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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

What is the Ivy League?

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.

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When it comes to universities in America you would probably have heard about the Ivy League. It’s a term you would have come across in books, films, on television and possibly in conversation when people mention the associated prestige of attending these institutions. It’s often interpreted as being shorthand for the best universities in the USA. Is it that simple though? Not quite. There is a significant history behind the term and where the association of these prestigious universities began. We explore what the Ivy League is, what universities are part of it and where they rank globally. 


Where did the Ivy League start?


The history of the Ivy League dates back to the early 1950s. Starting with an athletic conference on the east coast of America in 1954, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) were the first to coin the term ‘Ivy League’.


The primary reason for the selection of the name was to denote quality, academic excellence, high entry requirements and selective admissions. There was also an element of social elitism that was associated with the founding of the league. 


Find out more about the student experience in the USA


Why was an ivy motif chosen?


Although the actual reason why ivy is used isn’t entirely clear there are a few possibilities. Some have argued that that the use of ivy as the symbol for the league can be traced back to a tradition started in the early 19th century. Many universities campuses planted ivy around their buildings, which subsequently grew to cover much of the facades. 


Ivy is also known as the symbol of the ancient Roman god Bacchus, who was the god of wine, fertility and agriculture. This underlines the social and dynamic nature of the universities. Further, ivy is thought to represent friendship and eternal life, which seeks to draw a parallel with the networks and relationships developed at these universities. 


Once the term took root it stuck and universities began to be referred to as ‘the ivies’. While you’re here take some time to explore the top universities in the USA


Which universities were the first members of the Ivy League? 


The institutions that were chosen at the 1954 conference were:



These universities are still the eight official members of the Ivy League, however, other institutions are considered to be honorary members or of a similar level of prestige including:


  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • California Institute of Technology
  • University of California Berkeley
  • The University of Chicago 
  • Johns Hopkins University 
  • Stanford University


Want to find out which Ivy League institutions made the list of best engineering universities in the USA?


What is the history of ivy league universities?


An interesting characteristic of Ivy League universities is that seven of the eight members, apart from Cornell University, were established before the American Revolution of 1775-1783. Thus, they are considered to have a long and established history which adds to the prestige. This has often been attributed to the fact that the USA does not have the same history as European countries and thus much younger institutions by comparison. 


Another way in which the Ivy League signals excellence and prestige are by not having accepted any new members in its 67-year history. They also tend to have substantial funding both from state and federal governments and in the form of endowments. These endowments are derived from donations given by businesses, organisations and alumni of the universities. 


Explore the best law schools in the USA.


What are the current rankings of Ivy League universities?


You probably won’t be surprised that many of the Ivy League universities occupy high positions in university rankings. In the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, three of the top 10 and six of the top twenty universities in the world were from the Ivy League. These are:


  • Harvard University (3rd) 
  • Yale University (8th)
  • Princeton University (9th)
  • University of Pennsylvania (13th) 
  • Columbia University (17th) 
  • Cornell University (19th)


This is mirrored by the rankings of the Ivy League universities in the QS World University Rankings 2021, with six institutions in the top 20 worldwide:


  • Harvard University (3rd) 
  • Princeton University (12th)
  • University of Pennsylvania (16th)
  • Cornell University (18th) 
  • Yale University (17th)
  • Columbia University (19th)


What is interesting is that the traditional Ivy League universities are facing strong competition from non-members who are considered “honorary members” by many such as Massachusetts University of Technology (MIT) which ranked at number one globally in the QS World University Rankings 2021 and Stanford University which placed 2nd in the same rankings. 


Find out who made the list of the best postgraduate institutions in the USA


What are the entry requirements for Ivy League universities?


As you can imagine these universities do have particularly stringent entry requirements for students. You’re going to need to demonstrate very good academic results and show that you have been studying a challenging curriculum. 


For most students looking to be accepted the average SAT score above 1,400 and ACT scores would be above 31. For many Ivy League universities, you will require a GPA of 4.0 and above. Turning to the statistics, in 2020 Harvard University received over 40,248 applications, of which only 4.9 per cent were successful, which is less than 2,000 students. This is also seen at Princeton University with 32,836 applications and a success rate of 5.5 per cent. Overall the acceptance rate at Ivy League universities is below six per cent. 


Don’t let this discourage you. If you’re an academic achiever and have ambitions to attend one of these universities in the USA, you should go for it. Make sure to do your research beforehand and get that application in as early as you can. You never know you could be just like many of the famous alumni of Ivy League universities including 16 U.S. presidents and over 488 Nobel Prizes and counting. 


Find out more about how to study in the USA and what it has to offer international students. You may also find our application guide useful and you can keep up to date on all the latest international student news


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


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