Clearing up Misconceptions about the Ivy League

Posted on 15th December 2021

Ivy League Colleges

When you ask most UK students which US universities they’re aiming for, it’s likely they will name several colleges that are part of the Ivy League—or will answer by simply saying ‘Ivy League colleges’! The term has become synonymous with the traditional US college experience we’ve all seen from TV and film, as well as with academic excellence, prestige, and excellent career prospects after graduation. 

However, while it’s great to aim high and take steps to ensure a successful future, it’s important to understand exactly what the Ivy League is. It’s also smart to deepen your understanding of top US universities, as they are very distinct from universities like Oxford and Cambridge. 

Many equate the Ivy League with the top 10 US colleges, or the Russell Group of universities in the UK, but it is actually a collegiate athletic conference: a group of schools that compete against each other at sports, based on their location. Over the years, the Ivy League has become synonymous with social and academic prestige, but it is important to keep in mind that there are hundreds of excellent, though perhaps less well-known, US universities outside the Ivy League.

Some students plan to apply to all Ivy League colleges, particularly when they only want to go to the US for university if they can gain admission to the top institutions. We would not advise this approach for a couple of reasons, outlined below. 

First, each Ivy League college— Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale —is very distinct from the others in terms of its values and student experience. The idea of fit (the match between a student’s values and those of a particular college) is crucial in US applications, so it’s highly unlikely that a student would be a good fit at all the Ivy League colleges!

For example, Princeton is a small college of around 5400 undergraduate students. So, it has smaller, more discussion-based classes and offers the chance to work closely with professors, as would a liberal arts college. In contrast, UPenn has a more pre-professional emphasis by virtue of having undergraduate business, nursing, and engineering programmes, and has a campus feeling within the urban setting of Philadelphia. Columbia has a Core Curriculum central to students’ experience, with heavy course requirements and a focus on reading. The polar opposite of this academic approach is the one Brown offers, whose open curriculum means there are no required courses!

You may feel you’d fit into any of the above environments, or would be honoured to attend any of the Ivy Leagues, so you don’t mind compromising a bit on fit. This is understandable, and some students really would fit in well in a range of colleges, but the colleges themselves will be assessing you based on fit. So even if you aren’t particularly concerned with this, the colleges will be, so it’s something you need to demonstrate to make a successful application.

The second reason why it isn’t advisable to apply to all the Ivy League colleges is due to their high selectivity. You can see below the overall acceptance rates below: 

CollegeAcceptance Rate

In contrast, other excellent, highly ranked schools have much higher acceptance rates: 21% at University of Virginia (26th in US/117th in the world) and 23% at University of Michigan (24th in US/ 22nd in the world).

Something we see as a better approach is looking at the 50 top-ranked or most selective colleges, and researching those you’re not familiar with until you come up with around 3-4 reach colleges for your list. Or, you could look at the AAU (Association of American Universities), which is more analogous to the Russell Group in the UK. The AAU comprises 66 universities that it describes as ‘on the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to scientific progress, economic development, security, and well-being.’ 

Remember that academic considerations and prestige aren’t the only reasons to choose a college. If there’s something else that is the most important factor for you, you can try alternative rankings and groupings. Washington Monthly publishes its own college rankings each year, which rate colleges on social mobility, research, value, and the opportunities they provide for public service. Or, check out the Hidden Ivies (other top colleges that provide an experience similar to that at the standard Ivy League, and that tend to have much higher acceptance rates), or this list of the most innovative US colleges. The Colleges that Change Lives is a college grouping and organisation that describes themselves as supporting a ‘student-centred college search process. We support the goal of every student finding a college that develops a lifelong love of learning and provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college.’ You can explore their member institutions here

If you do choose to target applications to elite institutions like Ivy League universities, you want to make sure you have outstanding grades (8s and 9s at GCSE and A*s or 43+ in IB); activities that show leadership, sustained commitment, and community involvement; well-written, deeply personal essays; and stellar recommendations. You will also need to show that you and your unique qualities fit the institution, and your application should also have some sort of exceptional personal quality, achievement, or talent setting you apart from other applicants. It can be hard to delineate this, but it might encompass things like challenging life experiences that you address in an articulate way in the application, achievements at a national or international level, or organising projects that show initiative, passion, and innovation. However, you should keep in mind that there is no guarantee of Ivy League admission even for the most outstanding students, especially in the current climate in which test-optional policies have made these colleges hypercompetitive. 

Overall, when creating your college list, consider all your options when it comes to excellent US universities. Although you feel an Ivy League college may bring you prestige, if it doesn’t suit your individual needs and provide a community where you feel engaged and supported, it is unlikely to be a positive experience for you. By widening your search and thinking specifically about what you actually want from the academic experience rather than focusing on name recognition, you can ensure that you find an institution that will foster your best qualities and allow you to thrive during and after college. The college research process can be daunting, so if you would like help with your college list and applications, please get in touch with us about our college counselling services by contacting

Back To Blog »
Site Map | Terms | Safety | Privacy | Covid-19Web Design By Toolkit Websites