The Ivy League consists of eight prestigious private colleges and universities in the United States. Over the past century, the Ivy League institution has built a world-renowned reputation for academic excellence, powerful alumni, a rich history and a selective admissions process.

The eight institutions in the Ivy League are Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Columbia University, Brown University, Dartmouth College and Cornell University.

History of the Ivy League

The history of the Ivy League stems from a planting ceremony known as Ivy Day. This was a 19th-century tradition on college and university campuses, where ‘planting the ivy’ symbolised enduring growth. The notion and popularisation of a ‘league’ came after sportswriter Stanley Woodward of the New York Herald Tribune, in 1933, wrote about athletic competitions between the “Ivy colleges.”

Initiated by administrators from the eight schools, in 1946, the ‘Ivy Group’ was created and focused on growing interest in college athletics as a form of national entertainment. The ‘Ivy League’ was not formally created until the 1950s, when the NCAA athletic conference for Division 1 was formed in 1954.

For centuries, Ivy League students were almost exclusively wealthy men. Post World War II, that began to change with students from ethnic minorities and women being allowed to enrol.

Whilst there is historically a strong focus on sports in these institutions, they have also spent centuries building themselves as research pioneers.

The Ivy League Schools

Harvard University

Harvard University is a research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 1636 and named after its first benefactor, John Harvard, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.

Harvard’s notable programmes include:

  • Economics
  • Computer Science
  • Government
  • Neuroscience

Yale University

Yale University founded in 1701, is located in New Haven, Connecticut. The Yale University Library, with more than 15 million volumes, is one of the largest in the US. Yale also has extensive art galleries, the first in an American college.

Yale’s notable programmes include:

  • Economics
  • Computer Science
  • Political Science
  • History

Princeton University

Princeton University founded in 1746, is located in Princeton, New Jersey. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is one of the foremost research centres on nuclear fusion, while the renowned Institute for Advanced Study, associated with the university, is where Albert Einstein spent the last two decades of his life.

Princeton’s notable programmes include:

  • Social Sciences
  • Engineering
  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Public Administration and Social Services

Columbia University

Columbia University founded in 1754, is located in New York. It differs from other colleges in its heavier emphasis on such subjects as commerce, government, and navigation, and an advanced study that has a cosmopolitan outlook.

Columbia’s notable programmes include:

  • Political Science
  • Economics
  • Computer Science

University of Pennsylvania

The University of Pennsylvania founded in 1740, is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It started as a charity school and became an academy in 1751, largely through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin.

Pennsylvania’s notable programmes include:

  • Business/Marketing/Management
  • Social Sciences
  • Health Professions
  • Biology

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth College, founded in the 1650s, is located in Massachusetts. The college offers more than 200 degrees, with facilities that include a 28-story library and outlying stations for marine and agricultural research.

Dartmouth’s notable programmes include:

  • Social Sciences
  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Engineering
  • Biology

Brown University

Brown University, founded in 1764, is located in Providence, Rhode Island. In an unconventional approach to fulfilling degree requirements, undergraduate students are expected to design their own interdisciplinary programme of study.

Brown’s notable programmes include:

  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • Biology

Cornell University

Cornell University, founded in 1865, is located in New York. Cornell was the first American university to be divided into colleges offering different degrees, and it was among the first Eastern universities to admit women (1870).

Cornell’s notable programmes include:

  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Biological Sciences

Admission to Ivy League Schools

Whilst each institution has its specific admissions process, there are many overlapping requirements. These elements are intended to build a holistic application for each candidate:

  1. Test Scores: You may be required to take an entrance exam (SAT or ACT) and submit your scores. Submitting a strong test score may boost your application, but a weak one will not reduce your chances.
  2. Personal Essay: In your application, you will most likely complete a series of essays. The themes of these essays are typically centred around personal motivations, passions, skills, qualities and building your reputation.
  3. School Documents: You will be asked to provide important documents such as school reports, tax/income information, etc.
  4. Extracurricular: Strong extracurriculars are critical for a successful Ivy League application. These schools are looking for candidates who can use what they learn and their opportunities to change their world. There will be numerous opportunities in your application to talk about any you may have.
  5. Teacher Recommendations: Teacher recommendations are required by Ivy League schools to help build a holistic view of candidates by getting perspectives from influential people in your life.

Tips for prospective Ivy League students:

  1. Start early: The Ivy League admissions process can span over the academic year so you should start early so you have enough time to build a quality application.
  2. Do Your Research: Before you start applying for Ivy League schools, it’s important to spend time researching which ones are for you. You will also need to spend time finding out the exact requirements for each school to ensure your application is successful.
  3. Map your admissions processes: Ivy League schools have a lot of requirements and instructions, that are expected at different times in an admissions cycle. Creating a (visual) map of these requirements and your progress for each one can help you stay on top of everything.
  4. Be your true self: The is one repeated sentiment across the Ivy League schools and that’s the importance of authenticity. These schools are looking for students who bring refreshing and unique perspectives to their institutions, so you mustn’t try to fit a certain mould.

Academic excellence and programs

The Ivy League institution has been instrumental in world-changing research, earning itself a profound academic reputation.

The US News & World Report National Universities ranking has named an Ivy League school as the best national university every year since 2001. League financial endowments range from Brown’s $6.9 billion to Harvard’s $53.2 billion, the largest financial endowment of any academic institution in the world. All eight schools are members of the Association of American Universities, the most prestigious alliance of American research universities.

This has allowed Ivy League schools to carry out deep research and offer unique programmes such as:

  • Folklore & Mythology
  • Mind, Brain, Behaviour
  • Sustainable Food Programme
  • Independent Concentration (where you can build your own major)
  • Modern Greek Studies
  • Cross-Registration Programme with Julliard
  • Societal Solutions Scholars Programme

Research opportunities and resources at these institutions include:

  • Research Assistantships
  • Thesis Research
  • Summer Research Programmes
  • Study Abroad Programmes
  • Research Fellowships

Depending on the programme, these can be funded partially or fully funded by the relevant institution.

Campus life and culture

There is a consensus amongst Ivy League students that outside of the classroom, there are endless opportunities for a well-rounded student life thanks to:

  • rich campus traditions
  • extraordinary extracurriculars
  • student and career events
  • bustling cities
  • diversity initiatives
  • personal research opportunities
  • recreational facilities for sports, performing arts, etc
  • communal dining halls

There are endless organisations and extracurricular activities available at Ivy League schools including:

  • Student organisations/clubs for hundreds of personal interests
  • Varsity sports and championships
  • Sororities and Fraternities

Ivy League schools also have affinity groups – these are social spaces, typically organised by students, to engage with and support students from various walks of life and underrepresented identities.

Here are some detailed resources:

The Ivy League is widely represented in popular culture, especially in media and literature. It’s typically presented as very aspirational and elite.

Here are some examples:

  • Harvard has been featured prominently in ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, The Great Debaters’, ‘Stealing Harvard’, and ‘With Honors’
  • ‘Legally Blonde’ explores the story of a once-overlooked girl, Elle, who makes legal storms as a Harvard law student
  • Dartmouth was the basis for the famous movie ‘Animal House’, written by an alumnus of Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta fraternity, Chris Miller
  • Olivia Pope from the award-winning show ‘Scandal’, went to Princeton University before becoming the White House Director of Communications
  • Devi from a Netflix-favourite ‘Never Have I Ever’ fights to get into Princeton as a high-school student
  • University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field is featured prominently in ‘Invincible’ and ‘Unbreakable’
  • Gabriella from the Disney Channel-favourite ‘High School Musical’ gets into Stanford
  • Marshall from the award-winning sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’ is a lawyer who studied at Columbia
  • Andy from the award-winning sitcom ‘The Office’ went to Cornell

Here are some interesting articles that discuss this further:

Ivy League Alumni

The Ivy League’s alumni includes many world leaders, including a number of US and global presidents such as:

  • John Adams (Harvard University)
  • John F Kennedy (Harvard University)
  • Barack Obama (Harvard University)
  • George H.W. Bush (Yale)
  • Donald Trump (UPenn)
  • Nnamdi Azike – Nigeria’s first president (UPenn)

Other alumni include:

  • Nelson Rockefeller – 41st Vice President of the US (Dartmouth)
  • Alexander Hamilton – US Founding Father (Columbia)
  • Noam Chomsky – World-renowned philosopher, linguist and political theorist (UPenn)
  • Warren Buffet – Billionaire American businessman (UPenn)
  • Pearl S. Buck – Nobel Prize winner in Literature (Cornell)
  • Craig Cameron Mello – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Brown)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg – former Supreme Court judge (Columbia)
  • Toni Morrison – Nobel Prize Winner in Literature (Cornell)
  • Barbara McClintock – Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine (Cornell)
  • Todd Haynes – Academy award-nominee film director (Brown)
  • Meryl Streep – Oscar award-winning actress (Yale)
  • James Gunn – Award-winning filmmaker (Columbia)

Ivy League Alumni Network

The Ivy League alumni network(s) includes over 118,000 members. The purpose of the network is to enhance the effectiveness of networking and provide tangible benefits to the alumni community.

Alumni initiatives include:

  1. Segmented networking groups on social media, including groups for job searching, startups, and business opportunities with multiple subgroups
  2. The Ivy Company – a unique collaborative venture bringing together the combined resources of the network for business
  3. Partnership with The Goldman Consortium to generate business ventures between Goldman Sachs Alumni and Ivy League alumni
  4. Ivy Alumni groups for startups, providing opportunities such as consultation and funding
  5. Regional Alumni clubs
  6. Partnership with Columbia alumni-owned ‘IvyExec’ for finding jobs

The Future of the Ivy League

In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that considering race in the college admissions process was ‘unconstitutional’ essentially ending affirmative action.

Affirmative action was a practice in which ‘applicants from groups that have historically been the subject of discrimination are given additional weight to increase opportunities for these groups and bolster diversity’.

Since the 1970s, the Ivy League institutions began their commitment to changing underrepresentation. This included affirmative action plans, financial aid, diversity programmes, etc.

This new ruling creates a challenge for them to continue this commitment but in compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling. Many schools have begun the process of exploring alternative means of making their admissions processes more equitable without affirmative action.

Looking to Study in the Ivy League?

At Dukes, we provide support for applications to various universities across the world, including the Ivy League. Our programs offer personalised guidance, and strategic advice to strengthen your Ivy League application.

We can support you to identify and showcase your unique strengths, align your application with the Ivy League’s values, and effectively communicate your accomplishments and potential contributions to the admissions committee.

For more information on how Dukes can assist with your Ivy League application, please visit our private US admissions consulting page. Alternatively, you can contact us here, and we can help you submit a winning application.