How to Get Into Cornell University: The Definitive Guide

How hard is it to get into Cornell? Learn about Cornell’s admission requirements and discover strategies to write great Cornell supplemental essays to increase your chances of getting in

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Introduction

If your child is a competitive applicant for Ivy League and other Ivy+ schools (e.g., Johns Hopkins, Duke), you might be encouraging them to apply to the youngest and largest Ivy: Cornell. Cornell’s alumni are among the most notable in a variety of fields, from hotel management and engineering to psychology and veterinary sciences, so your child will have ample career opportunities after Cornell. 

Cornell’s beautiful campus, surrounded by hills, gorges, lakes, and breathtaking vistas, will provide your child with the chance to escape into the great outdoors. The town of Ithaca, with more restaurants per capita than New York City, offers students plenty of options for entertainment just a short walk from campus.

From years of advising students, we’ve assembled some crucial information for you and your child about how to get into Cornell. 

Cornell University comprises 8 colleges that offer over 4,000 courses. No wonder why the Cornell motto is, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Getting into Cornell would allow your child to study literature with revered writers, research in the labs of world-class biologists, study history in Cornell’s expansive collection of archives, or pursue an interest in music in the country’s oldest musicology department. 

Your child can spend their summers taking advantage of the enormous network and funding opportunities available at Cornell. Perhaps they’ll conduct research at Cornell’s medical school in New York City, or travel to rural Ecuador to study an indigenous language. They might intern at the White House or at a tech company in the Bay Area. No matter what they pursue, the Cornell name will catch the attention of recruiters and hiring managers. 

Graduates lead startup companies, work on Wall Street, write poetry, and travel the world with Fulbright Scholarships, to name a few opportunities. They are Nobel and Pulitzer winners, TV stars, and Supreme Court Justices. With one of the largest networks in the Ivy League, Cornell and its alumni will help your child succeed throughout their career.

Cornell University ranking

Here’s where Cornell ranks:

  • Forbes: 11

  • Niche: 20

  • US News & World Report: 17

  • Wall Street Journal: 9

  • CWUR: 14

(Suggested reading: Ivy League Rankings)

Where is Cornell?

Cornell is located in Ithaca, NY—a small town just over four hours away from New York City.

Population: ~31,000.

Setting

Rural. Picturesque and cozy, Ithaca is home to splendid cafés, restaurants, bookstores, concert venues, and more. The rural campus is known for its access to nature, especially its lakes, gorges, waterfalls, hills, and canyons.

Undergrad population

15,182

Grad and professional school population

8,418

Cornell acceptance rate

10.55% overall (Early decision: 22.65% | Regular decision: 8.82%)

(Suggested reading: Ivy League Acceptance Rates)

Cost of attendance per year (i.e., tuition, room, board, and fees)

$75,288

Average financial aid award

Over $44,271

Who gets into Cornell? 

  • 83.4% of Cornell students who attended high schools that report class rankings were in the top tenth of their graduating class.

  • Average GPA: Cornell doesn’t publish its average admitted student GPA.

  • Test scores: Cornell publishes its average ACT and SAT scores

    • Cornell average ACT score: 34

      • 25th percentile: 32

      • 75th percentile: 35

    • Cornell average SAT score: 1500

      • 25th percentile: 1420

      • 75th percentile: 1540

  • International students: 9.8%

  • White and Asian American students make up the majority of Cornell’s incoming class, about 36% and 20% respectively.

  • Most students pursue degrees in the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Engineering, followed by the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences.

Cornell admission requirements

Like most of its counterparts in the Ivy League and Ivy Plus cohort, Cornell is seeking a sense of purpose from its students.

Cornell students show passion through success in extracurricular activities, especially by committing to a small number of clubs, teams, projects, and leadership roles. Admissions officers are looking for students who have developed a strong sense of what they might study and why Cornell is the best place to pursue that major.

Admissions officers will look to see if your child took advantage of all the opportunities they were presented in high school. This means that if your son’s school only offered AP Calculus AB and AP US History, he should take both of those classes and as many honors classes as possible. Cornell will be especially happy to see that your son took a summer course in chemistry at the local community college or participated in a summer program at Brown.

Here are the specifics.

Cornell accepts the Common Application, which means your child will need the following to apply:

  • Common App Essay

  • ACT or SAT test scores, with or without writing. Cornell superscores the SAT but not the ACT. Your child’s ACT Composite will not be superscored. Cornell focuses on applicants’ best ACT score.

  • Optional: SAT subject test scores for applicants to the College of Engineering. Subject tests are not required for any other program.

  • Optional: A-level, IB or AP test results. Cornell asks that students report scores if they’ve taken the exams.

  • 2 teacher evaluations

  • 1 counselor letter of recommendation (from the school college or guidance counselor)

  • Coursework:

    • For students applying to the College of Arts & Sciences, Cornell recommends 4 years of English, 3 of mathematics, 3 of science, and 3 of one foreign language.

    • Applicants to the College of Engineering should have 1 year of Chemistry, 1 of physics, and 4 of mathematics (2 of algebra, 1 of geometry, and 1 of calculus).

    • Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life sciences, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the College of Human Ecology recommend four years of mathematics and 4 years of science (in physics, chemistry, and biology).

    • To see the specific requirements for your child’s anticipated program, consult Cornell’s College and School Admissions Requirements.

Cornell also accepts the Universal College Application.

Applying to Cornell early action vs. regular decision

Your child can apply early decision to Cornell by November 1 and receive a decision of either accepted, deferred, or denied, by December 15.

Cornell follows the early decision (as opposed to early action) model, which is binding. This means that your child must commit to attending Cornell if accepted. If accepted, they must withdraw all of their other applications.

Defer means your child will be re-entered into the pool and will hear back by the end of March, and may be accepted, wait-listed, or rejected then. If they are accepted after being deferred, they are free to attend another university if admitted with the regular decision pool.

Your child can also apply regular decision, by January 2.

How do you know if your child should apply to Cornell early? 

Early action might be the right choice for your child:

  • If Cornell is their top choice

  • If there’s no other school they’d like to apply to via early decision or restrictive early action

  • If they are ready to commit to attending Cornell

  • If they have a strong sense of what school and program they will pursue at Cornell 

  • If their test scores and grades are strong by the end of junior year

Cornell accepts just over 40% of its class in the early decision pool. That’s probably because students who apply early decision to Cornell are well prepared academically, have a strong sense of what they will study at Cornell, and are enthused to commit to Cornell if accepted.

Applying early decision offers a slight edge to applicants, as it shows that they are committed to attending the university.

2019-2020 Cornell supplemental essays (examples included)

(Note: While this section covers Cornell’s admissions essays specifically, we encourage you to view additional successful college essay examples.)

Acing the supplemental essays is a crucial part of your child’s strategy to get into Cornell. In addition to the Common App Personal Statement, Cornell’s supplemental essays help admissions officers develop a sense of why your child wants to study at Cornell, what they wish to study there, and how they might be a strong fit. Cornell is looking for a strong sense of purpose, so students need to apply to the college which best fits their interest, passions, and career goals.

Cornell Supplemental Essay #1

The primary focus of your college interest essay should be what you intend to study at Cornell. In the online Common Application Writing Supplement, please respond to the essay question below (maximum of 650 words) that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which you are applying.

Let’s take a look at the specific essay prompt for the College of Arts and Sciences, the most popular college among Cornell applicants.

The prompt asks:

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

To think through Cornell’s prompt, students need:

  • to have an idea of what they might study at Cornell.

  • to show how they are interested in a variety of topics and subjects.

  • to explain why Cornell is the best place to pursue their interests.

Note that 650 words is the same length as the Common App Personal Statement. Your child should set aside a similar amount of time—perhaps slightly less—to this essay. Writing a coherent five-paragraph essay requires planning, preparation, and revision.

Here’s how Alejandro, a second-generation Mexican American from Texas, approached the prompt:

It all started in Geometry Honors. 

Throughout middle school I was an ordinary “smart kid.” No one ever recognized me as standing out. When I got to high school, I was placed in Geometry Honors, which was the most treacherous class ever, or so I heard. For the first time, I stood out. I was actually good at Geometry, and, better yet, I enjoyed it. Finding “x” was no longer the problem, but a tool to find a greater idea. Geometry pushed me to think deeper. That’s when I fell in love with learning. 

Geometry made me thirst for knowledge. I yearned to learn more about humans and society. How did we end up here? Why do we behave the way that we do? How do our bodies work? How come we don’t go flying into space? I kept asking myself these questions, and my desire to learn kept growing. I want to learn about phrenology, Thomas Jefferson’s policies, the Cold War, biological magnification, even calculus.

Understanding our world is complicated and not very many people take the time to do so. I don’t want to follow that same fate. While a career with lots of money would be nice, it is not the most important thing to me. A lifetime of learning and using knowledge for good is. 

Specifically, I want to make my future about biology and the world. Thus, the Biology and Society major is basically a dream come true. 

I look outside the window now and I see fuel inefficient trucks pass, plastic bags caught on tree limbs, and raindrops falling in late December. I turn on the news and I hear about a new drug, AIDS patients, an argument for STEM cell research. And then I realize I want to be a part of all of this. Whether I pursue environmental studies, law, psychology, or medicine, I know I will have the best preparation with the Biology and Society major. I know I will be able to help people, which is my main concern. 

I also want to do independent study and research. In my opinion, it is important to have an education that is both focused around peers and mentors. I want to learn all that I can while studying at Cornell. While I am fairly certain about my major, I still do not want to stop learning about the other subjects, and at Cornell, I know I will be able to take classes in every subject area.

Most importantly, I’m ready to challenge myself in ways that I have yet to experience. While I’m not sure exactly what the challenge looks like, I’m ready to face it in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Any person, any study. I’m ready, Cornell.

Here’s what Alejandro does well in writing this Cornell supplemental essay:

  • He connects specific examples to the bigger picture.

    Though the essay focuses on biology, Alejandro grabs the reader’s attention by telling a story of why he enjoyed taking Geometry and how it taught him how to learn. In other words, he moves from small ideas to big ideas with ease.

    In the first half of the essay, he shows how Geometry informed his larger educational philosophy, while in the second part of the essay he shows why his intended major will open up many possibilities for his future. He appears to excel at focusing on one skill while remaining aware of how his interests relate to the larger picture.

  • He identifies a specific major that interests him.

    Because Alejandro identifies his interest in Biology and Society, we can tell that he has researched the different programs that Cornell offers, though this is by no means the only way to approach the essay. Even though he identifies his major, he remains open about his career path, keeping an eye on the future. He sees his education and future major as a space where he can explore and discover.

    Though Alejandro lists a major that is Cornell-specific, students can also describe why they want to pursue more traditional majors (e.g., biology, sociology) by identifying specific classes, projects, or professors that interest them.

  • He explains his interest in studying at the College of Arts and Sciences.

In addition to explaining which major he would pursue in the College of Arts and Sciences, Alejandro also identifies why the university is a good fit for him: he is interested in taking courses and meeting peers in a variety of disciplines. Cornell has organized itself around multidisciplinary study, and Alejandro’s interests in history, politics, math, and environmental studies show that he’d take advantage of that intellectual diversity.

Cornell Supplemental Essay #2

Let’s take a look at the specific essay prompt for the College of Engineering, another popular division among Cornell applicants.

The prompt asks:

Tell us about your interest in engineering or what you hope to achieve with a degree in engineering. Describe what appeals to you about Cornell Engineering and how it specifically relates to your engineering interest or aspirations.

Let’s take a look at how Annette, a Chinese American student from rural Maine, approached this prompt.

My desire is to make the world a better place by creating innovative code as a software engineer and computer scientist. At the moment, I am working on a project that draws on artificial intelligence to help us make strategic, thoughtful decisions regarding how we vote. I aim to create software that helps young voters become more aware of the tangible impact their votes can have. Cornell College of Engineering’s unique interdisciplinary approach will allow me to make connections between engineering, government, and political science so that I can address society’s problems with cutting-edge technology. 

The College of Engineering’s computer science program provides courses in AI (artificial intelligence), network theories, graphics, and human-computer relationships. Using AI, I can invent programs that take data from state and federal agencies to identify how certain political party’s policies impact the distribution of wealth among government agencies, education, and the military. For instance, an AI program might tell us how our tax dollars would be distributed if we voted for Democrats or Republicans. I am eager to take “Mathematical Programming,” which will build on my interest in linear equations and will help me design a rudimentary algorithm that begins to address this question.

Even though I have a passion for computer science and STEM, I am equally interested in taking courses in the social sciences and humanities, which is why I am so drawn to the Common Curriculum. By taking courses in the history of politics, government, and sociology, I will be able to place my code and projects in a larger context. I am especially excited to take government courses like “Electoral mal(practice)” in order to learn more about how corrupt the electoral system is in the United States.

Though my main interests are in politics and AI, I am also eager to pursue courses in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering. Having grown up in rural Maine, I am intrigued by humans’ relationships to animals and plants, and how we can create a more sustainable future. As president of the environmental club, I launched an initiative that brought solar panels onto our own campus in an effort make better use of natural resources. Given Cornell’s location in the heart of nature, I am eager to see first-hand how engineering and design can create technologies that help save our natural resources. 

Cornell’s rigorous engineering program will help me build the skills to develop a project that will go on to impact many lives, while the humanities and social sciences courses will help me ask the right questions and show me how and where to seek those answers. While working in Silicon Valley sounds awesome, I would rather be using my coding skills to encourage civic engagement.

Here’s what Annette does well in writing this Cornell supplemental essay:

  • She tells us what she will study at the College of Engineering

    Annette explains why she is interested in computer science, the types of projects she hopes to pursue with her degree, and the kinds of courses that she wishes to take while at Cornell. Her project is specific and she shows a working knowledge of her field and the subfields in which she will take classes.

  • She connects her interest in engineering to society.

    Annette explains that she will use her skills to make a difference in the lives of others by showing them the power of their votes. To do so, she proposes taking courses in humanities and social sciences departments to understand the social implications of her project.

  • Annette demonstrates that she is well-rounded by showing an interest in other departments.

Though Annette focuses on her interest in computer science, she nonetheless suggests that she will spend her free time exploring other opportunities that are available to her at Cornell, even if she does not necessarily decide to pursue another major or minor. Cornell is looking for students with a sense of purpose, but they also want students who are curious to new ideas and open to change. Annette balances these competing ideas exceptionally well. 

Final Thoughts 

Cornell is among the most competitive schools in the country. Because the matriculating class have excellent grades and high-test scores, Cornell is looking for students who have a sense of what they might do once they arrive at the university. By cultivating this sense of purpose through intellectual curiosity and extracurricular passions, your child can become as strong an applicant as possible.