How Difficult is Harvard, Princeton, or Oxford?

Though I have a grad degree and went to a good state university, I’ve always wondered how I might have fared at one of these Ivy League/top Brit schools. Yes, I know the average SAT score is sky high and most students graduated near the top of their respective classes, but I wonder: were I to have taken a few courses, could I have hacked it?

Is the difficulty level such that a good state university student would still get blown out of the water? Is the level of analysis and sheer difficulty really that high?

(Please don’t cite instances of political types who you believe are idiots yet nevertheless graduated. I’m hoping for more thoughtful responses.)

You’d do fine. They are very very tricky to get into & expensive too.

Well, there the old saying that “The hardest part about getting an Ivy League degree is getting in”

Since you ban political types, I know a girl who is at an Ivy League school right now, who had neither sky high SATs nor was she in the top 10% of her high school class, and she’s doing average.

On another note, Harvard has something like a 98% graduation rate (i.e. 98% of freshmen graduate within 5 years). This can be taken two ways: 1) everyone they let in is so smart that they can’t help but graduate (ha! I have a hard time believing that, there’s always some people who can’t hack it) or 2) getting in is the hardest part.


(who got in, but didn’t go.)

I went to Columbia University [also Ivy League for those who don’t know].

I did graduate first in my high school class, but the state of Alabama is not exactly known for high academic standards. My SATs were in the top 15%.

I did not take a part time job so I had time to study. I studied hard. I took 6 to 7 classes per semester. One or two per semester were introductory level classes outside my major [I like to learn]. I made one D, a couple Cs, the rest mostly As and Bs.

For graduate school, I went to Stanford. It was MUCH easier than Columbia.

If you only took a few courses at an Ivy League school while attending a state school, you would find them very difficult, mainly due to different expectations from the professors. If you transferred to an Ivy League school, and worked hard, you could do it.

I think their high graduation rates is due to students wanting to graduate. State schools get more students who don’t know what they want to do and just go to school until they decide.

How about MIT and CalTech? I’ve always thought of those 2 as having the difficulty level the OP is talking about. Is that a myth too?

Can’t add anything concrete except that I got accepted and didn’t go to MIT (money).

I would like to offer the opinion that the difficulty level has very little to do with what school you’re considering, but more with the specific program within the school. For example, my school University of Illinois, has one of the strictest standards for gaining admission among state schools, but those standards are low compared to Ivy League schools. I suppose the explanation I’d give for this is that on average the admissions standards for the U of I are lower, but the admissions standards for the engineering programs are equal. In that same vein I’d argue that the classes within the engineering programs are equally challenging as well. The fact of that matter is that a large portion of the students in the Illinois Poli-Sci program couldn’t think their way out of a wet paper bag, and would fail quickly in any Ivy League school, but they also would fail in the U of I Engineering programs too.

Long story shorter, I’d say that program for program the challenges are equal. However most of the programs in the Ivy League schools are top rate, compared to the top state schools that likely are only strong in a select number of fields. So, if you were to pick a student at Illinois at random and put him in a major at random at MIT more liekly than not he’d fail. If you picked a student from Harvard at random and stuck him in a curiculum at random in Illinois his chances of succeding are higher. In contrast if you took a Civil Enginner from Illinois and put him in a Civil Engineering program at MIT, and vice versa, both would probably not miss a beat.

When one considers the reputation at stake, Ivy League schools get the very best professors in every field. So with every course being one of the best, a student taking a broad variety of classes is probably going to never have a “blow-off” class. Unlike state schools where you may work your ass of on the classes within your major, you always have one class or two that is really pretty simple. In that perspective Ivy League schols may be harder, but the schools in a good field are all teaching the same thing.

One might also consider that if the prof uses a bell curve, the class at an Ivy League would be tougher.

SmackFu, yes, MIT and CalTech are comparable to the Ivy League schools, but they are strictly technical schools, focusing on engineering and related courses. Ivy League schools are the opposite usually not having engineering programs of any kind.

So, I’d argue that no, Ivy League schools are not harder because “the level of analysis and sheer difficulty really (is) that high”, in a competitive state school the levels of study and topics are the same. But as a total experience there are aspects which support the idea that Ivy League students are challenged more. Of course there are indeed state schools (and private schools) who’s standards flat out suck, and don’t compare to the education given at any of the more respected schools.

Knowledge is knowledge, where you get it doesn’t really matter.

Look my college, UCSD, 75% of first year students don’t make
it to the fourth year. In '99 there were 26,000 applications & 3,000 were accepted. Frankly, I think one would have an easier time at Harvard.

I work in Admin & Policy at a private university (not an Ivy), and we focus on these issues a lot at the office. Omniscient brought up a lot of very excellent points about the differences betweeen the Ivy League and competitive publics (did you ever consider a career in higher ed?).

There’s an idea about public universities that tends to be true, that is, you get out of it what you put into it. A good student, one who is motivated, participates in class, takes opportunities to meet and interact with professors and advisors outside the classroom, reads at least some of the suggested-but-not-required reading, takes advantage of study abroad programs or internships, etc. is going to get an excellent education at almost any public institution, and would most likely also do well at an Ivy. It’s not that the top of the standards is set so much higher at an Ivy, or other elite private, it’s that the bottom end is pushed up. A student who puts forward a “fair” effort might get a fair education at most publics, but that student would crash and burn in the Ivy League.

Size is also a factor. State universities are enormous institutions. Once they accept the best applicants, they must fill the remaining places with other students, so you might end up with some bozos in your class. Because the Ivy League schools are relatively small, and their reputations guarantee a huge applicant pool, they are never in the position where they must accept students to simply fill spaces. Actually, I should say seldom. For the first time, there is a growing sense that the Ivy League schools need to be more competitive in their recruiting in order to enroll the best students.

It’s hard to look at attrition to determine either the quality of student, or the quality of education at a school. There are about a million reasons why students drop out, and schools spend quite a bit of time and money to figure out what they are, and how to stop it. Did you ever hear of a freshman orientation, where students are told by the Dean to look at the student to their right, and to their left, and that one of those people will drop out? This might be a good scare tactic to use to motivate freshman, but in reality, schools work very hard to lower their attrition. It’s simply good business.

Ugh. This is far more than anyone wants to know about higher ed. On a final note, my office is currently working on a survey of the faculty, that among other things, asks them to rank the most challenging undergraduate programs in the US (excluding the tech schools, like MIT). The #1 response is not an Ivy, but the University of Chicago.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. They have different specialties, but they are not as exclusive as you suggest. For example, Cal Tech offers degrees in the humanities and social sciences, MIT offers degrees in the humanities, social sciences and arts. Harvard offers degrees in applied sciences and engineering, and Dartmouth offers degrees in engineering.

(First, my history as it relates to the OP: I received my B.S. (physics) from Caltech. I spent one term of my senior year at Cambridge University. I am now at Princeton pursuing my Ph.D. (physics).)

The short answer to “how well would I do?” is, “It depends.” There are huge differences among same-tier universities. Also, there are often huge differences between the undergraduate and graduate programs at a given university. And, there are huge differences among departments within a university.

Ivy league: Undergraduates come in two flavors. 1) smart; will take difficult classes; will be challenged. 2) average; in easier departments; spend time in bars. Of course, such generalizations don’t work across the board, but for undergraduates at Princeton, college is basically as hard as they feel like making it. When it comes to graduate programs, though, these schools get the top people, and the programs are nearly all pretty difficult.

Cambridge U: Your grades are only determined by a final exam at the end of the year, so your work during the term doesn’t count for much. Of course, if you don’t do the work, the exam will be harder, but the whole paradigm causes even the hardest workers to do less work than an average student at a top American university. The final exams, consequently, are not actually as hard as they could be (else no one would pass.)

Caltech: Caltech’s size gives it the ability to be extra selective. There is still the distribution of students, and indeed the plurality of the graduating class is in the generic “engineering and applied science” major. But even these students have to take a solid set of core requirements. (Incidentally, Caltech is the only university I know that requires all students in all majors to take introductory quantum mechanics and special relativity.) The popularity of this E&AS major is indicative of the difficulty of the other departments – people start out in physics or math or chemistry and then decide they can’t hack it, so they switch to E&AS. (To be sure, some people do make this switch simply because their interests have changed.)

Bottom line: if you think you would’ve gotten accepted somewhere, you would’ve been able to hack it one way or another. If you throw in a specific department, it’s not so automatic. (E.g., less than 30% (my estimate) of Caltech freshman who come in to do physics actually stay in physics. They all graduate in something though.)

I went to Univeristy of Chicago and I also took classes at U of Illinois afterwards, for my own benefit.

The hardest thing at the U of C was the cost. I had to put myself thru so I had to work more take fewer classes and study less as I had to work more to pay the higher tuition.

The classes at U of C seemed to be harder but it was really a matter of getting time to study.

Could the high cost of the IVY league schools mean their parents etc can pay for these schools and therefore their kids don’t have to work so much to help, thus free more time to study?

I’m a freshman at Dartmouth, which is an Ivy. It’s the only Ivy I applied to, and I didn’t actually think I’d get in. I applied to Dartmouth specifically because it had everything I wanted in a school- relatively small, excellent linguistics program, and in an area that I loved, among other things.

I graduated 6th in my class with boards in the low 1400s and a truckload of extracurriculars. The “6th” part is a little misleading- basically, there was enough of a gap between almost everyone in the top ten that I got my first and only C one quarter in my senior year and still managed to stay in the same place.

Flipside is that our valdictorian didn’t get in here. She kicked my ass in terms of GPA and Boards, and had some- not as many as I did- extracurriculars.

I’ve never worked so hard in my life here, but it’s not overwhealming. I know some kids- one of my friends who went to Swarthmore, for example- that had to leave because it was too much.

One thing about Dartmouth is that we spend an extremely low amount of time in the classroom. This quarter I spend about 13 hours in the classroom. Next quarter, when I’m taking a lab class, I’ll be spending approximately 18-20 hours in class. This is incredibly low. Bear in mind that linguistics is a bit of an odd major, and my premed friend down the hall is clocking ridiculous hours.

Even in an Ivy league things are as hard as you want them to be. There are slacker courses (Rocks for Jocks) which are relatively easy. Still, however, nobody is coasting by- there is no class which does not have people failing.

Dartmough has a focus on undergrad teaching that I’m told is unusual.

Markxxx: Ivy league is not as much the refuge of the rich. I know plenty of people who have sold their souls to financial aid. If financial aid and scholarships didn’t exist, I think about 3/4 of the school would have to leave.

I rather think that you could have done it.

As a senior electrical engineering major at an Ivy League school (Cornell), I can say that is a tough place to be, but not exceedingly hard. A lot depends on the major, but even saying that, you just really need to put in a decent amount of work, and you’ll be fine. If you’re good enough to get in, you’re good enough to stay, as long as you don’t screw around.

Some of the top schools cough Harvard cough have a decent amount of grade inflation, so that if you show up and do your work, it’s hard to get below a B-. Cornell is usually regarded as the “easiest Ivy to get into and the hardest to get out of.” In my major, the grading is done on a bell curve for most classes until senior year, so only 12% of the class gets As, 33% gets Bs, 33% gets Cs, and 12% gets D/F.

As far as the high cost allowing for less work…I don’t know about that. I’m in ROTC, so the US Gov’t is paying $20,000 a year for my tuition. In exchange, I have 4 hours of PT a week, and 4 hours of ROTC class a week, plus 3-4 weekends a semester of field training. I still don’t have enough money from that, so I work 10 hours a week on campus as well. The price is exceedingly high, though…tuition next year will be $25,000, and room and board runs around $8,000. Ouch.


I did a masters degree at an Ivy - it was fun, and challenging, and you had to work hard - but everyone in the program got through it.

I’d say it’s very much a combination of attitude and aptitude. You don’t get in unless you’ve already shown an ability to work hard, coupled with some aptitude for the field. If you slack off, you won’t make it, but that’s the same everywhere.

I agree but would add a couple of factors required for collegiate success and weight them by importance:

40% effort

30% iq

20% prior education

10% political skills

The hardest part is gettin in.
When I went to Harvard, it was still pretty hard to get an A. The pre-med courses were particularly rough as were math courses, because of the competition.
The humanities and soc sci courses were easier and the curve was easier.
My understanding is that the grades now are easier. After all,at 35+ grand a year, what professor is going to flunk out a whole bunch of students? or give them low grades?
I took a course in physics one summer at B.U and aced it,
but found the same course at Harvard too hard to continue in. by the way, the B.U course was taught better. All we got at Harvard was a grad student who didn’t shower regularly and a bunch of geniuses to compete with.