Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

Unravelling the Enigma: What Makes Ivy League Schools Special?

POSTED ON 06/19/2023 BY The Red Pen

Ivy League college students enjoying their downtime on campus.

The Ivy League refers to a group of the finest US colleges. Leading global companies know that these universities educate the world’s best students. But which colleges are considered a part of the Ivy League? What makes each of them unique? Why are they so coveted? Read on to find out. 

Here’s a list of Ivy League colleges in the US and why they are unique:

University Location Admit Rate Size Int’l Students Popular Majors Unique Courses
Brown University Providence, RI 5.1% Medium 11% Engineering; Computer Science; Econometrics and Quantitative Economics; Biology/Biological Sciences; Political Science; Neuroscience; International Relations.  Interactions with the Dead: Past and Present; Ancient Comedy and its Influence; Kitchen Chemistry; Race, Class, and Girlhood; The Simple Art of Murder
Columbia University New York City, NY 3.9% Medium 14% Social Sciences; Engineering; Computer and Information Sciences; Biological and Biomedical sciences; Visual and performing arts Beginning Fiction Workshop; Hip Hop Dance and Culture; Salsa, Soca, and Reggae: Popular Music of the Caribbean; Basic Drawing; French With Chromeo (the music-duo)
Cornell University Ithaca, NY 8% Medium 10% Engineering; Business; Management; Marketing and Related Support Services; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Computer and Information Sciences; Agriculture, Agriculture Operations.  Riflery; Military and New Technology; Swedish Massage; Human Bonding; Wines; Introduction to Bowling; Marksmanship; The Art of Secret Writing
Dartmouth College Hanover, New Hampshire 6% Small 8% Social Sciences; Engineering; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Computer and Information Sciences; Mathematics and Statistics. Design Thinking; Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Epics and Sagas; Greek & Roman Engineering and Technology; Video Games and the Meaning of Life
Harvard University Cambridge, MA 3.4% Medium 12% Social Sciences; Biology/Biological Sciences; Mathematics; Computer science; History Positive Psychology; Power and Influence; Sounds of Language, Fairy Tale, Myth, and Fantasy Literature
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 4% Medium 12% Social Sciences; Engineering; Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Computer and Information Sciences; Public Administration and Social Service  Introductory Logic; Life Is Short; Art is Really Short; Policing and Militarization Today; No Audit When Music Is Made
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 4.1% Medium 16% Business, Management; Marketing and Related Support Services; Social Sciences, Biological and Biomedical Sciences; Engineering Real Estate Entrepreneurship; Real Estate Entrepreneurship; Can We Talk?; Pursuit of Happiness; Existential Despair
Yale University New Haven, CT 4.3% Medium 20% Social Sciences; Biological and Biomedical Sciences, History; Engineering; Mathematics and Statistics The Problem of Evil; Egyptian Coffin Texts; The Search for Extraterrestrial Life; Introduction to Glass Blowing; Cocktail Culture: The History, Ethics, and Aesthetics of Drink

Disclaimer: All numbers are subject to change

1) Brown University 

Perched atop College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University has a world-renowned faculty and unique educational models that foster curiosity, creativity and the joy of learning. Before first-year orientation, a faculty advisor–a professor, dean or academic administrator will help you define your academic pathway and shape your educational goals. Each academic year at Brown University comprises two semesters. You must complete 32 courses over four years. It offers more than 80 majors across various disciplines. With a 6:1 student-faculty ratio,  Brown University lets you sample a wide range of subjects before immersing yourself in a focused study area. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Brown University has a unique system called the open curriculum. It offers the flexibility to complete coursework in various fields without general core requirements. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • It is the first Ivy League university to accept all religious affiliations and racial backgrounds. 
  • It is often called the ‘Happy Ivy’ with a freshman retention rate of 97 percent. 
  • The John Carter Brown Library holds 15th-century letters from Christopher Columbus. 
  • It has the oldest undergraduate engineering program amongst Ivy League schools.
  • The Annmary Brown Memorial Library is rumoured to be a burial site. 

Student speak:

“The collaborative spirit I’ve found at Brown still lives beyond the campus. The Brown alumni network has been helpful and supportive of the work I’m currently doing to end and prevent homelessness across the country.”

Michael Santos, Class of ‘07

2) Columbia University 

Columbia University offers a distinct and distinguished learning environment. The cornerstone of the Columbia undergraduate experience is the core curriculum that has remained unchanged since 1919. The curriculum provides a holistic overview of literature, philosophy, history, music, art, science and physical education. You will also need a required set of classes for your major and choose elective courses that can either support your major or allow you to explore an area of interest. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Columbia University is known for its groundbreaking research. As a leading research centre, it has introduced the world to innovations like FM Radio, the atomic bomb, the neon laser and many more. Today, Columbia’s alumni base holds patents for over a thousand projects. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • The lion mascot of Columbia inspired the famous MGM Studio logo. 
  • It was the first US college to grant the M.D. degree.
  • The Pulitzer Prize is administered annually by Columbia.
  • The Columbia Queer Alliance is the oldest LGBTQ+ organisation in the world.
  • It was an all-men university until 1983. 

Student speak:

Columbia University, unlike any other university, has a very well-organised and beautiful campus. Aside from the top-tier teaching experience, it really feels like everybody is part of the same team at the university.” 

– Amir Amir, Class of ‘10

3) Cornell University

Located in Ithaca, Cornell University is known for programmes in hospitality and agriculture. It offers more than 80 formal majors, challenging dual-degree courses and a score of unconventional majors, like agricultural sciences; astronomy; environment & sustainability. Cornell also provides over 122 minor programmes. Subject to limitations placed by your major, you can pursue them from any department. Some include dance, music, theatre, healthy futures, film, crime, prisons, education and justice, and smart cities. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Cornell University has the highest Ivy League school acceptance rate and lives up to its motto, “Any person… Any study”. The school first opened its doors to 412 male students in 1868. But after two years, it started admitting women and became the first institution in the US to accept female students. The university also empowers its students with a unique note-taking system called The Cornell Method. It promotes active listening and helps retain information better.  

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • Cornell invented the chicken nugget. 
  • It established the first four-year school of hotel administration.
  • It was the world’s first university to introduce a degree in journalism.
  • It was the first university in the US to offer a degree in veterinary medicine.
  • Its underground tunnel system connects its libraries, allowing you to access them while escaping approximately 17 inches of snowfall in the winter. 

Student speak:

“I chose to fly across the world and go to Cornell because the departments offer both breadth and depth, providing a unique platform to further explore my interests as a confused freshman who hadn’t settled on one passion. I was inspired by the college’s embrace of deep interdisciplinary engagement.”

Prinita Mukherjee, class of ‘21

4) Dartmouth College 

Situated in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth College is renowned for its rigorous undergraduate studies that support well-rounded development. To earn a bachelor’s degree, you must complete a minimum of six terms out of 12 in residence. You will also need to finish 35-36 courses, which include specific requirements comprising writing, foreign language, and 16 general education courses. Dartmouth offers 60 concentration fields. You can combine your concentration with minors or studies from other departments. The degree also requires you to pass physical education. Post-Covid, the physical education requirements have been considerably modified. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Dartmouth is known for its D-Plan. Unlike most colleges in the US that are semester-based, the D-Plan follows a quarter-based academic calendar, which comprises four, 10-week sessions. The D-Plan gives students the flexibility to plan their internships and research time. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • The Sanborn Library serves tea and cookies at 4 pm on weekdays. 
  • The university was founded before the American Revolution
  • Alumni include Meryl Streep, Mindy Kaling, Shonda Rhimes and Dr Seuss!
  • It offers 35 intercollegiate varsity sports, with nearly 25 percent of students participating in intercollegiate athletics.
  • The college also has its own ski slope.

Student speak:

“Dartmouth always places its undergraduate students first! You don’t need to compete with graduate students for research opportunities and lectures from teaching assistants. An endless amount of academic opportunities are available, and students can regularly interact with professors.”

Melissa Barales-Lopez, Class of ‘22

5) Harvard University

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University comprises an undergraduate college and 11 highly-ranked institutions. It has a rigorous selection process and handpicks students who not only offer a learning experience to their peers and professors but also have the potential to become future changemakers. Its academic approach is deeply committed to liberal arts and sciences, and equips students with critical and analytical skills. Ordinarily, a Harvard undergraduate must complete and earn 128 credits in four years. Harvard University offers more than 3,700 courses in 50 undergraduate fields of study. The best part: If you can’t find any area that directly addresses your interests, you can develop your own through their Special Concentration option. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

You will access some of the world’s most outstanding scholars as a student at Harvard University. Nobel laureates lead introductory courses. Pulitzer Prize-winning authors teach general education courses. National Book Award winners host freshmen seminars. Harvard also funds students who wish to complete their research in another country. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • Eight Harvard alumni became US Presidents – Obama, Hayes, George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, John Quincy Adams, and John Adams.
  • The first printing press in the US was inaugurated in 1638 at the institution.
  • It has the world’s most extensive library system, holding nearly 20 million volumes, 400 million manuscripts, 10 million photographs, and one million maps.

Student speak:

“At Harvard, research opportunities are available for students as early as their first year. These opportunities, which range from traditional laboratory work to archival research and more, are varied and plentiful – in fact, it’s often said that there are more opportunities than there are undergraduates to fill them!” 

Olga Kiya, Class of ‘22

6) Princeton University

Based in New Jersey, Princeton is an elite private institution founded in 1746. The general education requirements, major requirements, minor courses, and junior and senior independent work suggest the broad outline for your course of study. Along the way, you are encouraged to research and pursue internships abroad. Princeton University offers 54 minors and 36 concentrations for majors. Ranking among the top three of its Ivy peers, it is known for its highly accomplished faculty, tight-knit student communities, varsity sports, and groundbreaking research. While it has a strict policy against fraternities and sororities, Princeton supports more than 500 student organisations and clubs, including music; dance; politics and debate, social and cultural activities, academics, and more. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Princeton‘s undergraduate program requires every senior to write a senior thesis, which provides students with a unique opportunity to pursue original research and scholarship in a chosen field. Additionally, for this thesis, students work one-on-one with a faculty member. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • The word “campus” originated at Princeton.
  • The Princeton University Chapel is the third largest University chapel in the world.
  • A Beautiful Mind is a movie based on Princeton mathematician John Forbes Nash. 
  • Princeton has won more Ivy League sports titles than any other college. 

Student speak:

“Over the past four years, I’ve studied everything from molecular biology to performance art. Although I didn’t know where my four years at Princeton would take me, I knew that by choosing Princeton, I would be able to explore so many new worlds and have so many resources at my fingertips. By picking Princeton, I chose an adventure that would take me to Paris, rural China, Trinidad and Washington, D.C.”

Wendy Li, Class of ‘15

7) University of Pennsylvania

Located in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania is also called UPenn or Penn. It is built on founder Benjamin Franklin’s philosophy of translating knowledge into social-minded action, and often selects applicants who can emulate this doctrine. Penn’s undergraduate students can pursue nearly 100 majors across four schools–the College of Arts & Science, The Wharton School, the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the School of Nursing. The college provides a flexible structure for its bachelor’s degrees, drawing you towards three distinct goals: general education requirements, major requirements and elective courses. 

Life on the campus is vibrant. Over 25 percent of students are involved in Greek Life Organisation, which includes around 50 fraternities and sororities. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

UPenn is known for its One University Policy. It allows students to take classes and research in all of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate and professional schools. This policy creates a fully integrated educational experience. 

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer was constructed at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering (now Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science)
  • The Penn Relays is the nation’s oldest and largest amateur track meet.
  • Tory Burch, Noam Chomsky, John Legend, and the current president of Harvard are Penn alumni.

Student speak:

“UPenn provided an excellent academic experience. Coming from the West Coast, I took a few semesters to get used to the more intense atmosphere. But by my senior year, I did not want to leave! Having a Penn degree also opens a lot of doors. I know it played a key role in my internships and job after college.”

Rachel S, Class of ‘12

8) Yale University

Founded in 1701, Yale is a private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. There are no required classes to earn a bachelor’s degree from Yale, but you must complete its specific requirements from a set of options and declare a major in the first semester of your sophomore year. Yale offers 80 majors across 2000 courses. The university doesn’t provide minors, but you can choose from several certificate courses and multi-disciplinary academic programmes to support your major and explore other fields of interest. 

What makes this Ivy League college different? 

Besides its stunning campus and neo-gothic architecture, Yale has a unique Residential College system. First-year students are assigned to a residential college, giving them a built-in community and a sense of camaraderie as soon as they arrive. Housed in gorgeous buildings, students retain this college affiliation right through their college years and beyond.

Fun facts about this Ivy League college:

  • Yale has several secret societies. Skull and Bones is one of the best-known, and its members are usually campus leaders. 
  • Yale hosts a holiday banquet for freshmen inspired by the Hogwarts feast.
  • A 140-year-old Yale tradition involves graduates receiving clay pipes and tobacco they are supposed to smoke and crush to mark the end of a legendary four-year era.

Student speak:

“What makes Yale, Yale? It’s the people. First-year students are eager to sit with you in an igloo on Old Campus for hours, telling you about their experiences. Upper-level students are happy to sneak you into a closed buttery to share a quesadilla and talk about life and family dinners with your best friends in their suite.”

Arizona Greene, Class of the ‘19

Ivy League schools offer exceptional educational opportunities but so do several other colleges in the US. You should select a US university which aligns with your future goals. You may also want to know the nuances of applying to undergraduate US universities.  For any guidance on the undergraduate application, get in touch with us. Our US admissions team looks forward to helping you.