Are Ivy League Schools Harder Than Other Colleges?

The eight colleges of the Ivy League are generally seen as the most prestigious schools in America. They are known for being more difficult to get into and having higher academic standards than most other colleges.

But what about once you’re in? Are Ivy League schools actually harder than other colleges? Actually, the data shows that Ivy League schools might not be much more difficult than other colleges. In fact, grade inflation is rampant on Ivy League campuses, with half the grades given at Harvard, for instance, being A’s and A-minuses.

A bookshelf at Harvard University.

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Are Ivy League Schools Harder Than Other Colleges?

In the Ivy League, students take on a rigorous workload and are held to high academic standards. But are classes at these schools actually harder than those at other colleges?

For the most part, no. Classes at Ivy League schools aren’t significantly harder than those at other top colleges, or even than those at most reputable flagship state universities. In fact, many people who have served on the faculty at both an Ivy League campus and a non-Ivy League school will tell you that the hardest part about the Ivy League is getting in.

Once you get accepted, the classes aren’t exactly cakewalks, but the workload is manageable. Average graduating GPAs at all eight Ivy League schools are well over 3.0. Some of them, like Brown, graduate most students with a 3.5 GPA or higher. So, students aren’t pulling all-nighters just to squeak by with C’s.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some professors may teach more difficult material than others, and some courses may be more challenging than others. But that’s the case at all colleges, from the Ivy League to community colleges. On the whole, students shouldn’t expect classes at Ivy League schools to be any harder than those at other reputable colleges.

What Ivy League School Has the Hardest Classes?

A student stressing over schoolwork.
A student stressing over schoolwork.

There is no definitive answer to this question as every student’s experience is different. However, some Ivy League schools are generally considered to be more challenging than others.

For example, Harvard University is known for its rigorous academic standards, and it has the lowest acceptance rate of any college or university in the country at just over 3 percent. Students at Harvard are expected to work hard and challenge themselves both inside and outside the classroom. That said, the professors at Harvard aren’t stingy about handing out good grades to students who put forth the effort. Nearly half of all grades given are A’s and A-minuses, and the average student graduates with over a 3.4 GPA.

Princeton University is also renowned for its competitive environment and difficult coursework. At Princeton, grade inflation is known to be much less than at other Ivy League schools like Harvard, but the average graduating GPA is still close to a 3.2 most years.

Other Ivy League schools are known to have specific programs that are exceedingly challenging. For example, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is known as the most prestigious business school in the nation. It has graduated famous businesspeople like Elon Musk and Donald Trump. The program is known to be extremely rigorous.

Cornell, which has the highest acceptance rate in the Ivy League (but still barely 10 percent — much lower than the vast majority of colleges and universities in the country) is known for having a rigorous and stressful engineering program, which between one-fourth and one-third of students on campus are enrolled in.

Which Ivy League School Has the Easiest Classes?

An Easy Listening sign in a library.

While Ivy League schools such as Princeton and UPenn are known for rigorous programs and tough academics, other schools, like Brown and Dartmouth, are known for being a bit more relaxed. But make no mistake — “relaxed” doesn’t mean “easy,” and if you’re lucky enough to get into any Ivy League school, you shouldn’t plan on skating through.

So which Ivy League school has the easiest classes? It’s hard to say definitively, but based on student feedback, it seems that for most majors, Brown and Cornell may have the most manageable workload. Students at these two schools report that they feel like they have enough time to enjoy their college experience without feeling overwhelmed by their coursework.

At Brown in particular, the curriculum is completely open — there are no required core classes that everyone has to take. So, for instance, if you’re majoring in a humanities field and want to avoid math at all costs, you can do so at Brown but not at an Ivy League school like Princeton or Penn. If science isn’t your gig, you can attend four years at Brown and graduate without ever taking a science class, even a “rocks for jocks” type geology class that is known for being an easy A for non-science majors.

Cornell is the largest Ivy League school by far and has the most majors and programs. Also, because it’s so big, class sizes are often larger, particularly in the early years when you’re making your way through your core courses. Larger class sizes sometimes make it easier to coast by without doing a lot of rigorous work. For instance, if attendance isn’t checked, some students work out a deal with a buddy where they each attend every other class and then share notes.

You should be careful about employing a system like this, however. It often leads to a slippery slope of being too lax about your students, which can lead to some disastrous outcomes, like academic probation or even expulsion.

That said, every student is different and what one person finds easy may be challenging for another. If you’re picking a college based primarily on where you’ll have the easiest workload, you’re probably not a strong Ivy candidate to begin with!

What Colleges Are Harder Than the Ivy League?

Stanford University.

There are a number of schools across the United States that are known for having harder classes than the Ivy League. Some of these schools include:

As you can see, many of these schools focus heavily on engineering and STEM. You could also potentially add schools like Georgia Tech to this list, along with the engineering departments at places like the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

STEM-focused universities are notorious for rigorous academics, and if you compared the typical academic path through a top-ranked engineering school side by side with the typical academic path through an Ivy League school, most students would find the engineering path more challenging.

The top liberal arts colleges in the country also have academics that are known to be more challenging than those found in the Ivy League. In particular, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has a reputation for a brutal workload and pull-your-hair-out stress.

Other top liberal arts colleges with academics that are arguably more difficult than the Ivy League include the following, many of them in the prestigious NESCAC conference, which is often regarded as the Ivy equivalent for LACs:

  • Williams College
  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Middlebury College
  • Davidson College

As you can tell, there are a number of schools that have tougher classes than the Ivy League. If you’re looking for a challenge but don’t want to limit yourself to the Ivy League (or you prefer geographic diversity), these schools may be worth considering.

Why Are Ivy League Schools So Elite if Their Classes Aren’t Harder Than Other Colleges?

There are a number of reasons why Ivy League schools are so elite. One reason is that the admissions process is extremely competitive. In order to even be considered for admission to an Ivy League school, students must have stellar grades and test scores. They also need to be well-rounded, with extracurricular activities and community service experience.

Another reason why Ivy League schools are so elite is that they have a lot of resources. They can offer small class sizes, world-renowned faculty, and state-of-the-art facilities. They also have large endowments, which allows them to provide generous financial aid packages to students.

Finally, Ivy League schools have a long tradition of excellence. They have been around for centuries and have educated some of the most successful people in the world. This reputation adds to their prestige and makes them even more competitive.

Are Ivy League Schools Harder Than Other Colleges? The Bottom Line

Although classes at Ivy League schools are certainly challenging, there is no evidence that they’re any harder than classes at other colleges. And actually, certain schools, including top-ranked STEM universities and liberal arts colleges, are known for having curricula much more difficult than the Ivy League.

Not to mention, the students who get accepted to Ivy League schools are among the brightest and most talented in the world. Even if the classes are difficult, these students have proven with their pre-college accomplishments that they’re up for the task. So, if you get accepted to an Ivy League school, you should go in with complete confidence that the coursework won’t be too difficult for you.

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