The Ivy League is one of the most prestigious collections of higher education institutions in the United States and the world.
Consisting of eight private universities located primarily in the Northeastern United States, the term “Ivy League” has become synonymous with academic excellence, selectivity in admissions, high-achieving students, and the intellectual, social and economic elite.
- Origins and History
- Academics, Research and Rankings
- Student Life on Ivy League Campuses
- Admissions to the Ivy League
- Famous Ivy League Alumni
- Looking Forward
Origins and History
Early Athletic Connections
The Ivy League originally referred strictly to an athletic conference, the Intercollegiate League, formed in 1954. However, the connections between these eight universities stretch back more than a century before that. After first competing in rowing in the mid-1800s, students from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton formally organized athletic competitions, especially football, between their schools starting in the late 1800s.
Founding and Historic Ties
By the early 1900s, the term “Ivy League” began being used to refer to this historic group of institutions in the Northeast that shared academic as well as athletic connections. Seven of the eight universities were founded prior to the American Revolution as colonial colleges chartered to serve the early colonies. Penn was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin. Cornell, chartered in 1865, is the only Ivy League school founded after the American Revolution.
Many Founding Fathers and early American leaders such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison attended Ivy institutions. The Ivy League educated the country’s political, intellectual and social elite from the colonial era into the 19th century. By formalizing their athletic conference in 1954, the Ivy League schools reinforced these historic ties.
Academics, Research and Rankings
Today, Ivy League universities are synonymous with academic excellence. They consistently top national and global university rankings, dominate in key fields, produce cutting-edge research, and attract professors and students from across the world.
Diverse Academic Offerings
All eight Ivies are medium-sized research universities with total enrollments between 5,000 to 25,000 students. However, their graduate schools rival large state universities, with graduate enrollments outpacing undergraduates at most Ivy institutions. The undergraduate colleges emphasize a broad liberal arts education while also offering 100+ fields of study. Graduate and professional schools award master’s and doctoral degrees in everything from medicine, law and business to fundamental sciences.
Highly Competitive Admissions
Ivy League colleges report fiercely competitive admissions with acceptance rates under 10%. Maintenance of such highly selective standards enables them to deliver elite research and education. In 2021, six of the eight Ivies had acceptance rates under 5%. Students sport near-perfect GPAs, test scores, essays and recommendations. Graduates go on to become leaders in their fields.
Research and Rankings
Their professors are leading researchers who publish thousands of cutting-edge academic works each year and have earned hundreds of Nobel Prizes. Research funding totals in the billions. All eight schools rank highly on indexes that measure research output, citations, and other academic impact.
Global and National Rankings
When it comes to global rankings, Ivy League institutions consistently claim spots at the top. In the 2023 QS World University Rankings:
- Harvard (#1)
- MIT (#2)
- Yale (#8)
- Columbia (#16)
- Princeton (#24)
- Cornell (#51)
- Penn (#15)
- Brown (#69)
National rankings tell a similar story, with all Ivies in the top 15 of US News’ Best National Universities:
- Princeton (#1)
- Harvard (#2 tied)
- Columbia (#5 tied)
- Yale (#5 tied)
- Penn (#7 tied)
- Brown (#9 tied)
- Dartmouth (#9 tied)
- Cornell (#17)
The Ivy League’s research output, highly-selective admissions, world-renowned professors, accomplished graduates, and consistent top 10 rankings cement its reputation as the academic gold standard in the US university landscape.
Student Life on Ivy League Campuses
Life outside the classroom at Ivy League schools balances rigorous academics with rich campus traditions, bustling cities, and opportunities to complement intellectual growth. Most undergraduates live on campus all four years, fostering a tight-knit residential community.
Dorms and residential colleges house students, often pairing new students with peer academic advisors. Freshmen typically have to live on campus. Many undergrads stay on or near campus for summer internships and jobs.
No matter which Ivy you attend, expect to be surrounded by quads dotted with historic ivy-covered buildings, modern laboratories and libraries, cafes, restaurants, auditoriums and more. Facilities and resources abound, from computing labs to repositories like Cornell’s rare book collections.
Diverse Campus Experiences
An Ivy League social life encompasses everything from catching a play at Yale’s Shubert Theater to enjoying New Haven’s pizza restaurants. Princeton students socialize at popular campus “eating clubs”, while those at city-based Columbia and Penn never lack urban diversions. Dartmouth’s rural New Hampshire setting breeds outdoor fun, from skiing to kayaking nearby rivers.
Traditions and Activities
Attending football games at Harvard Stadium, enjoying Cornell’s Springfest concert, or sledding down Brown’s campus hill are long-loved traditions. Intramural sports, fitness centers and varsity athletics including the renowned Harvard-Yale football rivalry round out student life. Performing arts, political clubs, diversity groups, volunteering, and religious organizations provide more ways to get involved.
Access to Urban Centers
Proximity to cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Providence enriches the undergraduate experience with concerts, shows, restaurants, and more beyond campus borders. The combination of historic campuses and nearby metropolitan areas lets students tap into the best of both worlds.
Admissions to the Ivy League
Highly Competitive Admission Process
Getting into an Ivy League university is extremely competitive, due to their international reputations for excellence coupled with minuscule acceptance rates. Applicants have to present extraordinary academic and extracurricular profiles just for a chance at admission.
Ivies seek exceptional GPAs (mostly A’s across intense course loads), high SAT or ACT scores in the top percentile, essays that grab attention, meaningful extracurricular leadership and unique talents or experiences that set applicants apart. Glowing recommendations from teachers elaborating on work ethic and potential are critical.
Applying early whether Early Action or Early Decision can improve applicants’ odds at some Ivies but not all. Interviews are either required or highly recommended. Some schools also consider demonstrated interest. There are no shortcuts: getting into an Ivy means clearing the highest bars of academic excellence while also showing passion, purpose and perspective beyond the classroom walls.
Once admitted, low-income students may benefit from Ivy League schools’ generous financial aid and no-loan policies that make attending feasible for students from all backgrounds. However, for middle- and upper-income families who don’t qualify for need-based aid, total annual costs can exceed $80,000 a year when adding up tuition, room and board.
Famous Ivy League Alumni
Ivy League graduates enjoy instant name recognition in anything from academics to the arts, enterprises big and small, politics and public service. Princeton alone counts President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Michelle Obama among
its prominent alumni.
Other Ivy League graduates who made names for themselves include writer Toni Morrison (Cornell), actress Meryl Streep (Yale), astronaut Buzz Aldrin (M.I.T), photographer Annie Leibovitz (San Francisco Art Institute), journalist Anderson Cooper (Yale), musician Yo-Yo Ma (Harvard), and entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg (Harvard) and Michael Bloomberg (Harvard).
Influential Historical Figures
In addition to eight U.S. Presidents, Ivy League alumni who impacted history include pioneers like African American neurosurgeon Ben Carson (Yale), women’s rights activist Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Columbia), civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall (Howard), child development expert Dr. Benjamin Spock (Yale), inventor Thomas Edison (Yale) and groundbreaking computer scientist Grace Hopper (Yale).
Today’s Ivy League graduates join distinguished company across spheres of influence. The networks forged on these campuses are indeed Ivy League in their reach.
Over three centuries after the first colonial colleges planted their ivy, the Ivy League institutions continue to define excellence. Their august names dominate rankings, they set gold standards across disciplines, and their graduates become leaders equipped to leave marks on society.
Commitment to Excellence and Diversity
Elite yet also devoted to socioeconomic diversity and affordability, traditional yet groundbreaking, small yet globetrotting in impact – the Ivy League culture fuses academic intensity with holistic enrichment and access to any student driven to succeed, regardless of background. Going forward, these universities seem primed to keep writing history for centuries more.