The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

What is an Ivy League university?

Heard the term 'Ivy League' thrown around but not sure what it actually refers to? Read our guide to Ivy League universities and find out the history behind the term.


It’s a term used in American books, TV and movies: "Ivy League". Most assume that it simply refers to the best universities in America, which is true. However there is a whole history behind the term. Our student editor Ashley covers the basics and explains why not all universities in the USA can be a part of the social elite ‘Ivy League’.


Where it all started...

The origins of Ivy League universities started with an athletic conference in 1954 on the east coast of America. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I, which is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics, coined the term ‘Ivy League’. The term was chosen to describe academic excellence, a highly selective admissions process and being associated with the social elite. Eight universities were selected by the men of the conference and are as follows: Brown UniversityColumbia UniversityCornell UniversityDartmouth CollegeHarvard UniversityPrinceton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University. The universities have certainly lived up to their reputation, with all of them landing on world ranking lists and delivering high academic results.


The ivy motif

The reference to ivy stemmed from the ago old practice from the 1800’s of planting ivy around college campuses. The ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, the plant also represents friendship and a sign of eternal life. Other versions of how the term ‘Ivy League or Ivy College’ was established vary between rumours, and the true reason really isn’t known. Once the term was established, it changed the reputations of the universities and strengthened the ties with college football. The chosen universities are also known as the ‘Ancient Eight’ or the ‘Ivies’.


The Office's Andy Bernard enjoys letting everyone know that he's an Ivy League graduate. Don't worry, not everyone who graduates from such a school is as conceited.



Besides Cornell University, the remaining seven of the Ivy League universities were established before the American Revolution. Because America as a country isn’t as old as the Eastern hemisphere, this little fact adds more precedence to the term. Membership is not open to any nearby or new universities on the east coast to further give the impression of academic excellence and elitism. No new institutions have been added to the group since. All these schools receive substantial grants from the state and federal governments which only increase their aspirational quality. Some may be surprised to hear that the term 'Ivy league' originally referred to athletic reputation, because now it is usually more encompassing, referring to academic excellence as well.


Want to study at an Ivy League university yourself? Find a course in America.


Read more:

‘American university terms you should know’


Image above courtesy of NBCUniversal Television Distribution

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About Author

Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.


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