Every Ivy League school has its own set of characteristics and attributes that define its traditions as an institution.
Although they have a long history dating back to 1636 with the establishment of Harvard, followed by Yale in 1701, and Princeton in 1746, the Ivy League schools today carry on some of the same standards today, but also molded by the digital era and technology revolution.
As the acceptance rates at these premier institutions become more competitive than ever, the pressure on the nation’s highest achieving high school students has become sky high as parents begin training and guiding their children as early as elementary school.
Every year, I witness the heartbreak of a rejection letter, and the incredible thrill (and relief) of a student who has put in all his or her hard work to get that coveted Ivy League acceptance letter.
But what and who are these Ivy League schools?
While each institution strives to admit a diverse student body, you will find some characteristics that are prevalent among these elite institutions of higher learning. I’ve had the opportunity visit each and every one of these institutions during my college days at these peer institutions.
There’s certainly an amount of rivalry to be said of these universities. I’d say the rivalry for the most part is a friendly one and of mutual respect. After all, after getting in students rarely speak of their high school accomplishments. It just goes without saying.
Whether you’re interested in attending an Ivy League school or want to learn more about each of the institutions, I hope to shed some light on the characteristics of these Ivy League schools so that you may find one that is most suitable for you.
And hopefully, you can make your decision based on facts as opposed to merely the prestige of the institution.
Harvard’s admits roughly 1600 students per year where some of the brightest minds and burgeoning leaders. Most students will major in Economics, Government, Political Science, whereas departments are equally strong, including Biology, Chemistry, among others.
The students at Harvard tend to be extremely high achieving students. But not everyone there is smart.
Of all the universities, Harvard may very well be the most political in the fact that they accept nearly 15% of their students are legacies of parents.
In addition, there is the infamous “Z List,” a secretive list where Harvard tracks children of famous alumni and politicians. Students on the Z List get preferential treatment and are almost certain to be admitted. Malia Obama was certainly on Harvard’s Z list, for example.
At Harvard, students compete every year to get into the top companies, whether it’s Goldman Sachs or McKinsey. Landing a job or internship at these companies is a dream come true for many students. But just because you’re from “Hahvahd” doesn’t mean it’s a shoo-in, as you will be competing with many of your classmates to land a spot at competitive firms.
Princeton is known for its academic strengths, in particular mathematics, physics, economics within the STEM fields, and English, political science, philosophy, and psychology in the humanities. Unlike many of its Ivy League counterparts, Princeton is focused on an undergraduate education, and this is evident by none other than its 5200 undergraduates and 2500 graduate students.
Princeton is, plain and simple, an academic powerhouse – and this is evident from none other than its coursework. Princeton has a strong emphasis and focus on theory as opposed to applications. Unlike a school like Stanford or MIT, Princeton shines in its purest pursuit of knowledge.
Even in its introductory CS101 class, you will be finding yourself doing a practice set on the Traveling Salesman problem and applying your algorithmic thinking there as opposed to building a simple mock application of Facebook. The birth of the field of computer science began at Princeton where Alan Turing invented the first computer.
Princeton has a long history for its strengths in mathematics, with prominent Fields Medallists like John Milnor, Terence Tao, Manjul Bhargava, and Edward Witten. The Nobel Prize of Economics and Abel Prize was awarded to John Nash, perhaps the most prominent figure at the university, who supposedly wrote mathematical formulas and insights in the chalkboard at Fine Hall late in the evenings.
At Princeton, much of the social scene revolves around the eating clubs on Prospect Ave, known as “The Street.” Eating clubs are social scenes where students have their meals together by day, and turn into a night club in the evening. The Frist Campus center is also a hubbub of student activity and where prominent firms like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lazard, among others, like to recruit.
Yale is located in New Haven, Connecticut and is known for their strengths in English and Comparative Literature. That’s not to say that they aren’t strong in other disciplines in math, science, and economics, either – students at Yale are well equipped with academic and extracurricular opportunities and study with the world’s brightest.
Over 19 of the Supreme Court Justices are Yale alumni, including Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor. Bill and Hilary Clinto famously met each other at the Law School, which is considered the top law school in the country. Yale’s strengths in political science are truly unmatched as many of their alumni have gone on to assume prominent positions in Congress.
In the technology sector, Yale has prominent alumni including Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest and Emmett Shear and Justin Kan, founders of Twitch TV which eventually got acquired by Amazon.
I’ve always said that the beauty of these institutions isn’t necessarily the education received, but the incredibly bright and ambitious peers you meet. This was true for none other than the founders Twitch TV, the offspring of Justin.TV, a live video streaming that captured the daily lives of Yale undergrads.
Yale recently established a partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS), and established a campus where students could now apply to Yale-NUS and leverage the academic, extracurricular, and research opportunities from both universities. Yale-NUS is slightly easier to get into than Yale and is a great option should students choose to pursue it.
Columbia is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York and boasts an Ivy League education in perhaps the most bustling, active city in the world. With the easy access to the culture that New York has to offer, students get an incredible exposure to Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the Broadway.
Columbia is known for the Core Curriculum, where students receive a truly well rounded liberal arts education including contemporary civilization, literature, writing, art, music and the frontiers of science. Students may also apply to the Fu Foundation of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS).
Students study with the world’s leading writers, scientists, and scholars, all within reach and within the context of a diverse and international student body. Famous alumni include Barack Obama, the recent President of the United States, and Ruth Ginsburg, our Supreme Court Justice.
5. University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania, or UPenn for short, is located in the heart of Philadelphia. Founded in1755 by Benjamin Franklin, UPenn strives to train leaders in commerce, government, and public policy through its liberal arts curriculum.
When high achieving students apply to UPenn, they typically aim for the Wharton School, which is the top feeder school into Wall Street as students vie for positions at bulge bracket investments banks. Famous alumni include none other than Elon Musk, who studied in the Wharton School of Business and double majored in economics and physics, and Warren Buffet, one of the most savvy investors in the world and the proponent of value investing.
I strongly believe that UPenn students receive really the quintessential college experience, as I’ve traveled frequently to hang out with friends at UPenn given it was just a 1.5 hour train ride from Princeton. From Spring Fling, which is an annual party where they host famous singers like Drake and Jay Z to perform, to all the magnificent restaurants that downtown Philadelphia has to offer, UPenn students get plenty of exposure to college life outside of mere academics.
UPenn also has specialized programs, such as the Jerome Fisher M&T program that blends together management and technology in an integrated curriculum. UPenn is known to pass out minors like candy, with minimal requirements to attain a minor in math or psychology, for instance, which helps boost the resume.
Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown maintains a commitment to an undergraduate liberal arts education with its free spirited, open-minded students that comprise roughly 6,000 undergraduates. Brown is by far the most liberal of all the Ivy Leagues, empowering students to explore their creativity and unbridled passions.
Brown is known for its Open Curriculum, where students could have the flexibility to virtually take any courses they want to satisfy their distribution requirements and also design their own concentration should they pursue it. But just because it’s flexible doesn’t mean it’s easy – the courses at Brown, like most Ivy Leagues, are extremely demanding and challenging.
Brown allows its students to take all their classes pass/fail, which is unique among all the Ivy Leagues and so as to discourage the competitiveness of its student body. This is always an advantage for students who struggle in more difficult courses, but also allows the students to truly pursue their academic passions without having to constantly think about the grade they’ll earn.
Famous alumni at Brown include Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and Emma Watson, the star in the J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Lastly, Brown is has the famous Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), the only one in the Ivy League that combines an undergraduate education and professional studies in medicine in a single eight year program.
Dartmouth is the smallest Ivy League university and is famously known as “The College on the Hill,” located up north on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. Given its small size and rural area, Dartmouth’s tight knit community has forged strong bonds and friendships among its student body.
As Dartmouth uses a quarter system, students only take three courses at a time, but at a rigorous and lightspeed pace. The 10-week quarters provdie students opportunities to study abroad and pursue internships during the year.
You will find incredibly brilliant professors such as Thomas Cormen, the author of the famous Algorithms that is used by universities across the country. From Greek life to the Outing club to newspapers and political organizations, the students here get exposure to an excellent well rounded experience.
Dartmouth is truly a bubble and has almost a high school dynamic in that everyone knows each other or at least has seen each other on campus. In junior year, students will get tapped into secret societies, and has a unique social scene.
Dr. Seuss and Robert Frost are among its most famous alumni who played a role in literature and poetry, as well as Timoth Geithner, the 75th US Secretary of Treasury and American economic policy maker.
Located in Ithaca, Cornell has a rigorous academic environment that in spans the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Architecutre, Art and Planning and the School of Hotel Administration. Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration is the best in the country and offers a top notch education for those who seek this field of study.
Cornell is also known to have the strongest engineering program among the Ivy Leagues. This comes as no surprise given that engineering is usually among the most difficult majors and Cornell is known for its extremely rigorous academic curriculum.
Cornell has seven dining halls and a beautiful campus with gothic architecture that is the quintessential Ivy League experience. Bill Nye the Science Guy, an American science presenter and mechanical engineer, and Toni Morrison, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a famous American novelist, are famous graduates of Cornell.
The student organizations at Cornell are robust, with over 1,000 clubs ranging from A Capella, dance troups, Bridges to Community, among others, that foster personal awareness and belonging.
Cornell typically has one of the higher acceptance rates among schools in the Ivy League, but don’t mistake that for a knock on its prestige. Cornell is easily one of the most difficult Ivy Leagues to graduate from given its sheer demanding academic curriculum.
Outside of the Ivy League, there are also other top universities that deserve notable mentions.
Located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, Stanford may very well be the 21st century version of Harvard. Not only are its academics superb, but what it lacks in history and tradition it more than makes up for given its standing at the forefront of technology and entrepreneurship.
Stanford recently announced that they will no longer publicize its acceptance rates, which is a first among its rival universities, and speaks to the incredible demand of students applying to the school.
Stanford has graduated its fair share of tech entrepreneurs, including the Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat. With the close access to high tech Silicon Valley venture capital investors on Sandhill road and the larges companies in the world, undergraduates have a unique access that is truly unsurpassed.
Unlike Princeton, Stanford values application over pure intellectual pursuits, and how the application of knowledge could play a role in society amid the digital and technological revolution, which is a highly valuable undertaking.
The campus is also amazing with the rich Spanish colonial architecture and clean, well-kept dorms.
10. University of Chicago
From Milton Friedman to Eugene Fama, University of Chicago, or UChicago for short, has spearheaded many of the prevalent economic theories of our time, from Keynesian to monetarism to new classical macroeconomics based on rational expectations.
The UChicago Economics department, considered one of the world’s foremost economics departments, has awards 12 Nobel Prizes Laureates in the field of Economics, more than any other university in the world. UChicago’s influence on public policy, law, economics, political science, and business has been revolutionary to modern day society. Overall, UChicago has one of the highest concentrations of Nobel Laureates of any university in the world.
The undergraduate education is unparalleled, and often noted for its intense academic rigor within the context of a liberal arts education. The graduate professional schools are outstanding as well, including the Booth School of Business, the Law School, Pritzer School of Medicine, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies.
Located in Hyde Park, south side of downtown Chicago, the university has a wonderful blend of culture and an intellectually stimulating atmosphere that makes it one of the dream schools for the most ambitious of high school students.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT for short, has one of the most brilliant mathematicians and scientists of any undergraduate university. If you look through the prestigious competitions like the Putnam Mathematics Competition, you will find a heavy concentration of undergraduates placing in the Top 500.
Or, if you look through the students who competed in the annual Intel Science and Engineering Fair or Regeneron Science Talent Search, you will often find a heavy concentration of them attending MIT.
That is because, quite frankly, MIT values strong math and science students as opposed to its Ivy League counterparts, which often may seek other future world leaders or a diverse student body with strengths in the humanities as opposed to strictly math and science talent.
To uphold the school’s often eccentric and mathematical nature, the majors are labeled by course numbers. The largest degree programs at MIT tend to be Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (Course 6-2), Computer Science and Engineering (Course 6-3), Mechanical Engineering (Course 2), Physics (Course 8), and Mathematics (Course 18).
MIT has strong professional schools including the Sloan School of Management, which is commonly ranked the #1 undergraduate business school in the country, in addition to UPenn Wharton and Berkeley Haas. Famous alumni include Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics.
The California Institute of Technology, or Caltech for short, is a small, private research university located in Pasadena, CA established in 1891 and is often ranked as one of the world’s top universities. Famous alumni include Linus Pauling, the Nobel Laureate in chemistry, and Kip Thorne, the recently Nobel Prize winning physicist.
Caltech boasts a small student of roughly 960 undergraduates with the highest average SAT scores in the country. The prerequisites to graduate are intense, including differential equations, applied mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, which is atypical of other universities.
Caltech has a friendly rivalry with MIT, where each year its respective students will pull pranks on each other during the Campus Preview Weekend for freshmen. MIT has stolen Caltech’s antique Fleming Cannon and transported it across the country to its own campus.
In fact, interestingly enough, one of the questions in Caltech’s application is for the applicant to describe a time when they pulled a prank on someone. Clearly, this imbedded as part of the school’s unique and frisky culture.
The Caltech Beavers compete in 13 intercollegiate sports in the NCAA Division III’s Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. While sports isn’t something boasts about, it is commonly known that if you attend Caltech you can more likely than not qualify to compete in their varsity sports teams.