Choosing a School: Elite schools in the US

May 2024

14 Minute Read

Tagged as: Applying to Elite Universities, Ivy League, Choosing a School/Program

Discussion of the different types of universities in the US, what elite schools are, and their general hallmarks

Choosing a college can be a time of great stress.  Many feel their entire future rests on this one decision.  You might think your future career, not just the next four years of your life and a great deal of money, rests on this decision.  Parents, relatives, friends are seem to have an opinion on where you should go to school.  A plethora of books and magazines publicize college rankings and make you feel like you should attend whichever school is ranked highest on the list.

In order to reduce the stress in selecting a college, consider adopting the following slogan, "College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won." Finding a good fit requires time and thoughtfulness.  Because your friends are going there or because of where it ranks on a list does not take into account who you are and who you will become. The most important factor in choosing a school is finding a place where you can flourish and grow.

Need some help finding the right school for you? Search schools, keep track of your applications and reduce your college-related stress with our app, Wend, which is free on the App Store. We'll do the work of keeping you on track, reminding you of deadlines, and helping you find great schools to apply to that fit your needs.

Knowing the Types of Schools

The variations found in American institutions of higher education are almost endless, but an introduction to the most common types of universities talked about in the US can help you find the best fit for you.

  • "Elite"
  • State
  • Liberal Arts
  • Two-year

The Elite Schools

In our distinctions, "elite" refers to the approximately 75 schools with the most restrictive admissions criteria. These colleges generally accept fewer than 30 percent of all applicants and have a highly selective reputation to match.  If you have an exemplary record, you may be just the right student for one of these elite schools.

The most important question, however, is if an elite college is right for you. Simply because a university is labeled "elite" or is incredibly selective does not necessarily mean that a) it will be the best fit, or b) that it will provide the best kind of education for the kind of career you want or the problem that you want to solve.

Characteristics of elite schools include:

High Selectivity

As stated earlier, these colleges accept an extremely small number of students. For the most part you will need a high GPA, superior writing ability, stellar test scores, and a solid record of extracurricular achievement. But even with all these elements, you still may need a little luck. Perfect scores on the SAT and perfect grades in high school alone won’t guarantee admission to an elite school.  For this reason, even if you have a stellar academic record, you will probably want to consider applying to a few colleges with less selective admissions as part of your overall strategy.


Because these schools have such high standards for admissions, you might assume that the student bodies look more like MENSA meetings than a group of college students. Elite colleges have far more applicants than slots, so they can control the makeup of their student bodies.  They also understand the importance of having a diverse student body (different backgrounds = exposure to different ideas). At elite colleges and universities, your classmates will come from all walks of life.

There will be students from upper, middle, and lower economic classes and from various cultures, races, and nationalities.  What these students will generally have in common are confidence in their abilities, superior academic records, and a drive to succeed.

High-Quality Education

With a large endowment, federal grants, and high tuition, elite schools can afford to spend money on the latest equipment, the finest facilities, and the best employees.  The elites attract the best faculty, students, and staff in higher education.  Most elite universities and colleges offer smaller class size and stress student-faculty interaction.

The Ivy League

The Ivy League consists of eight schools:

  • Brown University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth University
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Yale University

Though the "Ivy League" was originally just an American football conference designation, most people now associate the schools in the Ivy League with the apex of academic superiority.  Add to their stellar reputation a list of alumni who have become leaders in the worlds of business, politics, education, and the arts.  It’s not just high-achieving students who are attracted to these colleges. The professors at Ivy League schools come from the upper echelon of their fields as well.

The Public Ivies

Several public universities are referred to as "public ivies."

  • College of William and Mary
  • State University of New York at Binghamton
  • University of California—Berkeley
  • University of California—Los Angeles
  • University of Florida
  • University of Michigan
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Virginia
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin

"Public ivies" offer world-class instruction and state-of-the-art facilities.  A main benefit of a public ivy is the cost.  Depending on your residency situation, you could pay up to $25,000 less in tuition each year than the private Ivy League colleges.

Another difference is the number of the students. Even the largest Ivy League school—Cornell University, with around 14,000 students—is only one-third the size of the University of Florida. Especially if they are state schools, public ivies often have a much larger student body.

While these schools are certainly selective, they actually admit far more students than the schools with "most selective" admissions criteria.[1] In 2015, the University of Wisconsin – Madison admitted 49% of applicants. This large research institution has a total student body of just under 45,000 total students, approximately 68% of whom are undergraduates.

The Other Elites

Depending on the paradigm used, the most difficult colleges to get into are actually neither public ivies nor Ivy League schools.  Schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Juilliard School, and the United States Military Academies, are even more selective.  These schools represent a small sample of other hard-to-classify elites, schools that are extremely competitive, offer outstanding academic programs, and attract the best students and faculty.

Many of these other elite colleges are well known, such as Stanford, Notre Dame, Duke, and Vanderbilt. But you may never have heard of some of the others, like Davidson College in North Carolina, Macalester College in Minnesota, or Washington University in Missouri.

Typically, but not always, these elites are similar in atmosphere to the Ivy League schools. They usually have relatively small enrollments, rigorous course loads, and diverse, but competitive student bodies. They can also be extremely expensive, with many such as Bowdoin College, George Washington University, and Wesleyan University costing even more than the Ivy League schools.

Whether you are applying to any of these elite schools or not, Occam's app Wend will help you get through the college application process as productively, efficiently and pleasantly as possible! Download for free today!

For more information on other types of schools, check out some of our other posts:


  1. US News and World Report, an American non-governmental news publication, generally defines schools whose admit rate is 33% or less as being "most selective." Source: US News, "Top 100: lowest acceptance rates.

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