Elite and exclusive: Universities with the toughest admissions criteria

hardest universities to get into
Universities look at more than just academic scores when enrolling students. Source: Timothy A. Clary/AFP

Harvard University, University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Cambridge.

We have all heard of it these world-class universities. A dream for many international students looking to study abroad. 

However, while these universities are some of the best in the world, they are also some of the hardest universities to get into. 

While you need excellent grades to get in, to be accepted at one of these universities, you will be judged on much more than your academics.

If you are up for the challenge, check out the hardest universities to get into in the UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

hardest universities to get into

Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, attended the University of Oxford to further his studies in economics. Source: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

Hardest universities to get into in the UK:

1. University of Oxford

As the best university in the UK, it is no surprise that the University of Oxford has the highest entry standards among all institutions in the country. 

The university is extremely selective with admissions, with a low acceptance rate of just 9% for international students. 

To join this exclusive group, you first need to have the following:

  • 571 UCAS points
  • A Level grades of at least AAA
  • GPA of 3.75 out of 4.0

2. University of Cambridge

Coming in second place as the second hardest university to get into in the UK is the University of Cambridge. 

Renowned as one of the world’s oldest universities and leading academic institutions, Cambridge has high standards for its applicants.

This is no surprise for a university that has produced 90 Nobel Prize winners.

The university has an acceptance rate of 20% for international students.

To get into this excellent university, you will first need to have:

  • An A Levels score of AAA
  • A GPA of 3.7 
  • 571 UCAS points
hardest universities to get into

Barack Obama is one of the many successful people to graduate from Harvard University. Source: Joshua Lott/AFP

Hardest universities to get into in the US:

1. Stanford University

Standford University has been recognised as the hardest university in the US to get into for several years now. 

As one of the best universities in the US and the alma mater of 60 Nobel Laureates, 17 astronauts and 30 billionaires, it is no surprise that getting into Stanford is difficult. 

With an acceptance rate of 3.9%, it is even more selective than MIT, Caltech and Yale.

To be considered for admission into this prestigious university, you first need: 

  • A score of 1570 for the SAT or a 35 for the ACT
  • A 3.9 GPA or higher
  • An excellent personal essay 

2. Harvard University

No surprises here. Getting into Harvard is hard.

However, the good news is that the acceptance rate for international students is higher than that of US students. 

Harvard University’s acceptance rate of international students is 14.8% for the class of 2026.

You need at least the following to apply to study at Harvard: 

  • SAT score: Minimum score of 1500+ in SAT
  • GPA of 4.18 or higher
  • 7.5 or higher on the IELTS test

The university doesn’t just look at academics during admission. Instead, Harvard assesses each student as a whole, considering their character and academic potential.

Here, admissions officers rely heavily on letters of recommendation, college interviews, and extracurriculars to identify outstanding students.

hardest universities to get into

Former Justice of the High Court of Australia Michael Kirby earned his law degree from the University of Sydney. Source: Truth Leem/AFP

Hardest universities to get into in Australia:

1. University of Sydney

The University of Sydney was established over 200 years ago and has since produced five Nobel Laureates and seven Australian Prime Ministers.

However, getting into the University of Sydney is no walk in the park. Less than one in three applicants get accepted.

You will first need to meet the requirements, which include the following:

  • A GPA of 3.85
  • An IELTS overall score of 6.5

2. University of New South Wales

The University of New South Wales ranks #45 globally in the QS World University Rankings 2023.

Some sources say its acceptance rate is 30%. Another puts the figure at 76%.

Ensure you have these scores before applying to study at UNSW: 

  • IELTS 6.0
  • maintain a minimum percentage of 85
hardest universities to get into

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives a thumbs up as he arrives for New York University’s commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Source: Drew Angerer/AFP

Hardest universities to get into in Canada:

1. McMaster University 

McMaster University has one of the most stringent admission requirements compared to other institutions in Canada. 

It is one of the most prestigious universities in the country and has a low acceptance rate of 13.3% for international students

Before you can apply, you must first have a minimum GPA of 88% or higher, making it one of the hardest universities to get into in Canada.

2. University of Ottawa

The University of Ottawa is one of the top universities in Canada and is the largest bilingual university in the country. 

The university’s admissions are highly selective for international students, with an acceptance rate of 24%.

To be considered for admission into an undergraduate programme, students must first have a minimum GPA of four.

hardest universities to get into

Outgoing New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern gives her valedictory speech in parliament in Wellington. Source: Mark Coote/AFP

Hardest universities to get into in New Zealand:

1. University of Auckland 

While getting into a university in New Zealand is not that difficult, the University of Auckland has one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country. 

The university has an acceptance rate of 45%, with only about four out of 10 applicants receiving admission. 

2. University of Canterbury

The University of Canterbury has a moderate selection rate of 50%. However, it falls under one of the hardest universities to get into in New Zealand due to its admission requirements. 

To gain acceptance into the university, you will need an A-levels score of AAA and an IELTS score of no less than six. 

However, being an exceptional student doesn’t guarantee you admission into a prestigious university. This was the case for Hamza Alsamraee, who has a 4.2 GPA, SAT score of 1560 out of 1600, is an author of two successful books and has a string of accolades.

Despite his impressive accomplishments, Alsamraee was put on the waitlist and even rejected from some top universities, including Harvard, MIT, Yale and Princeton.

It begs the question, what do university admission officers look for?

Are grades and extracurriculars all that matter?

Getting accepted into a university depends on a number of factors.

Unis will consider your academic grades, extracurricular activities and English proficiency scores.

But that’s not all admissions officers are looking for.

They’re also looking at your essays, your performance at interviews, and other factors that may be out of your control.

How much weight do college essays and admission interviews carry?

This may be shocking for many to hear, but your college essay can account for up to 25% of your overall application.

This is not far behind your extracurriculars which account for 30% and is higher than the 20% that grades carry. 

Unis use your college essay to get to know you and assess what you could bring to the school. So remember to take this opportunity to stand out by sharing your experiences and perspectives. 

While admission interviews do not carry as much weight as your grades and extracurricular activities, it is still a factor that many universities take into consideration. 

An admissions interview will allow universities to get to know you better as they ask you questions about your interests, goals and experiences. 

Though not the sole deciding factor, how you perform during your interviews can help you stand out from other applicants.

This was the case for Dr. Harun Khan when he was applying to study at Imperial College London and Harvard University. Excelling in these areas gave him two prestigious scholarships to pursue his studies.

Dr Khan is one of only three people to hold both a Fulbright Award and a Kennedy Scholarship. Aside from submitting his transcripts, test scores, essays and references he had to undergo an interview when shortlisted. 

“The interviews took place in central London and were the most challenging aspect of the process. For example, the interview for the Kennedy Scholarship was led by the UK Chief Scientific Advisor for 2017, along with nine of his colleagues, all appointed by the UK government. This also included a representative from MIT and Harvard University. The interviews for both awards were broad and ranged from questions about my research to international affairs,” he shares. 

But no matter how difficult, don’t let these factors stop you from applying. Harvard and Standford graduate Andrew Loh says, “I challenge you to ask yourself: in 30 years, which would you regret more – (1) applying and perhaps not getting in, or (2) not applying? In (1), you’ve done everything in your power, whatever the outcome. In (2), you might wonder if these universities might have accepted you for the rest of your life.”

hardest universities to get into

To get into some of the top universities, you need excellent academics and extracurriculars. Source: Brandon Bell/AFP

Frequently asked questions about the hardest universities to get into:

1. What is the hardest university to get into in the world?

Stanford University consistently tops the list as one of the hardest universities to get into. It has maintained this top spot for several years now. 

This is hardly a surprise, as the university’s alumni include 60 Nobel Laureates, 17 astronauts and 30 billionaires. Many of the biggest names in Silicon Valley also call Standford their alma mater. 

In 2021, Stanford had an acceptance rate of 3.9%, which is the lowest of all universities.

To get into the university, you need to have excellent academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and contributions to the community. 

Personal essays are also a main factor in the admissions process at Standford. Each essay is scrutinised in detail to get a sense of how a student can contribute to the school. 

2. What is the #1 most prestigious university in the world?

According to Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2023, Oxford University ranks number one in the world. 

This is the seventh year in a row that Oxford earned the number-one spot on the list. 

3. What University has the lowest acceptance rate?

Stanford University takes the top spot for this as well, with the lowest acceptance rate among all universities. 

In 2022, the university had over 47,451 applicants; of that, only 2,071 students were accepted.

4. Which is the easiest uni to get into?

According to CBS News, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco is one of the easiest institutions to get into. The university has a high acceptance rate of 100%

5. What is the hardest uni degree to get?

The difficulty of a university degree is subjective and is not easily measured. This is because the difficulty of an area of study depends on the interests and passions of each individual student. 

For those who hate math, a university degree that is heavily dependent on mathematical skills will be difficult for them. 

However, those who enjoy maths may find this degree easier than a theatre arts degree.