Breaking Down US College Acceptance Rates

Whether you’re an American student or someone who’s looking to study in the United States for university, you’ll find that there’s a wide-ranging and diverse choice of educational institutions. You’ll also find that many US college acceptance rates are particularly low. 

There are some key differences between the application process in the US compared to the one in the UK. In Britain, students apply to UK universities via UCAS, where they can add up to five institutions in exchange for a fee. 

However, in America, prospective candidates may need to apply directly to their university or college of choice, paying a fee for every separate application. 

Alternatively, they can make use of a common application platform, like the Common App or the Coalition Application. These types of platforms are the closest thing you’ll find to a centralised application platform in the States. 

In this article, we’ll provide some in-depth insight into the US university admissions process, and we’ll look at the admissions data for some of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

Looking at the US college acceptance rates should help you to figure out which universities to target as viable options during the application process. 

Choosing an American University

Before we look at the US admissions process and break down the acceptance rates of some of the top American colleges, it’s crucial to point out that you should take a variety of factors into account when choosing the university that’s the best fit for you. 

For example, you shouldn’t simply pick the college solely based on its name or prestige. Each individual has a separate set of criteria when it comes to choosing the best institution for them.

Here are a few points to consider when picking a collection of US universities as part of your application process: 

  • Location: there’s no point in applying to Harvard, Princeton, or Amherst if you’ve got your heart set on studying on the West Coast of the United States. Fans of the California lifestyle should look into colleges like UCLA, Stanford, or UC Berkeley instead. 
  • Courses: many prospective students don’t know what they want to study before heading off to university, but if you have a good idea about what course you want to do, you should pick a university with an excellent reputation for this course. For example, if you want to study Physics, look into MIT: for those interested in History, you might want to apply to Columbia or Yale in New Haven. 
  • Liberal arts options: think about whether you want to go to a liberal arts college or a more traditional type of university. There are over 200 liberal arts institutions in the States, and these colleges encourage students to study a diverse range of topics and subjects (while majoring in one particular degree). These types of colleges are ideal for people who aren’t sure exactly what they want to study when they first arrive at university. 
  • Sports: you should also consider your priorities when it comes to extracurricular activities, whether that’s rowing, playing chess, or being part of a musical theatre troupe. For example, if a sport like rugby is a massive part of your life, try to pick a selection of US universities with excellent rugby programmes.
  • Size of college: some individuals want to study at a university with a large undergraduate body, while others prefer to be in a small collegiate town at a private college. 
  • Student satisfaction: you should also do some research into student satisfaction and contentment rates at the universities in question. You don’t want to go to a highly prestigious college if the internal faculty politics and overly competitive environment will make your 4-year experience miserable. 

If you are still struggling with narrowing down your US university options, you can find some more useful tips on picking the right place for you in the Studying in the US section of the A&J Education website.  

It’s also worth remembering that the Common App platform allows you to apply to a maximum of 20 colleges (that’s four times as many as UCAS does). So, if you still can’t narrow down your choices, you can simply apply to all of them. 

What is Expected in an American University Application?

If you choose to use the Common App platform for your university admissions process, then you will need to respond to one of several essay prompts as part of your application. 

Essay Prompts

Here are a couple of examples of these prompts for the 2021/2022 cycle: 

  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

You can also choose to submit an essay that you’ve previously written if you feel like it goes some way to reflect your passions, personality, and drive to study at the universities in question. 

It’s worth noting that while the Common App streamlines many of the more generic aspects of the admissions process (you won’t have to fill out your personal details or extracurricular interests more than once), many colleges will have a slightly different set of application requirements. 

For example, you will have to answer a series of short supplementary questions if you’re applying to Dartmouth. If you’re applying to the NYU arts programme, you may have to submit a creative portfolio or a thorough résumé. 

It’s likely that you’ll have to pay a separate application fee for every different university you apply to via the Common App, so be prepared for that. 


In addition to the mission statement, students will often need to provide several written references or statements from educators or professional contacts they have worked with previously. Again, each school will have specific instructions for this part of the process, so you’ll need to check that before reaching out to your recommenders. 

It’s likely that you’ll also have to produce an academic transcript with a thorough record of their exam results throughout school. Try to get in touch with a university support teacher at your school if you need some help with this: it’s better to get this administrative section ready sooner rather than later. 

Finally, students will need to complete a test, either the SAT or the ACT. These standardised tests predominantly use multiple-choice questions, and both have an optional essay writing portion. 

The more prestigious the university or college you are applying to, the better you are expected to do on the test. As always, check the specific admission requirements of the university in question to see what type of score you’re expected to get. 

If you are from the UK or are a foreign student looking to apply to a prestigious university in the USA, we can help guide you through the admissions process, bolstering your application and increasing your chances of getting into the college of your dreams. 

Get in touch with our team of experts at A&J Education to book a free consultation. 

What is an Ivy League University?

The Ivy League was originally formed in the 1950s to denote a group of prestigious American institutions that had representative sports teams in the NCAA Division 1 league. 

Nowadays, the Ivy League is shorthand for both academic and sporting excellence, and the collection of eight northeast American universities include some of the most prestigious institutes of higher education in the world. 

The eight Ivy League schools are:

Unsurprisingly, you’ll find plenty of highly driven and motivated individuals at these schools, each one with a desire to seize the initiative and earn success in all areas of their lives. 

It’s also well worth noting that there are plenty of highly competitive and prestigious American universities that aren’t actually in the Ivy League. Think of Stanford, Georgetown, MIT, or excellent state universities like UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, or the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Ivy League may be a distinguished collective and a famed brand, but you’ll find many other excellent institutions across the country. 

Tuition Costs and Financial Aid at Ivy League Schools

These colleges are also some of the most exclusive institutions in the United States, not only in terms of admissions rates but also in tuition fee levels. 

Ivy League schools required an average base tuition fee of just under $57,000 in the 2020/2021 academic year cycle. This number was significantly higher than the average amount required for a student studying at a public out-of-state school in the same year (this figure was just over $27,000). 

However, all of the eight Ivy League schools offer need-blind financial aid for citizens of the United States, while Princeton, Harvard, and Yale are also need-blind for international applicants. This means that the Admissions Committees won’t take you or your family’s financial situation into account when processing your application: you’ll be selected based on your talent and potential, rather than on your ability to pay for a four-year degree. 

In the States, only Yale, Harvard, Amherst, MIT, and Princeton also offer an expansive financial aid package: this means that if you receive an offer from one of these institutions, you fill out an application that denotes your financial situation and receive the necessary funding to attend the school in question. 

Applying to an Ivy League University

As we’ve already mentioned earlier in this article, you’ll likely have to apply to an Ivy League college through the Common App platform. Each institution will have a slightly different set of prerequisites when it comes to the supplementary questions or essays, so make sure you’re aware of that during the application process. 

It’s useful to think about how the Admissions Committee of each university will handle your application. Ivy League schools are highly competitive to get into (you can scroll down to see the admissions data for each of the eight institutions in 2021). 

Do Something Different

This competitiveness means that prospective boards are looking for something a little different and special in your application. 

Whereas other schools may place more focus on your personal perspective and achieved grades, Ivy League institutions will want to see your educational journey and how you have developed and challenged yourself along the way. Failures aren’t necessarily considered a negative if the process was used as an opportunity to further yourself and to avoid the same failures in the future. 

Like all prestigious universities, students who want to attend an Ivy League college should begin engaging with the admissions process well in advance. You should also look into applying for early admissions to increase your chances of selection. Generally speaking, US college acceptance rates for early action cases tend to be higher than those for regular action applications (although this may be because the best candidates will often choose to apply sooner rather than later). 

US College Acceptance Rates: The Ivy League

Here are the US college acceptance rates for all eight Ivy League universities in 2021. 

Harvard University: 3.84%

Yale University: 4.62%

Princeton University: 3.98%

Columbia University: 3.66%

Brown University: 5.4%

Dartmouth College: 6.17%

University of Pennsylvania: 5.68%

Cornell University: 8.7%

These unprecedented rates are mainly due to the increase in the number of applications to most of these universities for the 2020/2021 admissions cycle. As you can see, these colleges are exceptionally selective, with universities like Harvard having to turn away more applicants year on year: in 2013, just over 35,000 people applied for a spot, while more than 57,000 applied in 2021

US College Acceptance Rates: Non-Ivy League Schools

As we’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of excellent US universities which aren’t members of the Ivy League. In fact, the Ivy League colleges are all located within relatively close proximity to one another, nestled in the top northeastern tip of the United States. As you might suspect, there are many prestigious schools on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and in the southern states of the country. 

A prime example of competitive US college acceptance rates is Stanford University. In 2021, more than 55,000 exceptional candidates applied to this college, with just under 4% receiving offers. This data reflects the fact that Stanford is often more competitive to get into than the majority of Ivy League institutions. 

Specialist Colleges

There are also certain American colleges that specialise in teaching certain subject areas, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which is actually a mile or so down the road from Harvard) and the California Institute of Technology. 

MIT regularly tops the global league tables when it comes to subjects like Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics. Caltech is also one of the most competitive schools around when it comes to US college acceptance rates: in 2020, only 224 students were admitted to the programme. 

It’s also worth noting that the Times Higher Education 2022 rankings placed the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley in their top ten colleges worldwide: these are higher rankings than the majority of Ivy League universities could manage. 

All this data just goes to show that while Ivy League universities are respected and are excellent educational institutions, there are other colleges available that may be a better fit for you or your child. 

In Conclusion 

Whether you’re looking to apply to an Ivy League university or to a specialist institute of technology like MIT or Caltech, you should be prepared to invest in an arduous and competitive admissions process. The top US college acceptance rates are uniquely low, so you’ll need to build an exceptionally strong application if you want to get into your dream university. 

If you’re unsure about where to apply, do some background research into the location and facilities of the university in question, then make your decisions based on all the available information. Try not to pick a college based purely on its prestige, acceptance rates, and world rankings. 

If you have the opportunity, try to visit campuses in person and meet with current students to get an authentic feel for the atmosphere of the place. You can also ask these students for advice on how to strengthen your application.

For those of you still looking for more help with the US admissions process, get in touch with our team of experts at A&J Education to set up a free consultation. 

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