Application Advice

What is a Tier 1 US University?

3 Minute Read

With the rise of Stanford (neck-and-neck with Harvard) and the strong and steady presence of MIT and UChicago in the rankings, discussions about the top US universities have shifted towards using the term ‘Top Tier’ or ‘Tier 1’ universities to prevent over-reliance on the Ivy League to represent academic excellence.


What is the Ivy League?

The ‘Ivy League’ was only officialised in 1954 at a Division I athletics conference: it was influenced by exceptional basketball teams more than rigorous academic standards. The Ivy League is comprised of eight old private universities in the north-eastern states: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and the University of Pennsylvania.

While the reference to ‘Ivy’ is thought to derive from the ceremony of planting an ivy by an incoming or exiting class, many other universities and liberal arts colleges participated in the annual tradition.

It was an unintended consequence that this athletic grouping would come to represent top academics, exclusivity, and the domain of the ‘social elite’ (a reputation which some Ivies, like Brown, is particularly trying to dismantle). The term ‘Ivy’ has been extended to connote prestige on other institutions, like the ‘Little Ivies’, the ‘Southern Ivies’, ‘Public Ivies’, and ‘Hidden Ivies’. Read more about the Ivy League and how it differs from Oxbridge in our blog here


Why is using ‘Tier 1’ better than ‘Ivy League’ in your university search?

The advantage of using the term ‘Tier 1’ when researching US universities is that you widen your options to a larger variety of excellence, as the term Tier 1 includes the Ivies but also the other world-class institutions in the US.

For example, there are many other universities that rank superior to Cornell University, despite it being an Ivy (Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and California Institute of Technology are just a few). In 2021, the pandemic caused Forbes to rethink how they evaluated universities in their rankings; this led Forbes to rank University of California Berkeley as the top school (Harvard dropped to #7).


What are Tier 1 US universities?

While some people use a 5-tier system based on the level of difficulty in getting admitted (with Tier 1 schools representing schools where they accept under 10% of applicants), the New York Times and other organizations use a four-tier system designated by university type.

Tier 1 is comprised of major private research universities, including MIT, UChicago, Stanford, John Hopkins, Northwestern, California Institute of Technology, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Rice (among many others). The campuses are likely to be quite large and include graduate schools and a medium to large student population.


Are there other tiers?


Tier 2 represents selective private liberal arts colleges (like Williams, Smith, Swarthmore, and Amherst Colleges).

Tier 3 refers to public research universities (like UT Austin, Brandeis, Occidental, and UCLA).

Tier 4 refers to ‘lower-prestige colleges’ (as said in a New York Times article), which is where 60% of bachelor’s degrees come from in the US.


Which US university is best for me?

With more universities to consider now that you are considering the ‘Top Tier’, our experienced advisors can help you distinguish which of the best is most suitable to you. 


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