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Chances are you’ve heard about ivy league schools at some point in your life, whether you saw one in the movies or you were told about them while looking at post-secondary options.

Many students have fantasized about walking through the historic colonial-style buildings of the Harvard campus or admiring the changing leaves on a stroll through Yale’s lucious campus in the fall. But what does ivy league even mean and what makes these schools so special?

When choosing which university you want to attend after high school, you may have your own dreams about gaining acceptance to an elite ivy school. However, making a choice to apply to an ivy league university means you are taking on the challenge of trying to get into a school with extremely competitive admissions criteria and high-caliber academic standards. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible if you have the drive and determination.

Before you go and submit that application, it’s important to understand what an ivy league university is and why they’re so hard to get into. This guide to all things ivy league schools will answer all the questions you may have about these prestigious higher institutions.


If you read our list of the top 25 universities in the world, you likely saw many of the ivy league schools come up. But you still may not be entirely sure what ivy league means and how this concept even started.

The term “ivy league” is used to describe a collection of eight private universities in the United States that are considered to be the most prestigious and elite universities in the country, as well as among the top schools in the world. They are also sometimes referred to as The Ancient Eight because all but one of them were founded before the American Revolution, and they are therefore among the first universities ever established in the country. There are eight schools in total that are designated as ivy league, and we’ll tell you more about those schools in detail further down.

Ivy league universities are well known for their elite status, prestigious reputation, academic accomplishments by both faculty and graduates, and involvement in NCAA sports. It’s also worth noting that these institutions also receive substantial endowments and funding because of their prestigious reputations and the caliber of academic achievements that are accomplished through their research facilities.


Where did the concept of ivy league schools come from, anyway? We love a good quick history lesson, so here is a brief background on how the ivy league designation came about.

It all began long before the United States was even a concept. Seven out of the eight ivy league institutions were already established as universities well before the United States Constitution was signed in 1777. Their historic standing has contributed to the elite reputation of these schools, and history is a key component in shaping their prestige.

Only two other universities in the United States are as old as the ivy league institutions: Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey and The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. However, Rutgers and The College of William & Mary aren’t ivy league because they are public schools. These two schools and the ivy league universities (except for Cornell) comprise the Colonial Colleges, a designation given to the nine universities in the United States that were established in the Thirteen Colonies before the American Revolution. For this reason, many of these schools are located in New England and all of the Colonial Colleges are located on the east coast.

In the pre-independence days, most universities and higher learning institutions were operated and founded based on religious sponsorship and affiliation, as religion had a strong role in education around this time. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth were founded by Calvinists. The University of Pennsylvania and Columbia were founded by the Church of England. Brown was founded by Baptists but was open to people of other religious affiliations, and Cornell was nonsectarian (largely due to its non-colonial establishment). Each school was opened with a financial endowment by wealthy benefactors, most of which were settlers and early colonists.


While these schools were established long before the United States was an independent country, the term “ivy league” didn’t actually come about until 1954. That year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletic competition for Division I was born and these schools gained a reputation for elite athletic performance in sports. “Ivy league” was coined to refer to the conference and the eight schools that comprised Division I. At first, it was used solely in connotation with sports, but soon became synonymous with the prestige, elitism, and academic achievement of these schools.

“Planting the ivy” was a term used at these schools well before NCAA sports came around, which is likely where the inspiration for “ivy league” was taken. As these universities have older architecture, ivy branches covered the walls in a signature, sophisticated look. Students began to incorporate the ivy into ceremonies where they would plant ivy branches to celebrate graduation. These celebrations took place as far back as 1850.

Before long, spectators and guests began travelling long distances to come and watch these teams face off. With that, the popularity of college football in the United States was officially underway, and some of the teams began to play in New York City to make it easier for fans to come.

Once the NCAA got involved and these schools started to receive more funding and more popularity in both athletics and academics, the admission standards and expectations became more competitive. This is how these institutions began to develop their prestigious reputations.

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