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Many students (and parents!) approach the college admissions process as a game of getting accepted to the “best school possible.” As a part of this, many students (and parents!) focus specifically on the Ivy League.

With over 40 years of experience helping students find the college that is best suited for them, The Princeton Review knows that there is no one “best” school. Discovering the college that is the best “fit” for you is far more important than focusing on the perceived “best” school.

However, if you are planning on attending an Ivy League school, here is what you should know.

What is the Ivy League?

Consider what comes to mind when you think of the Ivy League. Perhaps you imagine classic buildings covered in ivy. Perhaps you imagine schools with the greatest minds in the country (and indeed, from around the world). You probably believe that the Ivy League is a collection of the best schools in the United States.

However, that’s not what the Ivy League is. The Ivy League is, drumroll please…

A sports conference.

Yes, really. That means that the Ivy League, as an organization, is the same sort of organization as the Big Ten, Big 12, and Southeast Conference. If that’s the case, why does the Ivy League have such prestige?

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What Makes the Ivy League Special?

The schools that make up the Ivy League are all private research universities in the northeastern United States. The eight Ivy League schools are Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University. Seven of the eight schools (all but Cornell University) were founded before the United States became a country. And Cornell University dates from 1865, making it no slouch in the age category. (The other two colleges founded before the revolution, Rutgers University and William & Mary, are not Ivy League schools because they are public, not private, universities.)

Why does age matter? With colleges, age means more time to establish oneself. This means more famous alumni and professors, more awards, and more experience. Furthermore, this length of time means that Ivy League schools have accumulated large endowments (collections of money and other assets that an institution has received from donors). In fact, Harvard University has the largest endowment of any educational institution in the world at over $50 billion.

What Makes Ivy League Schools Different From Each Other?

All of this does mean that Ivy League schools are great schools (all eight appear in The Best 389 Colleges ). However, there are significant differences among the Ivy League schools that you should consider if you’re planning to apply.

First, their locations vary significantly. While all Ivy League schools are in the Northeastern United States, some are in large cities (Columbia University, Harvard University, and University of Pennsylvania), others in college towns (Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University), and still others in smaller cities that aren’t dominated by colleges (Brown University and Yale University). Most Ivy League schools outside of large cities have easy access to the Northeast Corridor—the main railway system between Boston and Washington, D.C., but Cornell University is in Ithaca, New York, which is a bit off the beaten path.

Second, the size of the schools varies greatly. Some of the Ivy League schools, such as Cornell University and University of Pennsylvania, have over 20,000 total students. Others, such as Princeton University and Dartmouth College, have less than 10,000 students. Furthermore, the balance of the number of undergraduate versus graduate students at each school also varies, with Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Princeton University having more undergraduate students than graduate students, whereas the other four Ivy League schools (Columbia University, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University) have more graduate students than undergrads.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the academic programs at each Ivy League school differ from one another. All the schools are great schools, but not every school has the same offerings. For instance, if you want to pursue agricultural studies or hospitality at an Ivy League school, only Cornell University offers such programs. If you’re not sure what you want to study, Brown University offers what it calls its Open Curriculum, which lets you design a course of study that caters to your needs and interests.

Wait! I Thought (Insert School Here) Was Ivy League!

You may think (or have even heard!) that some schools not mentioned yet in this article are also Ivy League schools. There are many, many good schools in the United States outside of the Ivy League that aren’t part of that sports conference. Most of those schools aren’t old enough to have been included in the Ivy League (such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University). Many are outside of the Northeastern United States (such as Stanford University and University of Southern California). And any public school (such as the University of California system and the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor) is also outside the Ivy League.

Beyond the perceived status, Ivy League schools don't offer anything that you can't find at many other schools Yes, the Ivy League has great schools, but great schools can be found across the United States and the world. There are many public and private schools that provide an exceptional education and college experience You should check out our college search tool and consider the many, many great colleges out there. And, if you find this whole process overwhelming, The Princeton Review’s college admissions advisors can help you work through your options and find the school where you’ll thrive.