Genial Greg Mathis, who rose from the mean streets of Detroit to complete college, then law school, now a TV judge weekday afternoons, addressed a defendant in his courtroom, “You go to Brandeis?  Isn’t that Ivy League?”  Though Brandeis is an amazing school, it is not an Ivy, but like most of us, Judge Mathis equates Ivy League with the elite in education, even if he isn’t quite sure which schools qualify, not to mention why.

So which ones are the real Ivies? Ask anyone and, although Harvard, Yale and Princeton usually get the nod correctly, non-Ivies Stanford, M.I.T., Cal Tech, Duke and the University of Chicago invariably appear as well--synonymous with excellence.

I’ll not go into depth about more than a few programs at the Ivies, as it’s up to interested students to research their favorites.  Nor will I review all the famous graduates, including U.S. Presidents, who are alumni, as you can check that out on the college websites.

Though the Ivies aren’t necessarily the oldest US colleges, and I will mention a few of the most ancient ones, Harvard actually is the first, founded by benefactor clergyman John Harvard in 1636 specifically to train young men as Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Now with 11 divisions, to include the School of  Divinity, and Radcliffe Institute (formerly the college for women) Harvard is no longer the school for privileged men it was for many years but embraces diversity and excellence in all areas.  With an endowment of over $37 billion, Harvard can award financial aid to needy students, often ranking # 1 for undergraduate universities, and often # 1 for both law and medical schools. When I was there in the early ‘60’s and Kennedy was President, it felt like the center of the universe. Harvard’s location in historic Cambridge, MA  (Washington rallied his troops in a field just west of center campus) is definitely in the middle of the action, with downtown Boston only a short subway (the MBTA or “T”) ride from Harvard Square, where, it is said, if you wait long enough you will encounter everyone you know.  Indeed, when I return, it feels like I never left, and poking about the narrow, winding brick streets just off campus still reminds me of England and continues to enchant. 

Although in an urban and lively setting, Harvard has a spacious center campus area where you’ll recognize the famous Widener Library. That plus others make Harvard’s holdings the largest academic library in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world.  Close to campus is the Charles River for rowing enthusiasts, with downtown Boston on the far shore. With 800,000 students enrolled in Boston-area colleges, you can count on innumerable activities geared to students, a great public transportation system, amazing art museums on and off campus, with skiing in nearby Vermont in winter and the beaches of Cape Cod when it warms up.  And direct flights to Boston are available from many cities.

The Harvard Crimson reports: A record-low 4.59 percent of applicants to Harvard College received offers of admission to the Class of 2022 …with just 1,962 of 42,749 candidates securing spots in the class.   The total undergraduate enrollment is 6,700 with a total of 22,000 university-wide.

People generally forget non-Ivies William and Mary (where Thomas Jefferson enrolled) in Williamsburg, VA and St. John’s College (formerly King William’s School) in Annapolis, MD as the second and third oldest in the U.S., founded in the 17th century.

Fiercely competing with Harvard for academic rankings, not to mention on the gridiron and in  rowing regattas, success in each inspiring generosity from alumni, comes Yale itself, founded in 1701, with a total undergraduate enrollment of 5,472 and 14 constituent schools including Yale College.  Also founded to train men for the priesthood, Yale now celebrates diversity and excellence in many areas, though likely best-known for their school of drama (Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett), music (The Whiffenpoofs),  if not the law school (where Hillary met Bill Clinton). Their art and natural history museums are amazing, and they have a special one devoted to British Art that’s definitely worth a visit.

Although Yale is expanding and they expect to have a class 15% larger, their rate of admission was 6.3% for the class of 2022 (down from 6.9% for 2021).  

Though the campus and buildings are very beautiful, historic and inspiring (compare the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle to much newer Rudolph Hall, housing the School of Art and Architecture), some visitors haven’t been so keen on the city of New Haven, CT itself.  Yet I know of no one turning down a Yale offer for that reason, nor any other, and New Haven has plenty of cultural activities all year, such as the College Street Music Hall hosting both Ziggy Marley and Toots and the Maytals this summer. If you wanted to pay more to see them, with frequent Metro North train service from New Haven, you can be in NYC in as little as 1 ½ hours. 

The Yale Quad

As for travelling, if not driving, one could go via three NYC airports, or choose Bradley International in Hartford with direct flights from Toronto.  From there it’s a half hour bus ride to Hartford, change stations, and an hour bus ride south to New Haven.

Following next, chronologically, is the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740. 

Penn is one of my favorites, as it reminds me of my beloved University of Michigan.  With its peaceful center campus beside the Schuylkill River for rowing, with amazing architecture and campus adorned with Klaus Oldenberg sculpture, spanning roughly 8 X 4 city blocks, you wouldn’t know you’re in the heart of historic Philadelphia,  think Liberty Bell and Freedom Hall, home to 300,000 students in the area. Penn boasts the first school of medicine in North America as well as the first collegiate school of business, currently ranked #1, the Wharton School of Business. Within Wharton, there is an even more elite Huntsman program, likely tougher than Harvard in admissions.  

Penn admitted 3,731 out of 44,482 applicants for the class of 2022, setting a record low acceptance rate of 8.39.

With 10,000 undergrads (in a population of about 24,000), enrolled students express that this larger number allows for a greater diversity in extracurricular activities, which they enjoy.

Those who do make it will enjoy excellent public transportation in the area, the SEPTA train service which can take you from the airport to campus and on to downtown.   There, perched atop city hall, reaching for the heavens, is a statue of Philadelphia founder William Penn.  Nearby, the famous Robert Indiana sculpture:

Penn and his fellow Quakers determined to make it the City of Brotherly Love, and that spirit continues today.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art whose steps were used in the “Rocky” film is worth a visit, as is the famous Rodin sculpture museum.

There are numerous direct flights to Philadelphia.

Non-Ivies Moravian College (which began as a women’s college) in Bethlehem, PA and the University of Delaware in Newark, DE came next, followed by Ivy Princeton in 1746, also founded to educate men for the priesthood.  With 5,260 undergraduates out of a university population of just over 8,000, one can see the focus is strongly on the undergraduate studies, perhaps the reason that Princeton often makes # 1 ahead of Harvard and Yale in the US News & World Report Best Colleges, including 2018.  Princeton’s acceptance rate is 7.1%, and the beautiful campus spreads across the rolling hills of Princeton, NJ, only 1 ½ hours from Manhattan by bus or train. If flying in, choose Newark airport, then a shuttle to campus.

Students have incredible opportunities at Princeton.  One of my lads, drawn to Slavic Studies, spent a life-changing term in St. Petersburgh, Russia.

One thinks also of the Institute of Advanced Study that attracted Einstein as well as other brilliant scholars. An independent postdoctoral research center, not affiliated officially with Princeton University, it does collaborate with it, Rutgers and other institutions.

In contrast to Princeton’s setting, Columbia University is totally urban, in Upper Manhattan, in the Morningside Heights section of New York City.  Founded in 1754 by Royal Charter of George II as King’s College, then transformed to Columbia College during the revolution in 1784, when my Great(x3) Grandfather Gershom Mendes Seixas was a community leader and a trustee.  Finally in 1896, it became Columbia University.  

For the class of 2022, Columbia’s acceptance rate was 5.5%, admitting only 2,214 from a record number of 40,203 applications.

Columbia is the first US school to grant the M.D. degree and administers the Pulitzer Prize annually.  There are twenty schools, including their famous Teachers College and School of Journalism.

A feature of Columbia College is their Core Curriculum wherein all undergraduates take a set of common general education courses, thus ensuring a strong liberal arts foundation in all areas.  Classes are small and debate is encouraged.  In fact, Columbia gives students election day off in anticipation of students’ political involvement, a long-time feature of the school.  

With Broadway on the west side of central campus and Amsterdam Ave on the east, students have ready access to all parts of the New York City area, with many direct flights, and although center campus has a serene atmosphere for sitting under a tree and reading, you may hear a siren in the distance.  Barnard, the all-women’s college, is across the street on the west side of Broadway.

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The Low Library, where you will likely enjoy your information session when you visit.

Formerly known as Rhode Island College, Brown University was founded in colonial Providence in 1764.  The setting for 6,580 lucky undergraduate,  2,255 graduate, and 545 medical students is absolutely beautiful, with the gold dome of the state capital shining in the sun and a sparkling view of the ocean. About 2 hours’ drive south of Boston, the city of Providence has many of its own cultural activities and enjoys direct flights from Toronto.  On the western edge of campus on Benefit Street, one can see “one of the finest cohesive collections of restored 17th and 18th century architecture in the U.S.”  When I last visited, April daffodils were in bloom, adding to the twinkle.

Unlike the others reviewed so far, from its inception Brown accepted students without regard to religious affiliation. It was the first Ivy League engineering program, and, totally unlike Columbia, Brown has no required distribution requirements or courses, and students can take any course for a grade of satisfactory or unrecorded no-credit.  The women’s branch, Pembroke College, totally merged with Brown in 1971.

Sciences are particularly strong, and students having an interest may be fortunate to connect with Annie Cappuccino, Director of Admission/Science Recruitment who has served as my go-to person at Brown for many years.  See her comment below in “myths.”

Close to campus is the Rhode Island School of Design, likely the foremost school of design in the U.S., and artistic students can take classes there as well.

One of the strongest draws of Brown is their Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) wherein highly qualified students complete both their undergraduate bachelor’s degree and medical degree in eight years.  There are only a few others similar in the US open to Canadians, and it’s often called the direct entry medical program or the combined B.S./M.D. Candidates in the running have extremely high marks and scores together with a solid volunteer background in medical settings as well as university-based scientific research experience – a profile not often seen in 17-year-olds.

Though none of my students has ever made that program, those that have enrolled in Brown speak glowingly of their experience. 


Dartmouth College is the 9th oldest, one of the nine colonial colleges chartered before the Amerian Revolution. Dartmouth also trained Congregationalist ministers in its early days, but was also founded as a school to educate Native Americans, albeit in Christian theology.

In a glorious setting on a hill above the Connecticut River, in Hanover, NH, a 2 ½ Dartmouth Coach bus ride from Boston’s South Station or Boston’s Logan Airport, Dartmouth was the last Ivy to admit women, in 1972, and has always had a lively reputation.  Students enjoy snowboarding to class, and winter sports abound in New Hampshire’s long winters. You’ll know they have competitive hockey teams. The college uses a year-round system of four ten-week academic terms, meaning students often  enjoy the glorious summer months while utilizing another term to do an internship.

Dartmouth has five schools:  the undergraduate college of 4,310, a medical school, both an engineering and business school, and a graduate school of advanced studies, for a total of 6,409.

Undergraduate acceptance rate is 8.7% for 2022, and it is the smallest Ivy.  The Greek scene (fraternities) is prominent at Dartmouth too.

A very appealing feature, aside from the wonderful profs, my students have expressed is the First Year Trip option before school begins in September.  According to degree of difficulty one can manage, students get to know each other hiking, fishing, paddling all through New Hampshire.  If you’re a camp lover, this is for you.

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The eighth and final Ivy is Cornell, at the south end of Lake Cayuga in the small but chic city of Ithaca in central New York State, 4 ½ hours’ drive from Toronto via Buffalo, I 90 East, then between Rochester and Syracuse, south on NY-14  and follow the signs.  Founded in 1865 as a land grant college, whereby the federal government gave land to a state to develop an agricultural and mechanical arts college.  At this stage, Cornell has seven undergraduate colleges and seven graduate divisions at the Ithaca campus, with two satellite medical campuses in NYC and Quatar, and Cornell Tech in NYC.

As a land grant college, three of Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges enjoy support from the State University of New York (SUNY) system, specifically the colleges of agricultural and human ecology colleges as well as the school of industrial labor relations. Their graduate school of veterinary medicine is also state supported.

There are 14, 907 undergrads and 8,109 graduate students.  With so many students there is plenty to do on campus, and students don’t worry that Ithaca isn’t Boston. To the class of 2022, Cornell admitted an all-time low of 10.3%, or 5,288 applicants to “the most diverse class in university history.” Students of color — which include underrepresented minorities and Asian-American students — represent 54 percent of the student body.  Students should be wary that classrooms tend to be uphill, and New York winters are long and cold, sometimes making snuggling up in bed very tempting.

I know you are asking:  What is a land grant university founded 100 years after the others doing as an Ivy League school?  And what happened to M.I.T., Cal Tech, Duke, Stanford, University of Chicago, Northwestern….?  Why aren’t these equally competitive schools not Ivy League?  

Answer:  Because Ivy League refers only to the athletic conference to which the eight schools above belong, like the Big Ten in the Midwest and the Pac Ten in the West.    They compete against each other in athletics.  That’s it.


  1. The academics are much tougher at the Ivies than elsewhere. No. Students rate U Chicago and Swarthmore College as about the toughest academically.

  2. I’m a well-rounded person who has won math awards, plays violin competitively, and has performed the lead in ballet for 10 years.  I’m top of my class and my SAT’s are all over 780;  surely I’ll get in.  Not necessarily.  These colleges aim not so much for well-rounded individuals but a well-rounded class.  They want their women’s hockey goalie, the cellist for the orchestra, a published author and the one already doing medical research in high school.  It’s good you have a variety of talents, but they kind of go for specialists.  High marks and scores are still needed, though.

  3. Prime Minister Trudeau knows me sort of and would write a letter of recommendation. No.  Your humble English teacher who can discuss the quality of your mind and your creativity and insights is much preferred.  If you were a child of Trudeau’s, though, that could work.

  4. This is all so overwhelming.  I’ll enroll in Canada and then transfer. No.  Take a look at the freshman retention and graduation rates.  Very few leave, so there are hardly any spaces, if any at all, for transfer students.  The greatest number are accepted first year, and that’s, therefore, your best chance.

  5. Related to that, I worry that if I did get an offer and enroll, I might flunk out.   Not so easy. Because these colleges value their retention rates, it is hard to flunk out.  Just ask for extra time or extra support in a troublesome area, and you’ll likely get it.   Counseling is readily available too.   They accepted you; they want to keep you…. and one day you’ll be a highly successful alumna/us who will donate to your beloved school.  (This cynical comment applies to all schools, not just Ivies).

  6. Brown’s long-time highly respected admissions rep Annie Cappuccino was in Toronto some years ago at an Ivy presentation at UCC.  One Toronto guidance counselor asked her, “Should I advise my Ivy applicants to take easy courses and get high marks, or hard courses and get lower marks?”  Annie’s response:  “Take hard courses and still get high marks.”   That’s still true.

  7. My high school marks too hard.  If I went to different school, I’d get much higher marks.  While this is difficult to assess objectively, you will note the Common Application asks each secondary school report writer for background on their school.  Even if the college has never before heard of your school, the admissions folks will see that 100% of your graduating class enrolls in four-year college/university, including competitive Canadian programs, and you are a member of a special scholars program at your school. Students doing the IB or AP’s will have the advantage of a more objective result, though.  Fortunately for Ontarians, our educational system garners a lot of respect.

  8. I didn’t do too well on one section of my SAT’s or ACT’s.  I hope they don’t notice.   They will, and high 700’s are where all your scores need to be to be competitive.

  9. I’m applying to Ivy League schools because they have need-based aid and my parents don’t want to pay too much.  While it’s true the Ivies are “need blind” in reviewing applications, will not reject you if you have no money,  and they can afford to meet your financial needs, be assured that their financial aid offices are rigorous in determining how much aid they assess your need to be, no matter how much you may want.  

  10. My friend’s son went to Yale on a hockey scholarship.  No.  The hockey coach wanted him, the admissions department agreed he was a strong enough student to be an asset to the community, and the financial aid office decided how much aid he qualified for.

  11. I’ll apply to all of them, and then if I get an offer, I’ll go visit. Not good.  These colleges want to know why you think you are a good match, meaning you have to know something more than it’s a high ranking Ivy.  Which programs or professors interest you most?  If you can say, “When I visited in the fall of 2018 and had an information session with James Minter at Columbia (or Margit Dahl at Yale)…” they know you have a serious interest, liked it, and know a thing or two.

  12. I submitted my application in time, and now a local alumna/us is giving me an interview.  This means I have a good chance of an offer.  Not necessarily.  Where the Ivies can find a local graduate willing to talk to high school students, they’ll grant an interview.  Yes, the person does submit a report and happily recommends someone impressive, but the interview is really to put a face to an application.  And yes, when they ask you why you want to enroll in their school, your online research is good, but having paid a campus visit is better.  Use the opportunity to ask about their experiences too.

  13. I didn’t get around to doing much work in grades 9 and 10, but now I’m doing much better.  Will that count?  Yes, it will, but be warned that your fierce competitors were getting A+’s from the beginning.

What is true: You may find that certain underrepresented minorities, all recruited athletes, and children of wealthy/famous people have an advantage over you in applying. If you fall madly in love with one of these schools, your best bet can be to apply binding early decision—if accepted, I promise to enroll.  This can present a problem if you need financial aid, however, and the offer may not be sufficient.  Just be sure to have back-up options.

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