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The Ivy League – A Guide for Masters Students

Written by Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse

If you're considering Masters study in the United States, it's likely you've already come across the term ‘Ivy League’ – gaining entry to this elite group of universities is the ambition of students the world over. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the what the Ivy League is, and what you’ll need to do to be in with a chance of securing a spot at one of these top colleges.

What is the Ivy League?

The Ivy League is a group of eight prestigious, high-ranking universities in the United States. They are each renowned for world-leading research, outstanding graduate outcomes and highly competitive admission. The members of the Ivy League are:

  • Harvard University
  • Yale University
  • Princeton University
  • Columbia University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Brown University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Cornell University

A degree from anyone of these universities is sure to open the door to innumerable career opportunities, so they should be considered by anyone looking to study a Masters in the United States!

How was the League formed?

The Ivy League institutions hold an international reputation for academic excellence. So, it might surprise you to learn that the origin of this elite grouping doesn’t have much to do with academia at all.

The Ivy League is, in fact, an athletic conference for intercollegiate sports. It was legally formed in 1954, though an unofficial agreement between the universities relating to matters of sport dates back considerably further than this (the earliest recorded reference to such an arrangement can be found in a 1933 issue of the New York Herald Tribune).

Pen wasn’t put to paper until 1945 when the presidents of the eight school signed the Ivy Group Agreement, setting out the financial, athletic and academic standards that each football team would have to adhere to. In 1954, the agreement was extended to include all intercollegiate sports, in what is considered the official inception of the Ivy League.

Where did the name 'Ivy League' come from?

Why the Ivy League is so named is a surprisingly tricky question to answer. Some have suggested that the original Ivy League consisted of just four colleges (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth), and that its name was derived from the Roman numeral for four (IV), but there isn’t a whole lot of evidence for this.

The more well-subscribed theory is that the name was coined in 1937 by Caswell Adams, a sportswriter for a New York newspaper who supposedly complained about being so frequently required to cover the ‘ivy-covered’ universities in his reporting, dubbing them the Ivy League (brick walls decorated with ivy vines were a common feature of older, more prestigious American colleges – in fact students at many such institutions participated in annual ivy-planting ceremonies during the 19th century). The term may have been initially used in frustration, but it stuck!

How did the Ivy League become what it is today?

So, how did an intercollegiate athletic conference go on to acquire such high academic status? To start with, the prestige of the Ivy League colleges predates the founding of the league itself. Seven of the eight member universities (excluding Cornell) have existed since before the American Revolution, and Harvard is the oldest university in the United States, founded in 1636.

Intellectual merit was, in fact, a founding principle of the league; one of the main intentions behind the original Ivy agreement was to ensure that sports did not take priority over academics. To this day, none of the eight universities award athletic scholarships, so that only the most academically qualified students gain admission.

Over the years, the Ivy League universities have garnered the popularity and funding that have made them so highly sought-after today. This was initially due to the success of their athletic programmes but has since been a result of their increasing focus on academic rigour. They have become known for producing highly successful and well-respected alumni, including eight of the nine current Supreme Court justices, and (almost) every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan (Joe Biden bucked this trend!). Enjoying sizeable financial endowments from these same alumni has also allowed the Ivy League schools to boast some of the most well-funded educational programmes in the country.

Why apply?

There’s a reason why places at Ivy League schools are in such high demand. With some of the largest financial endowments in higher education (Yale’s total endowment is $31.2 billion as of June 2020), Ivy League schools are equipped with world-class facilities and employ some of the most reputable academics in their fields.

The pay-off of attending an Ivy League school doesn’t stop at graduation. Once you’ve completed your degree, you’ll become part of an extensive alumni network, giving you the opportunity to connect with influential graduates for life.

University groupings in the UK

The UK, the USA's fellow big player in the world of international study, has its own fair share of elite higher education 'clubs' including the Russell Group and world-famous pairing Oxbridge (consisting of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge). To find out more about the UK's Ivy League equivalent, check out our Oxbridge guide.

Are Ivy League schools really the 'best' in the United States?

The short answer to this question is that all Ivy League universities are excellent, but not all excellent universities are Ivy Leagues. If your main exposure to United States higher education is through popular culture, with its preponderance of TV and film characters bending over backwards in the hopes of ‘going Ivy’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that gaining admission to one of these eight colleges is the be-all and end-all of academic attainment.

As we’ve already covered, the Ivy League is first and foremost a group of colleges that banded together for the purpose of playing competitive sports. Which schools were and weren’t included is, to an extent, an accident of history (and geography – the eight Ivy League schools are all located nearby to each other, hence why it made logistical sense for them to form an athletic conference in the first place!).

The Ivy League does tend to rank very highly in the university league tables, with five institutions in the top 20 of the 2022 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. That said, it’s worth noting that of the ten universities ranked mostly highly in the United States, seven are not in the league. Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, are of similar repute (and have comparably rigorous admission standards) despite not technically being Ivy League colleges.


Ivy League Rankings – 2022
University THE 2022 QS 2022 ARWU 2021
Harvard University =2 5 1
Princeton University 7 20 6
Yale University 9 =14 11
Columbia University 11 19 8
University of Pennsylvania 13 16 15
Cornell University 22 21 12
Brown University 64 60 101-150
Dartmouth College =99 =191 301-400
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

The Public Ivies

The term ‘public Ivy’ was coined in 1985 by Richard Moll, an admissions officer at Yale, who named eight public institutions he considered to be of a similar educational standard the original Ivy League, without expensive private fees. They are:

The list has since been expanded to include 30 institutions – a reminder that high quality education in the USA doesn’t always have to carry a hefty price tag!

How to get into the Ivy League for a Masters?

Ivy League schools are famed for their competitive admission – at the higher end of the scale, Brown accepted 19.4% of graduate applicants for 2018-19. At the lower end, Princeton Graduate School’s acceptance rate for 2021-22 was just 8.8%.

Getting into an Ivy League graduate school is tough, but far from impossible. Generally, entry requirements will include the following:

  • A U.S. Bachelors degree, or international equivalent
  • Transcripts from all the undergraduate and graduate institutions you have attended: admissions departments will want to see a breakdown of your academic achievements rather than just an overall result, so you grades will need to be consistently high!
  • Letters of recommendation: While most graduate programmes in the U.S. will only require one letter of recommendation, Ivy League schools generally require three.
  • Personal statement: This is sometimes referred to in the U.S. as a ‘statement of academic purpose’.
  • Test scores: Ivy League schools will require applicants to take at least one standardized advanced study test. You will usually have to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination), as well as additional tests such as the GMAT, LSAT or MCAT, depending on the discipline you intend to study.
  • Resume/CV: A summary of all your academic, professional and voluntary achievements

Certain courses may have additional requirements, such as attending an interview, submitting a portfolio, or providing a writing sample.

Tuition fees at Ivy League graduate schools

It will probably come as no surprise that as well being the most prestigious universities in the United States, the Ivy League schools are also amongst the most expensive. A Masters degree at an Ivy League school costs an average of $45,000-60,000 per year (compared to a nationwide average of $20,000-35,000). Here are some typical annual fees you can expect to pay at each institution:

Ivy League Masters Fees in 2022
University Average Annual Tuition Fees
Harvard University$50,928
Yale University$45,700
Princeton University$56,010
Columbia University$31,420
Dartmouth College$43,932
Brown University$60,944
University of Pennsylvania$61,752
Cornell University$29,500

These fees may be quite a bit higher than you’d pay at other U.S. colleges, but all eight schools do have financial aid opportunities available for international students. You can read our guide to Masters funding in the USA for more information on financing your studies.

To sum up...

The Ivy League universities are usually amongst the first to attract the attention of prospective Masters students, and for good reason. A degree from anyone of the eight member colleges will provide you with both a world-class education and career opportunities well beyond the completion of your programme. However, none of these benefits are exclusive to the Ivy League. When choosing a university, it’s always best to assess each institution on its own merit, as well as how well it suits your personal goals!

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Last Updated: 16 November 2021