How to Apply to a Master’s Degree from an Ivy League University in the U.S.

If studying at an Ivy League university in the USA sounds like the holy grail for you, then you know your Master’s degree application is the key that opens it. But like many other students who dream big, you might be a little bit confused and maybe a little bit intimidated by the whole Master’s admission process. 

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After all, Ivy League universities are the most prestigious higher education institutions in the USA and getting into one of these schools is a highly competitive business. But with good information, you might be one of the brilliant students that will follow in the footsteps of great scientists, politicians, lawyers, humanists and businessmen who have started with a degree at an Ivy League school.

To help you, we are going to thoroughly explore what you need to know about applying to a graduate school at some of the 8 elite universities in the USA.

Masters at Ivy League universities are organised into graduate schools

Ivy League schools are private universities. When it comes to graduate studies a key thing to remember is that in most cases you will not apply directly to the university but to one of its graduate schools.  Graduate schools are part of the university but only take in Master’s and Ph.D. students.

For example, if you want to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard University, you need to first know the subject you want to study and apply to the graduate school that offers a Master’s on that subject.  Some examples are:

  • Harvard Business School
  • Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
  • Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Harvard Law School
  • Harvard Kennedy School  

The same applies to  Yale University, Columbia University , University of Pennsylvania or Cornell University which are all Ivy League schools.

Because these universities do not have a centralised system of graduate studies, each school is responsible for establishing their own application procedure and requirements.  That is why you should always check the admission details on the web page of the graduate school you want to apply to.

Luckily there are some common points for graduate admissions that apply to most schools. Up next we will look at relevant application information for Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania and Cornell.

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Application requirements for Ivy League schools

To put it simply, there isn’t a single magic formula to apply to an elite American school.  Students who get accepted come from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds, but it is ultimately up to each Admissions Committee to evaluate if there’s a right mix between your goals, academic record, and experience and what the university has to offer.

In general, you need the following in order to be eligible to apply to a graduate program at an Ivy League school:

  • the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree
  • transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate academic institutions you have attended (GPA included)
  • proof of English proficiency (TOEFL, IELTS)
  • Standardised test scores (GMAT, GRE, LSAT)
  • 3 Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement
  • Resume/ CV
  • Non-refundable application fee

Okay, these requirements are pretty much the same as at many universities around the world. So, what’s so special about applying to Ivy League universities? Well, they usually accept only students that have the highest test scores and language tests.  Here are the average scores for accepted students:

  • Average GPA: 3.71 on a 4.0 scale
  • TOEFL: 100 or higher on the Internet-based TOEFL test
  • 7.5 or higher on the IELTS test
  • GRE average scores ranges: 155- 170 for all subjects
  • LSAT: 173 and higher
  • MCAT: 36.6 and higher

While most universities are happy with one or two recommendation letters, Ivy League schools want three of them – from individuals in academia or other professional sectors who know you well and can tell us about your qualifications for our programs.

How to apply to a Master’s degree at Harvard?

While you will find the above requirements with pretty much every Master’s degree application at Harvard, there are also special requirements depending on the subject.  These include:

Essays

If you go for graduate studies in Humanities, Social Sciences, Journalism and the like, one requirement will be writing an essay which answers a specific question. Here are some examples of essay questions used in the past by Harvard:

As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?

The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your public leadership and service. 

Apart from topic essays, some grad schools also ask for both a personal history essay (talk about yourself including past studies and experiences), an optional statement (talks about you study and careers goals and how they match the programme you are applying to).

Professional experience and portfolio

Especially for graduate studies in Business, Engineering, Design and Architecture, Harvard Grad Schools only accept applicants that have at least 2 years professional experience and/ or a portfolio.  Naturally, your experience should be related to the subject you want to pursue.

Interview and post-interview reflection

Depending on the school, you might also be invited to an interview. But that’s not all. Harvard also has a post-interview reflection. This means that within 24 hours of the interview, you are required to submit a written reflection through the online application system.

How to apply to a Master’s at Yale University?

Unlike Harvard, Yale graduate schools only have a few Masters available and tend to favour Ph.D. programmes more. However, if you are not ready for doctoral study, there are still some options for you at Yale. Here’s what’s special about graduate admissions at Yale.

Test scores

At Yale, the GMAT is usually only required for Ph.D. admissions. Hurray! Also, the score accepted for different standardised schools varies according to programme. Surely, there must be one Master’s where your test scores are good enough.

Essays, portfolios, and research proposals

Depending on the school or subject, you will be required to add some essays or a portfolio to your application. Essays are frequently required for Journalism, Humanities and Social Sciences focus. Portfolios are common in Architecture and Design.  Also, most M. Res and M. Ed. programs ask that you also include a research proposal.

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How to apply to a Master’s at Columbia University?

General requirements apply of course, but let’s see what sets Columbia University apart when it comes to the Master’s application process.

Test Scores

While a GRE is usually required, for certain subject areas you need a special GRE score. For example, studying Applied Physics requires an official GRE Physics Subject Test Score.

Another aspect is that not all graduate programmes require GMAT scores. MBAs, for example, require it.  Some Masters also include an interview in the application process so get ready to impress them face to face or via video.

Sample of writing and essays

Humanities and Journalism degrees will include a writing tests, written work samples together with general essays on personal and professional interests and specialisation essays. Sounds like a lot of writing, but there’s an upside. Most degrees that are not STEM or Business related don’t require your GRE (it is optional).

How to apply to a Master’s at Dartmouth College?

Like  the other universities, the application to a graduate degree at Dartmouth College includes  the usual suspects: undergraduate transcripts, three letters of recommendation, and scores from the General Test of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). But application requirements also vary by program. Here is what is special about graduate applications at Dartmouth:

Recommendation letters and writing samples

Dartmouth is very keen about you getting the recommendations from scientists in either academic or industrial positions, preferably including letters from research advisors. It’s time to do some networking in the scientific community if you want in!

Another frequent requirement is a writing sample which is a scholarly essay or excerpt of an essay and/or an essay answering one or more questions.

Test scores

Like the Columbia University, Dartmouth likes special GRE scores, such as a GRE including Chemistry testing. They also strongly recommend the Test of Spoken English (TSE) along with IELTS or TOEFL, if you are a foreign student.

How to apply to the University of Pennsylvania?

Because graduate admissions at Penn are not centralised, all applications go to the graduate schools.  Moving past the general Master’s application requirements, you should keep an eye on the next specific aspects:

Writing samples, portfolios, research proposals

Portfolios, writing samples and research proposals are quite common with most Master’s degrees.  Some graduate programmes have essay questions like:

How do you expect to apply the expertise you would gain in the Master of Chemical Sciences programme?

Test scores

At Penn GRE scores are required for all applicants. No exception. Also, while they say there is no minimum GRE or TOEFL score requirement, this is still an Ivy League school. They will expect top achievers to apply.

Plus, unless you graduated from another programme in the USA, you will need to submit TOEFL exam scores to demonstrate English proficiency, even if you have an English-taught degree from somewhere else.

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How to apply to Brown University?

Brown University's Graduate School offers 33 master’s programmes, including those from the School of Engineering, the School of Public Health, and the School of Professional Studies.

Writing samples and no GRE

Apart from the general admission requirements what sets Brown apart in terms of graduate admission process is the writing samples and the fact that GRE scores are not necessary for Liberal Arts, and most Social Sciences and Humanities degrees. The writing sample is usually something that has to do with you study area.

American universities with open applications right now!

If you really want to study a Master’s in the USA, you should always keep your options open. There are numerous other universities in the U.S., which are well ranked and have affordable tuition fees. This is why, when searching for universities, you should really seek the perfect fit that suits your personal needs – which doesn’t necessarily have to be an Ivy League school. Here are some examples:

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