciences, engineering and biological/biomedical sciences courses are usually the most competitive.
Former US presidents Barack Obama and Franklin D Roosevelt are alumni of Columbia, as are US founding father Alexander Hamilton, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and musician Leonard Cohen.
11. University College London (UCL) (UK)
Acceptance rate: Undisclosed
Average UCAS score: 505
Despite not publicly disclosing its recent admissions data, it’s no secret that gaining a place at UCL – the first British entry on this list – is far from easy. It’s estimated that there are 30 applications to every available spot on the university's renowned PPE (Politics, Philosophy & Economics) course, for instance; against such an esteemed talent pool of applicants, admission is likely to be challenging.
Among UCL’s highly distinguished list of alumni are legendary Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi, surgical pioneer Joseph Lister and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.
10. Imperial College London (UK)
Acceptance rate: 12.5%
Average UCAS score: 567
The second UK – and London-based – entry on the list, Imperial College London sets the highest university admission standards in the country outside of Oxbridge. It is renowned for the high quality of its practical science departments, which is reflected in the university’s research output – and subsequent revenue – in this field.
It’s also reflected in the pedigree of its numerous Nobel Award-winning alumni of chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers; Queen guitarist Brian May and science fiction author HG Wells are also Imperial graduates.
9. University of Chicago (USA)
Acceptance rate: 8.7%
Average SAT requirements: 1,450–1,600
As if an envious location within the Hyde Park district of the city wasn’t attracting enough applications, the University of Chicago also boasts an impressive student-faculty ratio of 5:1 across such popular majors as economics, mathematics and political sciences. The university also possesses an array of exclusive postgraduate schools, including the Booth School of Business and the UoC Law School, where Barack Obama taught for 12 years.
Notable alumni include astronomer Carl Sagan, influential economist Milton Friedman and renowned satirist Kurt Vonnegut.
8. Princeton University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 6%
Average SAT requirements: 1,400–1,590
As one of the oldest original American universities, Princeton is an unsurprising choice among applicants for its prestige and world-famous name. The high standard of its economics, computer engineering and history courses also make it a highly sought after study destination, especially when supported by a student-faculty ratio of 5:1.
The New Jersey-based school has something of a White House tradition, too, with numerous former US presidents among its alumni. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, mathematician Alan Turing and The Great Gatsby author F Scott Fitzgerald are all also Princeton graduates.
7. University of Oxford (UK)
Acceptance rate: 16.8%
Average UCAS score: 574
Although the university’s acceptance rate of 16.8% seems positively wide open compared to some of the other institutions on this list, there is nothing simple about admission into the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Candidates are required to achieve near-perfect scores in their A Levels, as well as complete a rigorous entrance test which includes a subject-specific exam, a personal essay and a panel interview. Even then, only the very best from around the world are offered a place.
Oxford’s glittering alumni reads like a who’s who of British history and features numerous current and former global heads of state (such as Bill Clinton, David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher), countless literary greats (including JRR Tolkien, Oscar Wilde and Percy Shelley) and an array of significant modern and historical public figures (such as Richard Burton, TE Lawrence and Walter Raleigh).
6. University of Cambridge (UK)
Acceptance rate: 20%
Average UCAS score: 600
Like Oxford, don’t be fooled by the large acceptance rate; Cambridge requires undergraduate applicants for its science courses to achieve a perfect UCAS score of 600 points (as well as overcome an arduous entrance process comparable to its great rival). Although that may sound harsh, the University has produced 90 Nobel Prize winners to date; such high standards are clearly the pathway to success.
Among its impressive collection of scientists, entertainers, politicians and royals, Cambridge alumni have also made several significant contributions to the world we know today: Sir Isaac Newton formulated the laws of gravity, Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution and it was while at Cambridge that Dr Stephen Hawking submitted his now legendary doctoral thesis on black holes.
5. California Institute of Technology (CalTECH) (USA)
Acceptance rate: 8%
Average SAT requirements: 1,510–1,600
With an undergraduate enrolment of less than 1,000 students at its Pasadena campus – and a student-faculty ratio of just 3:1 – CalTECH is in a position where it can afford to select the best of the best. As well as near-perfect test scores, candidates should also possess innovative and pioneering mindsets; on that note, Intel, Compaq and Hotmail were all founded by CalTECH alumni.
The University is not just responsible for tech entrepreneurs, either. The school has produced 17 Noble laureates across a variety of scientific fields, as well as finding a place in mainstream culture; the fictitious physicist Sheldon Cooper is also a CalTECH professor, as are the other chief characters of the popular US sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
4. Yale University (USA)
Acceptance rate: 6.9%
Average SAT requirements: 1,420–1,600
The third oldest university in the US, Yale attracts huge amounts of applications each year for places at its New Haven campus in Connecticut. Boasting several renowned performing arts programmes, as well as in-demand courses in social sciences, humanities and political sciences, it’s easy to see why.
The diversity of Yale’s alumni reflects this mix, with notable stage performers such as Meryl Streep, Edward Norton and Claire Danes sharing the graduation stage with an array of former US presidents and senior politicians.
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (USA)
Acceptance rate: 7.1%
Average SAT requirements: 1,460–1,590
Similar to its great rival CalTech, MIT also boasts a student-faculty ratio of 3:1, although there are around 3,500 more places up for grabs at its Cambridge (MA) campus. This doesn’t mean that the quality of applicants is diluted, though; while test scores are important, the university states that what it truly judges candidates on is their creative spirit and suitability for the innovative culture of the school.
Notable alumni, meanwhile, include Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu and former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.
2. Stanford University
Acceptance rate: 4.65%
Average SAT requirements: 1,380–1,580
Based a stone’s throw from technology mecca Silicon Valley, Stanford’s acceptance rate is noticeably narrower than any other US college on this list. Given its pristine surroundings, its close proximity to some of the most influential and innovative companies in the world and its renowned curriculum of technology and engineering courses, it’s not difficult to see why. As well as boasting a student-faculty ratio of 4:1, Stanford also encourages its 7,000 undergraduates to pursue interdisciplinary study across a range of subjects.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are alumni of Stanford, as is Snapchat creator Evan Spiegel, YouTube cofounder Jawed Karim and Facebook CFO David Wehner.
1. Harvard University
Acceptance rate: 5.2%
Average SAT requirements: 1,430–1,600
Located near MIT in Cambridge (MA), the oldest US university in existence – and probably the most famous – is a global symbol of quality education, leading the way in a variety of fields and establishing educational practices that are adopted and imitated in universities across the world. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it receives a huge amount of applications from both home and abroad.
Harvard’s admissions board scrutinise potential candidates very closely, taking into account a wide variety of factors alongside test scores. It's no secret that acceptance into any one of the university’s schools is a firm step on the road to career success, meaning there is always an intensely high calibre of candidates from which to choose; in short, Harvard’s title as the most difficult university to get into is entirely deserved.
Among its hugely impressive alumni are Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg (although he famously never graduated), Microsoft founder Bill Gates and, most recently, Malia Obama, whose parents Barack and Michelle both attended Harvard Law School in the late 1980s. Hollywood heavyweights Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Tyra Banks are also Harvard graduates.
Are you currently trying to get into one of these universities? Let us know your experiences in the comments below!