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What Is an Ivy League School? Probably Not What You Think

Princeton University — one of the eight Ivy League colleges

Chances are you’ve heard the term “Ivy League” — most commonly used to describe some of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the United States.

Most people associate this term with highly esteemed universities that are difficult to get into, rooted deep in history and home to some of the most brilliant minds in academia. They’re also all conveniently located in the Northeast, too.

But, what are they really?

The real reason behind the grouping of these eight universities might surprise you.

The Schools

The Ivys are comprised of:


Despite being known for their high caliber of academics and tough admission standards, the Ivy League category is technically a collegiate athletic conference of which these eight private schools belong. Yep – it all originally boiled down to sports.

Each of the eight elite schools have rich academic histories, with Harvard dating back as far as 1636. But, the actual Ivy League itself was not established until 1954 as an athletic conference.  Today, though, the term is used much more broadly and has much less to do with sports.

Within the history of the schools themselves lie deep rivalries, too. From football to academics and arguments over which school is more exclusive than the others, Ivy students tend to be a proud and loyal group, extending far past graduation.


Despite the elite nature of the Ivy League, they don’t necessarily include the “best schools.” Confused? We can explain.

While all eight universities rank in Niche’s top 20 Best Colleges in America, Stanford and MIT outrank Harvard, which is the top-rated Ivy, and Rice University, Bowdoin College, Cal Tech and others beat out certain Ivies as well. So, just because they’re Ivy League doesn’t mean they’re the best of the best.


According to Niche data, the Ivy with the smallest overall acceptance rate is Harvard, at just 5%. The “easiest” to get into, relatively speaking, is Cornell, which welcomes  14% of it applicant pool.

See also: List of Ivy League Schools, Ranked and Reviewed

The Little Ivies

Not to be confused with the “official” eight Ivies, the term “Little Ivies” is often used to refer to a group of small liberal arts colleges scattered throughout the Northeast. These 15 schools located throughout Pennsylvania through Maine include:

The Little Ivies, like the Ivy League schools, are rigorous in academics and admissions criteria. However, they provide smaller and more intimate learning environments, still with prestige.

And keep in mind, Ivy League schools aren’t the only game in town. Plenty of other elite colleges give Ivies a run for their money in the popularity contest.

See also: What Is a Liberal Arts College?

Want to go to a top-rated school? Start here

Author: Erin Nicole Celletti

Erin Celletti is a freelance journalist and the Director of Communications at Integration Charter Schools. With seven years of classroom teaching and leadership experience, Erin has a BA in Journalism from Quinnipiac University, as well as a M.S.Ed. in Childhood and Special Education from St. John's University, and a M.S.Ed. in School and Building Leadership from Wagner College. Erin lives in Hoboken, NJ with her husband, and baby girl on the way. Her work has also appeared in BRIDES, Teen Vogue, Allure, and TODAY Parents.