How To Get Into Cornell University – Your Guide To Ivy League Admissions

Matt Larriva
Jul 30, 2021
Home » Blog » How To Get Into Cornell University – Your Guide To Ivy League Admissions

Out of all the Ivy League schools, Cornell University’s acceptance rate is the highest, thus earning the reputation that it is “easy” to get into.

However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Cornell has proven to be an extremely challenging and competitive school for students applying to the college. After all…

The Cornell University acceptance rate is only 10.6% of over 50,000 applications for the class of 2024.

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how to get into Cornell, from what it takes to be accepted to even the types of students roaming the historical Ithaca campus.

The History of Cornell University

Founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University is the youngest Ivy League school and the only Ivy established after the American Revolution. 

andrew dickson white
Andrew Dickson White

Ezra Cornell
Ezra Cornell

Senator Ezra Cornell believed in creating an educational institution where “any person can find instruction in any study.” Thus, he dedicated his farm in Ithaca, New York and $500,000 of his personal fortune to carry out these ideals with Senator Andrew Dickson White, who became the first president of Cornell University.

While the school was founded in 1865, it did not officially open and enroll students until 1868 with the first class solely consisting of 412 men. Cornell has come a long way from its humble origins, now boasting an undergraduate student body of over 15,000 students from diverse geographical, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.

Cornell University Facilities

Cornell offers several undergraduate colleges that students can consider when applying:

Standing out from most undergraduate universities, Cornell offers pre-professional programs such as the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) that are highly rated for creating leaders and innovators in their respective fields. Students are able to learn almost any subject at Cornell as the university offers a multifaceted education, including niche disciplines ranging from agriculture to human ecology.

Fun Facts About Cornell University

cornell campus

Cornell is a “public” university. While everyone knows that Ivy League schools are private institutions mainly funded by tuition, endowments and donations, Cornell is a slight exception to this popular belief with a majority of its schools receiving state funding. 

cornell Agriculture Quad viewed from Bradfield Hall by Kevin hall

Cornell has the only agricultural school in the Ivy League.

In the 1950s, Cornell Professor Robert C. Baker invented the chicken nugget. At the time, Baker and his peers referred to this dish as “Chicken Crispie.” You can thank this Cornell talent for creating the iconic and delectable American snack that chicken nuggets have become. 

One of the most morbid yet intriguing treasures of Cornell is the infamous Wilder Brain. It’s a collection created by Burt Green Wilder, a professor of anatomy, in the late 19th century to learn more about the psychology and capacities of humans.

Cornell University has an intact underground tunnel system. As most tunnels are unavailable to the public due to safety and security reasons, students and fans of Cornell can only imagine what happens in the dark spaces existing beneath the campus.

Famous Cornell Alumni

cornell alumni Bill Nye
Cornell alumni Bill Nye (class of ’77) with President Martha Pollack. Credit: Jason Koski

As the largest college in the Ivy League, Cornell possesses a considerable alumni network of world class talent that continues to expand each and every year. 

Former Cornell alumni include:

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Martin Ginsburg
  • Bill Nye
  • Anthony Fauci 
  • Chuck Feeney 
  • Henry Heimlich (inventor of the Heimlich maneuver)

Cornell or Harvard? 🤔

Did you know Ruth Bader Ginsburg earned a bachelor’s from Cornell and later attended Harvard as one of only 9 women in a class of about 500 men?

Although the admissions requirements were much more different back than, you can see what it takes to get into Harvard nowadays in article, How To Get Into Harvard.

What Kind of Student is Cornell University Looking For?

The college admissions process for a school of Cornell’s caliber is naturally meticulous, taking into consideration all aspects of an applicant before making a decision.

students carrying Cornell banner
The Cornell Banner is displayed at the 2009 Procession and Commencement Ceremony. Credit: Robert Barker

In particular, Cornell seeks students with exceptional “intellectual potential,” virtuous and admirable “character and conduct,” extensive “involvement” in fields of interest, and compatibility or “fit” with Cornell’s culture and philosophy.

Now, you may be thinking, what exactly constitutes “intellectual potential” or “fit”? To answer your questions, we will delve into the specifics, talking about everything you should do and, in some cases, not do. 

4 Types of Students Cornell Admissions Prefer 

1. Cornell Admissions Look for Intellectual Potential

One of the most crucial parts of the Cornell application is the rigor and difficulty of coursework. Countless students earn high GPAs in their high schools. With almost identical grades and classes among students, AP classes and standardized tests like the SAT/ACT distinguish the “best” students from the regular overachieving crowd. AP and SAT/ACT tests are also a better measurement of a student’s intellectual capabilities as grade inflation and unequal teaching resources make it hard to determine if one student’s 4.0 is worth the same as that of another student. 

Cornell university student

In addition to taking Advanced Placement classes and scoring well on the SAT/ACT, students are encouraged to participate in local community college courses, demonstrating their ardent passion for learning. Of course, these college classes should correlate to the student’s intended field of study, so admission officers can draw a cohesive picture of the applicant. “If you’re applying to biological engineering, then you need to have very robust … coursework in math and science,” said by Pamela Tan, director of admissions to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to handle the work here” (The Cornell Daily Sun).

Challenging oneself academically is definitely recommended as Cornell looks to see if the student can handle the instruction and work at a top-level university like Cornell once on campus.

2. Character Is Also Important

Cornell wants students with outstanding character, who will go on to do amazing things or show genuine care and effort for those around them. One of the biggest opportunities for students to showcase their values and merit are in the essays and recommendation letters.

Consequently, students should make sure to attain recommendations from teachers who have specific things to say about them. For the essays, students should focus on conveying their strongest, positive attributes while being authentic. Many students fall into the trap of bragging about their accomplishments, disenchanting the people reviewing their applications.

Conversely, students should also be careful with talking about their weaknesses. If you want to talk about a hardship or flaw, it must be a story centered on how you overcame, not struggled with, the so-called difficulty. As you look over your personal statement and supplemental essays, ask yourself:

  • Is the person in the essay someone I admire?
  • Is the person in the essay someone I want to be friends with? 

If your answer is yes, then you are one step closer to becoming a Cornellian.

If your answer was “No” to one of the questions above…

It might be time to consider a different Ivy League.

Get an overview of each of the Ivy League schools to see if you’d be a better fit elsewhere. Harvard? Princeton? UPenn? Learn all about what it takes to get into the Ivy League of your choice in our article, How To Get Into The Ivy League.

3. Involvement is a Key Factor to Cornell Admissions

Cornell seeks students who are involved in their communities or fields of interest, whether that is through extracurricular activities, community participation, workplace experience, or leadership. Common examples of extracurricular activities include sports or playing an instrument.

However, since many people do such pursuits, we recommend that students try to differentiate themselves from other students by winning state or national recognition.

It may also be more beneficial for students to partake in more unique and meaningful extracurricular activities such as starting their own business or creating large social media followings dedicated to empowering or teaching others, so the student can stand out from the tens of thousands of applicants. 

In the words of Don Saleh, Cornell’s former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid:


” Students should occupy leadership roles and show years of commitment. That’s one way we know kids aren’t doing activities just to put them on their applications”.

Don Saleh, Cornell’s former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid

Admission officers can always tell whether students are doing something solely to look good on their applications. For example, a hundred hours of volunteering at a local library or hospital is not impressive when everyone is doing that or it doesn’t correlate to your field of academic interest. It’s imperative for students to find the proper balance of extracurriculars that they enjoy while demonstrating involvement. 

4. Lastly, Cornell Admissions Wants to Make Sure You’re a Good Fit with Cornell 

The most elusive and oftentimes overlooked part of the application is the student’s fit with Cornell.

Cornell admissions officers look for not just any student but a student with “Cornell potential.”

What does that exactly entail?

In other words, the best applicants are the ones that look like they will belong and fit right in with the Cornell community. Even the most amazing applicant that has done everything they were told to do can be rejected from Cornell for lacking “fit.”

The best way for students to display their compatibility with Cornell University is through the school-specific Cornell supplemental essay, where students write about why they chose their academic interests and how they’ll utilize the education and resources of Cornell to fulfill their goals. 

And don’t worry…

We’ll discuss how to perfect your Cornell supplemental essay a little later on in this article.

Is Cornell Right for Me?

Cornell University campus
Sage Hall at Cornell University takes in the vista of spring blossoms. Credit: Jason Koski

As a top tier university, Cornell offers a quality education comparable to most other schools of its level. The following aspects set Cornell apart from other colleges: location, size, professional education, and campus culture.

Cornell University Campus

The Cornell University campus rests on 745 rural acres in Ithaca, New York, making it one of the larger campuses in the Ivy League. Especially when including the additional 4,300 acres the Cornell Botanic Gardens consists of.

In addition to the Ithaca campus, Cornell University has satellite medical campuses in New York City, as well as Education City, Qatar.

Where Is Cornell University?

The main Cornell University campus address is: 600 Thurston Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850.

In the heart of the woodlands of Ithaca, New York, lies the historic buildings of Cornell. Though the university is widely known to be located in New York, it’s actually in the rural parts of NY surrounded by trees for miles on end. This setting can be both a blessing and curse for students as they can build a more tighter, close knit community but have less accessibility to internships and outside opportunities due to the fact that not much resides nearby.

In terms of size, Cornell is the biggest Ivy League university, possessing an undergraduate population of about 15,000 students.

The pros of a larger university include diverse and varied student organizations and an extensive alumni network, but the cons of a larger university is that students have more competition when it comes to things such as research opportunities and are often taught by TA’s, not professors. 

Take a Cornell University Virtual Tour

Cornell University Majors

If you intend to study at the school, your desired field of study should align with the offerings found in the selection of Cornell University majors. Cornell University offers undergraduates almost 80 formal fields to major in with an additional 122 fields to select as minors.

The education offered by Cornell manages to be both unique and unparalleled as it offers a wide range of majors and studies not available in many undergraduate colleges.

For example, it has a specialization on hotel administration and management that is not taught at any other Ivy League school. Professional majors such as architecture and business are also provided; the only other Ivy League school with an equivalent professional focus would be the University of Pennsylvania.

Cornell’s campus life is quite balanced with students managing academic achievement and social activities to the best of their abilities. Greek life is also a big part of the Cornell social life as about 30% of men and women participate, but students can get involved in other ways such as intramural sports or clubs run by students. 

Cornell Univesity
2018 Cornell University fan festival and homecoming football game. Credit: Mandolyn McConaha

If what we’ve discussed so far about Cornell sounds appealing, Cornell University may be the place for you.

Cornell University Acceptance Rate

The Cornell University acceptance rate for 2020 (the Class of 2024) was 10.7%

That’s a slight decrease from the 10.85% acceptance rate from the year before. On average, the acceptance rate for Cornell university has been decreasing steadily over the years.

According to Cornell statistics, the Class of 2024:

  • Cornell University acceptance rate for early decision applicants was 24% — 6,630 students applied Early Decision, of which 1,594 were admitted
  • 44,870 students applied Regular Decision, of which 3,920 were admitted (8.7% acceptance rate)
  • Total applicants of 51,500, of which 5,514 were admitted (excluding waitlist students that led to an additional 190 admitted students)

Cornell Acceptance Rate by College

While the acceptance rate for Cornell is 10.7% as a whole, this percentage differs widely depending on the type of school or department that the student is applying to.

For instance:

  • The Hotel School in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business is the least competitive with an acceptance rate of 30%
  • The School of Human Ecology has a 23 % acceptance rate, the second-highest acceptance rate of all the schools at Cornell
cornell university acceptance rate infographic

What Test Scores You Need to Get Into Cornell

Cornell does not publicly report the average GPA of its incoming class, but out of the 22.4% of the enrolling class of 2024 who submitted their class rank, 83.7% of them were in the top ten percent of their graduating class. 

Cornell University SAT Scores

Most Cornell students scored between 1410 and 1530 on the SAT. For the class of 2024, 72.6% of enrolling students submitted SAT scores.

SAT Reading & Writing ApplicantsAdmitsEnrolled
750 ‐ 800 25%40%32%
700 – 74032%36%38%
650 – 690 22%16%19%
600 – 64012%7%9%
550 – 5906%1%2%
550 – 5403%0.3%0.5%
Below 5001%0%0%
† First‐year depositors expected to enroll based on July data; this figure may differ from official 6th week registration figures.
SAT MathApplicantsAdmitsEnrolled
750 ‐ 800 58%69%65%
700 – 74017%17%18%
650 – 690 12%9%10%
600 – 6407%4%5%
550 – 5904%1%2%
550 – 5402%0.5%0.6%
Below 5000%0%0%
† First‐year depositors expected to enroll based on July data; this figure may differ from official 6th week registration figures.

Cornell University ACT Scores

Most Cornell students scored between or 32 and 35 on the ACT. 

For the class of 2024, 35.8% of enrolling students submitted ACT scores.

ACT Composite Scores

25th Percentile 50th Percentile 75th Percentile
323435

Due to COVID-19, Cornell has made it optional to submit SAT/ACT scores for 2021 and 2022 applicants.

However, it is important to note that Cornell does not expect the test-optional policy to be permanent. At a time when students are submitting record numbers of applications to competitive colleges like Cornell, it is to the student’s benefit to submit SAT/ACT scores despite the test-optional policy.

SAT/ACT scores provide admissions officers additional context about a student and can demonstrate a student’s academic excellence, something Cornell undoubtedly looks for in the short span of time that they spend on each student’s application.

Cornell Admissions Demographics

For the enrolling class of 2024, the majority of Cornell’s undergraduate class is White (32.5%) and Asian (22.4%). Considering Cornell’s long-standing commitment to diversity and the fact that the accepted class of 2023 was the most diverse that Cornell has ever had, under-represented minority students who identify as Hispanic, American Indian, Black, or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander may have a slight advantage. Legacy and first-generation college students also have an edge on the competition as they make up 14.8% and 15.5% of the enrolling class of 2024, respectively. 

Cornell Class of 2024 Ethnicity and Race

U.S. Citizens, Permanent Residents, and Refugees – 

  • Hispanic: 16.2%     
  • American Indian: 0.2% 
  • Asian: 22.4% 
  • Black: 8.0% 
  • Hawaiian/Pacific Isle: 0.1% 
  • White: 32.5%

International, of any ethnicity and race – 9.3%

Areas Where Cornell Students Are From

Most entering Cornell students are from the Northeast, West Coast, and international countries. Therefore, students from areas with smaller populations such as the Midwest and Southern states may have slightly better chances for admission as many private schools value geographic diversity. 

Cornell Class of 2024 Geographic Diversity 

  • New York: 33.6% 
  • Mid‐Atlantic: 17.6% 
  • West: 11.6% 
  • New England: 9.7% 
  • International: 10.2% 
  • Midwest: 6.4% 
  • Southeast: 6.2% 
  • Southwest: 4.8% 

How to Get an Edge at Cornell University Admissions

Apply to Cornell Early Decision (If You Can)

The best chance for students to get into Cornell University is through the early decision process, which has a much more generous acceptance rate of 24% compared to the regular decision acceptance rate of 8.7%. Cornell statistics for the class of 2024 has shown that almost 30% of the entering class was chosen through early decision.

While applying early comes with its advantages, it also comes with its disadvantages.

For example, early decision is binding which means students have to go if they’re accepted. Therefore, students applying early to Cornell should be certain that it is their top choice and be prepared to withdraw their applications from other colleges in the event they get into Cornell. Another drawback of applying early is having less time to work on the application and add to it. Some students may want to take the SAT/ACT one more time or improve their GPA senior year, in which applying regular decision may be better for them. 

Under-Represented Intended Major

One of the biggest secrets of the admissions process for schools such as Cornell is the greatly varied acceptance rates between schools and departments. Students applying to the Hotel School in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business or the School of Human Ecology have a better shot than other students with the acceptance rates of those schools being 30% and 23%, respectively. 

The hardest and most competitive Cornell departments would be the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (8%) and the College of Arts and Sciences (8.8%). Looking at this data, students can reconsider whether they want to apply to a certain department or not. 

However, students should be careful about applying to a less competitive major or school for the sole purpose of getting into Cornell University. One should check the university’s policy on transferring majors, so students are not stuck in an undesirable major. Furthermore, admission officers may question why a student, who is clearly interested in business, is applying to the School of Human Ecology. To effectively convince admissions officers, applicants may want to work extensively on their essays to explain the choice or shift.

Putting It All Together

Statistically, students applying early decision or to an underrepresented department such as the Hotel School in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business have a much better chance of admission. Nonetheless, there are many other factors such as SAT/ACT, GPA, essays, and recommendation letters that are required to have a fair shot at Cornell University.

Cornell Supplemental Essay Prompts

high school student typing cornell essay

Out of the entire application, the Cornell writing supplement is one of the best ways for students to differentiate themselves and demonstrate their interest in attending Cornell. 

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Essay Prompt

Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?

College of Architecture, Art, and Planning Essay Prompt

What is your “thing”? What energizes you or engages you so deeply that you lose track of time? Everyone has different passions, obsessions, quirks, inspirations. What are yours?

College of Arts and Sciences Essay Prompt

Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College.

Cornell SC Johnson College of Business Essay Prompt

What kind of a business student are you? The Cornell SC Johnson College of Business offers two distinct business programs, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the School of Hotel Administration. Please describe how your interests and ambitions can be met through one or both of the Schools within the College.

College of Engineering Essay Prompt

Tell us about what excites you most about Cornell Engineering and/or studying engineering at Cornell University. How do you see yourself becoming a part of the Cornell Engineering community?

College of Human Ecology Essay Prompt

How has your decision to apply to the College of Human Ecology been influenced by your related experiences? How will your choice of major impact your goals and plans for the future?

School of Industrial and Labor Relations Essay Prompt

Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you. Your response should show us that your interests align with the ILR School.

How To Write A Cornell Supplemental Essays

Like the “why this college” question that’s frequently asked of students, the Cornell supplemental essays are a more specific version of that question. While the essay prompt for each Cornell department is slightly different, they’re essentially the same as they’re asking why you are choosing that major and how Cornell can help fulfill your goals.

To answer this question, students can refer back to a particular experience or shift in mindset that caused them to pursue their academic field of interest. For example, your baking hobby and the chemical reactions involved led to an interest in chemistry.

Another way to respond would be to describe some work or personal projects you’ve done that’s related to your major.

Ideally, you want to exemplify both your genuine interest and potential in this area. Students must also remember to detail exactly why and how Cornell is necessary. Perhaps you have a research idea that you want to pursue with a specific Cornell professor or plan to take advantage of opportunities unique to Cornell such as Shoals Marine Laboratory. In any case, you need to show that you’ve done your research on Cornell, conveying why you would be a great contribution to the school.

The Road to Cornell

In the end, your Cornell application is a culmination and reflection of all the work you’ve done throughout your four years of high school, displaying your capabilities and character. Every applicant puts forth the best version of themselves, so in order to distinguish yourself, you have to go the extra mile by preparing early on and honing the application over and over again.

Simply put, a Cornell student is not born overnight. A successful application requires you to achieve most, if not all, of the parts we’ve discussed. For more guidance and help, check out our other resources on the college admissions process. 

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This second layer of insight and experience is one of the many ways that Powerful Prep ensures the most personalized service and the strongest results for its students.

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