Top 10 Schools Only Want the Best Students – But How Do They Define Best?

Posted By Terri Williams on June 1, 2016 at 4:56 pm
Top 10 Schools Only Want the Best Students – But How Do They Define Best?
University of Chicago comes in at #9 among the world's top 10 schools

While many students dream of attending one of America’s elite colleges, they may have better odds of winning the lottery. Acceptance rates are notoriously low at these prestigious universities; in fact, at 8 out of the top 10 schools, acceptance rates range from 5.1% to 8.8%.

So who are these elite, highly selective schools? The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings annually ranks the top 100 most prestigious universities in the world. All of the top 10 schools (except the UK’s University of Cambridge and University of Oxford) are on American soil, in addition to 13 of the top 20 schools.

The top 10 universities in the U.S. are as following:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  3. Stanford University
  4. University of California, Berkeley
  5. Princeton University
  6. Yale University
  7. Columbia University
  8. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  9. University of Chicago
  10. University of California, Los Angeles

What elite schools want in applicants

GoodCall decided to analyze the admissions policies of each of the top 10 universities to discover what they had in common. Since these schools are all known for academic excellence, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they place a premium on grades and test scores, along with recommendations from teachers and counselors.

We also looked for similarities in traits and characteristics used among the 10 schools to describe ideal applicants:

Desired applicant trait # of schools using this wording
Deep interest in learning, inquisitiveness, intellectual curiosity 10
Character, ability to handle ethical dilemmas, adherence to the Honor Code 6
Takes initiative, self-starter, motivated 5
Passion, intensity 5
Ability to overcome hardships and family circumstances 5
Quality of activities, takes advantages of opportunities offered in high school and the community 5
Leadership 4
Collaborativeness, cooperativeness, demonstrated concern for others 4
Maturity 3
Character and personality will make the campus diverse and better 3
Committed to make world a better place 3


Colleen Ganjian, an education consultant and the founder of DC College Counseling, tells GoodCall that every year she works with several students who are applying to elite colleges. “For the schools that you have mentioned, as well as other ‘most selective’ institutions, achieving high grades and excellent standardized test scores alone will typically not be enough to help a student gain admission.”

Before even seeing the results of our comparative chart, Ganjian’s comments were spot-on. “Schools of that caliber are looking for students with demonstrated passions and a high level of intellectual curiosity,” she told GoodCall.

When asked how she helps her clients improve their chances of getting admitted to one of the most elite universities, Ganjian says, “I try to help my clients focus on a certain area of interest early, and then work to make sure that their high school coursework, extracurricular activities, leadership roles in the community, and summer experiences all support a strong interest in that area.”

For example, she explains that a high school student interested in engineering should enroll in the most demanding and challenging science and math classes available – and adds that it wouldn’t hurt to also take some courses at a local college. “This student should make sure to join – or start – clubs that are STEM-related in nature, take on leadership positions in those organizations, and participate in summer experiences, such as engineering summer programs, an internship with an engineer, or both.” And Ganjian concludes that following these steps can improve an applicant’s chances for success.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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