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Last updated March 22, 2024

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How to Get into Cornell

Key Takeaway

Cornell University lays out a few different categories that it uses to evaluate its applicants. These include Academics, Character, Involvement, and School Fit. You'll need to score highly in all four to have a shot at being admitted. 

With the guiding principle of “any person, any study,” Cornell attracts the largest number of applicants of any Ivy League school each year—almost 70,000.

You may know it from its frequent mentions on The Office, but it’s also the Ivy League university with the highest acceptance rate (8.7%, to be exact), the most recognized engineering program, and the only agricultural college.

In this guide, I answer all your questions about applying to Cornell and reveal some of our insider tips that have helped students just like you become Cornelians.

Let’s get to it.

How to Apply to Cornell

You’ll apply to Cornell through the Common Application. As part of the Common App, you’ll need to:

  • Input your family and personal information.
  • Submit your extracurricular activities list.
  • Write your Common App personal statement.
  • Solicit two teacher recommendations.
  • Complete the Cornell supplement, including additional supplemental essays.

You’ll also need to request that your school counselor send in:

  • Your high school transcript
  • Your school report
  • A counselor recommendation

If you want, you can also submit your standardized test scores.

When you add Cornell to your Common App, you’ll need to select a school or college to apply to. As you go along, be sure that you’re paying attention to any school- or college-specific additional requirements you may have to complete.

Cornell Application Options

Cornell is like Brown and UPenn in that it offers an Early Decision application plan rather than a single-choice or restrictive early action one.

Cornell’s ED plan is just like any other school’s ED plan. When you apply Early Decision, you’re required to submit an Early Decision agreement that obligates you to attend Cornell if you are admitted (there are a few exceptions, like financial aid, so don’t let that stop you from applying ED).

If you’re ready for that commitment, an ED to Cornell might be in the cards. It might also help out your chances of admission—the ED acceptance rate is a whopping 21.4%. (We’ve got more Early Decision opinions in our ED strategy post if you want to learn more.)

Regular Decision applications make up the majority that are submitted to Cornell, so you’ll be in good company if you’re not ready to make that ED commitment.

Cornell Application Deadlines

Early Decision: November 1

Regular Decision: January 2

How hard is it to get into Cornell?

As far as the Ivy League goes, Cornell is statistically the easiest to earn admission to, with an acceptance rate of 8.7%. That’s almost 5% higher than Columbia’s. So a no-nuance take would be: if you want to get into an Ivy, Cornell’s your best bet.

Sadly, as is usually the case in college admissions, things aren’t quite so simple. Keep in mind that admissions rates can vary by program—Cornell’s engineering program, for example, is one of the most competitive in the country.

And although an 8.7% acceptance rate may seem like a dream compared to the low 4-5s we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, anything below 10% is considered a super-reach.

What does Cornell look for in applicants?

Like all the Ivy League schools, Cornell is on the lookout for the best of the best. But they don’t just want bookworms who know how to get good grades. Instead, they want students who are driven, intellectually curious, and willing to put themselves out in the world to make a difference.

Does that sound like you? Good. Then you’re in the right place.

Let’s take a look at the “What Cornell Looks For” page and spend some time breaking down each part. On the page, you’ll see that Cornell categorizes their evaluation into four areas: intellectual potential, character, involvement, and your fit for Cornell.

Academics: First and foremost, Cornell wants to see that you have the potential to thrive in its rigorous classroom environment. Admissions officers never want to set students up for failure. That’s why it’s important that your academic record be as outstanding as possible: you want to demonstrate that you’re more than ready to take on any intellectual challenge thrown your way.

You also want to show that you’re an independent, creative thinker. Your intellectual initiative and willingness to ask and answer questions will set you apart from the sea of other applicants—and show Cornell admissions officers that you’re already acting like a Cornell student.

Character: You can’t forget that Cornell isn’t just admitting students. They’re admitting community members. And they have their choice of nearly 70,000 applicants, so they have the freedom to be picky about who they let into their community.

To show that you belong in that community, you have to demonstrate that you’re already living by Cornell’s values. Take a look at the mission statement, and pay attention to the values infused throughout Cornell’s website and admissions materials. The site I linked above even lists some: honesty, initiative, and more. Write your Cornell application with these values in mind.

Involvement: Think of your favorite Cornell alumni (Bill Nye, anyone?). What do they have in common? That’s right: they’re not afraid to take action.

Cornell wants to admit students who will get involved on campus and stay involved in their passions after they graduate. You have to show that you’ll be a good student and alum. By highlighting the ways you’ve already been involved (and gesturing towards how you’d be involved at Cornell), you’ll show your admissions officers exactly that.

School Fit: Cornell doesn’t want to admit you if you don’t want to go there. That’s why it’s important to show that you’ve done your research. Your supplemental essay(s) especially should communicate something called “school fit,” which is a way of demonstrating that you know and align with what the school has to offer. You can show school fit by emphasizing your fit academically, culturally, extracurricularly, or all three—whatever feels most authentic to you.

Finding a way to show each of these measures of fit across your application can be tricky, but it can make all the difference when it comes to your application success.

Cornell GPA requirement

Because Cornell does a holistic application review process, they aren’t only concerned with your GPA. For that reason, you’re probably not going to get an automatic boot if you don’t have a perfect 4.0.

But your GPA is still one of the most important pieces of your application. It tells admissions officers about how well you’ve been able to manage the rigor in your coursework—and, by extension, how well you’d do at Cornell.

Cornell keeps their GPA stats close to their chest, so we can’t see exactly what grades successful Cornell applicants tend to have. But it’s safe to say that you’ll need a high one.

Cornell SAT Scores

Like most schools, Cornell’s undergraduate admissions has extended its test-optional policy, so you won’t need to include your scores in your application unless you really want to. Some of Cornell’s schools even have a “score-free” policy and don’t use test scores at all. (See if your preferred school is on the list.)

If you are debating sending in your scores, it’s helpful to know where your scores should be at. Enter: the middle 50%. These ranges tell you what the middle-of-the-road enrolled first-year students scored. Let’s take a look:

SAT Composite: 1450-1540

ACT Composite: 33-35

So students in the middle 50% of the class scored somewhere between a 1450 and a 1540 on their SATs. By logical extension, if you want to be considered as part of the next class, your scores should be in these ranges, too—and preferably on the higher end of them, if not above.

Does Cornell superscore?

Yup. Cornell superscores. Don’t worry about getting your best section scores all in one go because Cornell will take your best individual scores and compile them to make one “superscore.”

What high school coursework do I need to get into Cornell?

Cornell segments the admissions process by the college or school you’re applying to, so you’ll have different course requirements and recommendations depending on what you’re hoping to study.

Across the board, colleges tend to prefer that students take four years of English and 3-4 years of the other main academic core classes, things like math, science, social studies, and foreign languages.

No matter what you want to study in college, your focus should be on taking the most rigorous courses in high school. That means loading up on any AP, IB, and dual-enrollment classes you can get your hands on.

To see what specific recommendations your preferred school or college has, look to Cornell’s website.

What extracurriculars do I need to get into Cornell?

Remember what I was saying up above about willingness to get involved and take action? Your extracurricular activities section is the perfect place to do just that.

Cornell doesn’t care as much about what you do as they do about how you do it. In whatever activities you’ve chosen, aim to be the best you can be. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. The greater your accomplishments and impact, the better your chances. Even if your primary activity is watching your younger siblings while your parents work, your Cornell admissions officer should understand the meaning behind why and how watching your siblings impacts your family.

To accomplish this, you’ll need to write your activities section strategically.

On the Common App, your activities section gets sent out to all the schools you’re applying to, so you can’t customize it for a single school. Still, you can write your activities section in a way that stands out to all of your schools.

To start, think about the values you hold dear. Maybe leadership, empathy, and perseverance are most important. Chances are that those values will be important to any institution too—they definitely are for Cornell.

Now, as you write your extracurricular activities section, you can keep these values in mind. But don’t just write about them willy-nilly. Write about them in a way that actually communciates how impressive your accomplishments are by using numbers and specific details.

Let’s take the babysitting example again. You might write: “Watched 3 younger siblings for 4+ hours each day. Made meals, helped with homework, and did bedtime so my parents could work late to earn more money.”

That activity isn’t a national-level achievement or accolade, but it communicates a message that’s equally important.

For more on extracurricular activities, see our extracurricular strategy post.

Final Takeaways + Cornell Supplemental Essays

And there it is—a guide to getting into Cornell! Hopefully by now you have a solid understanding of what good application strategy is and how you can apply it to your Cornell application.

Next on your application checklist is working on those Cornell supplemental essays. Luckily, we have a guide for that, too. When you’re ready, hop on over to our Cornell Supplemental Essay Guide to get started.



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