What’s the Toughest College in the United States to Get Into? Hint: Not Harvard

Admissions decisions for the class of 2019 are going out, and the competition to get into a top school is fierce.

The Brown University campus. (Photo: Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It looks like sky-high SAT scores, a 4.0 GPA, and stellar letters of recommendation aren’t enough to gain admission to some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. On Tuesday night the eight schools that are part of the Ivy League posted admissions decisions, crushing the dreams of tens of thousands of high school seniors.

Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University managed to reject plenty of hyper-qualified candidates. But it turns out that the most selective school in the nation isn’t in the Ivy League, and it’s not on the East Coast.

Get ready for some California love, because Stanford University is the toughest college in the nation to get into. Yes, even harder than Harvard.

A whopping 42,487 students—the most in Stanford’s history—applied for a spot in the class of 2019. Only 2,144 (5.05 percent) were offered one.

What’s driving all the applications? It doesn’t hurt that the school took the top spot in The Princeton Review’s annual survey of dream schools—both students and parents ranked Stanford as their No. 1 choice. Students told The Princeton Review that along with offering top research opportunities, attending Stanford can “expand your creativity, challenge and deepen your world view, and make you a passionate and informed citizen of the world.”

Private universities with billion-dollar endowments can also afford to be more generous with financial aid than can cash-strapped state schools. Stanford is “expanding financial aid by increasing the income thresholds at which parents are not expected to contribute toward educational costs,” reports a Stanford Daily article.

Indeed, “Stanford will expect no parental contribution toward tuition from parents with annual incomes below $125,000—previously $100,000—and typical assets. And there will be zero parental contribution toward tuition, room or board for parents with annual incomes below $65,000—previously $60,000—and typical assets,” according to the Stanford Daily story. Any middle-class parent stressed about paying for college is going to read that and add Stanford to the application list.

It’s also in high-powered schools’ best interest to get the largest applicant pool possible and then accept a minuscule number of students—being hard to get into burnishes a university’s prestige.

Want to see how Stanford compares with its Ivy League competition? Here are the application numbers and acceptance rates for for the 2015–2016 school year:

Harvard University: 37,305 applicants; 5.3 percent acceptance rate

Columbia University: 36,250 applicants; 6.1 percent acceptance rate

Yale University: 30,237 applicants; 6.49 percent acceptance rate

Princeton University: 27,290 applicants; 6.99 percent acceptance rate

Brown University: 30,397 applicants; 8.5 percent acceptance rate.

University of Pennsylvania: 37,267 applicants; 9.9 percent acceptance rate

Dartmouth College: 20,505 applicants; 10.3 percent acceptance rate

Cornell University: 41,907 applicants; 14.9 percent acceptance rate