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Get Into An Ivy League School As An International Student

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Ivy League schools are among the most elite and popular colleges globally, conferring prestige and name recognition upon their graduates around the world. For international students, attending an Ivy offers a clear path to career success no matter where they end up working.

The Ivies pride themselves on enrolling a significant portion of overseas students, with percentages that range from 9% (Yale) to 17.8% (Brown) and an all-Ivy average of about 12%.

As the President of Yale put it,

"I affirm Yale’s steadfast commitment to our international students and scholars; they are vital to the university community."

In addition to great academic preparation at secondary schools from Sao Paulo to Singapore, international students bring a diversity of experiences that enrich student life at the schools they attend. If you are considering applying from outside the United States, here is what you will need to know about Ivy League admission and the application process for international students.

How Hard Is It To Get Into An Ivy League As An International Student?

The short answer is this: hard.

To start with, it is difficult for any student to get into an Ivy League school, no matter where they come from. Acceptance rates at most are well under 10%. For example,

  • Harvard's is just 5.3%

  • Columbia's is 6.1%

  • Yale is 6.5%

  • Princeton's is 7%

As an international applicant, you will be competing against a very large pool of applicants representing the world's best students. Unfortunately, being an international applicant generally does not offer any type of significant advantage over other applicants.

But do not let this discourage you. The same winning strategies that help U.S. students gain admission can work for you too. As we've discussed in our other posts, these include strong grades in the most advanced classes offered by your school, good standardized test scores, and high intellectual vitality and angularity.

What do we mean by those last two concepts, intellectual vitality, and angularity?

Intellectual vitality combines creativity, curiosity, motivation, and innovative thinking; qualities that are essentially a recipe for asking challenging questions and advancing the state of knowledge in whatever field you choose.

This can take the form of scientific and technological breakthroughs; unique artistic or literary works; or new solutions to economic, social, or environmental problems in your society.

Angularity is the ability to focus on one academic or creative field with intense energy and commitment, which leads to the types of accomplishments that Ivy League and Ivy-level schools prize in their students.

This brings us to a special advantage you will have as an international applicant: your access to a vastly different set of academic, creative, and cultural opportunities compared with the typical U.S. student.

In creating your personal portfolio of activities and accomplishments, take full advantage of all the unique cultural resources available to you. Conduct research in a field that is especially relevant to your home country.

Volunteer your time with organizations working on problems specific to your society, or even better, establish your own organization to focus on them. Solve technological challenges that arise specifically from the systems and infrastructure where you live.

Through engaging in these activities, you would not only be making a difference where it matters most—at home—but you would also be showing an Ivy League admissions officer the dynamic international perspective you could bring to their school.

Foreign Student Acceptance Rates In The Ivy League

Ivy League schools do not generally report separate international admission rates, though we can deduce that they are quite low based on the high numbers of international applicants and the actual numbers of international students who are admitted.

Does this mean that these schools have a specific quota for how many international students they will actually admit? The answer is...complicated. To start with, "quota" is a word that colleges tend to avoid at all costs when discussing their admissions policies.

For example, Harvard describes its policies for considering international students by saying this:

"There are no quotas or limits of any kind at any point in the admissions process. A student's chances for admission and financial aid are not affected by citizenship or by the location of the school that the student attends."

Brown's statement on the subject is similar:

"There are no quotas of any kind for any of our applicants. We value the presence of international students in the Brown community."

That all certainly sounds fair and impartial, but the fact is that Ivy League and most other elite schools are still looking for a particular mix of students, with the goal of achieving a diverse student body that is representative of society as a whole. If they did not, certain ethnic groups and nationalities would be vastly overrepresented.

In this sense, admissions committees do have an unspoken or informal quota system in mind when making their decisions. In considering an international applicant, they are weighing how that student would contribute to the diversity of their campus and whether they are from a group that tends to be overrepresented or underrepresented in the applicant pool.

Applicants from East Asian and South Asian backgrounds are two examples of overrepresented groups who face more competition and lower chances of admission than applicants from underrepresented groups.

Do Ivy League Schools Recruit International Students?

Yes, they do, but most recruitment is focused on athletes who can contribute to the success of the school's sports programs. While sports do not play as central a role in the culture of the Ivy League as they do in other collegiate athletic conferences, these schools still engage in the active recruitment of student-athletes.

But athletic prowess alone is not enough: these schools have scholarly reputations to uphold, so strong academic qualifications are also a high priority. If you score well on both the soccer field and your exams, you may be hearing from an Ivy League recruiter.

This is particularly true for sports where the most talented players are often found outside the U.S. For example, you will see a lot of Canadian hockey players skating on Ivy League rinks.

International athletes recruited by Ivies also benefit from personal guidance by coaches who can help steer them through the application process. As an Australian track and field star recruited to Harvard described his experience,

"I didn’t really know what the SAT was or a GPA or anything like that. So, through recruiting, they helped me actually figure out what the process is to come to college in the United States."

The vast majority of international students aren't recruited and must go through the normal application process.

In general, there are no special requirements that international students need to fulfill beyond those required of American applicants. You are, however, expected to be proficient in English, submit your application in English, and score well on the same standardized tests (SAT or ACT) as U.S. applicants.

Since a high score on the SAT or ACT demonstrates fluency in English, taking a proficiency test such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is not usually required of international applicants.

If you do want to prove your mastery of English, you can still take the TOEFL, or another proficiency exam such as Duolingo, and submit your score with your application. Keep in mind that a TOEFL score of 100 or above is considered proficient, so if you score lower than that, you could actually hurt your chances of admission by submitting your score.

By now, we've clarified the application process for international students and offered some effective strategies to maximize your chances of getting into an Ivy League school. If it seems a bit challenging and competitive, just remember it is like that for everyone, and you do not have to do it alone.

At Bentham Admissions, we have helped students from around the world successfully navigate the application process and proudly take their place in the Ivy League, and we would be honored to help you as well. With our SAT private tutoring or ACT private tutoring, we have been able to prepare students for the next step in their lives.


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