The university or college you choose to go to can have a major impact on the rest of your life, so it’s probably a good idea to do some research first.
To help with the process, we’ve compiled a ranking of the best 10 US universities, according to the recently released QS World University Rankings 2023.
1: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge United States
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the top private universities in Cambridge, United States. It is ranked #1 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
“Mind and Hand” is the thought-provoking motto of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known also as MIT. This motto enigmatically encapsulates this famous institution’s mission to advance knowledge in science, technology and areas of scholarship that can help to make the world a better place.
At its founding in 1861, MIT was initially a small community of problem-solvers and science lovers eager to bring their knowledge to bear on the world. Today, MIT has evolved into an educational behemoth, with some 1,000 faculty members and more than 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
MIT is now an independent, coeducational, privately endowed university organized into five schools (architecture and planning; engineering; humanities, arts, and social sciences; management; science). Yet the principle of educational innovation remains at the core of MIT’s educational philosophy.
MIT researchers are at the forefront of developments in artificial intelligence, climate adaptation, HIV, cancer, and poverty alleviation, while in the past MIT research has fuelled scientific breakthroughs such as the development of radar, the invention of magnetic core memory and the concept of the expanding universe.
Science and technology are not the only strings to MIT’s bow, however. Approximately 20 percent of MIT undergraduates join a sports team, and with 33 varsity sports MIT boasts one of the broadest intercollegiate athletic programs in the world.
A vibrant arts culture also permeates college life. There are 12 museums and galleries on campus, with the MIT Museum drawing nearly 125,000 visitors each year. Students participate in more than 60 music, theatre, writing and dance groups, and faculty members of MIT even include Pulitzer Prize winners and Guggenheim fellows.
MIT is set in 168 acres of grounds that extend for more than a mile along the Cambridge side of the Charles River basin. The campus features stunning landmarks designed by the likes of architects Alvar Aalto, Frank Gehry, and Steven Hollin, as well as buildings in a range of architectural styles, from neoclassical to modernist and brutalist.
At its edges, the campus merges with various Cambridge neighborhoods, including Kendall Square which is one of the most innovative square miles on the planet. The close association of industry and research has helped MIT alumni go on to launch more than 30,000 active companies, creating 4.6 million jobs and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenue. No wonder then that a nation of MIT graduates would be equivalent to the 10th-largest economy in the world.
2: Stanford University, Stanford United States
Stanford University is one of the top private universities in Stanford, United States. It is ranked #3 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
Located 35 miles south of San Francisco and 20 miles north of San Jose, Stanford University is in the heart of Northern California’s dynamic Silicon Valley, home to Yahoo, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and many other cutting-edge tech companies that were founded by and continue to be led by Stanford alumni and faculty. Nicknamed the “billionaire factory”, it is said that if Stanford graduates formed their own country it would boast one of the world’s largest ten economies.
Covering 8,180 acres, Stanford has one of the largest university campuses in the US, with 18 interdisciplinary research institutes and seven schools: the Graduate School of Business; School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Graduate School of Education; School of Engineering; School of Humanities and Sciences; Law School; and School of Medicine.
Stanford University was founded in 1885 by California senator Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, to “promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization”. The couple’s only child had died of typhoid, and their decision to build a university on their farm was intended as a memorial. From the start the university was non-sectarian, co-educational and affordable, teaching both the traditional liberal arts and the technology and engineering that was shaping the new America at the time.
Fast forward more than a century, and Stanford counts 19 Nobel laureates within its community and is regularly ranked among the top three universities in the world. Nicknamed “The Farm” from the days when horses roamed there, Stanford’s campus is now a thriving community of more than 11,000 creative and accomplished people from around the world. Nearly all undergraduate and 60 per cent of graduate students live on campus, so it is hardly surprising that student life is rich and diverse, with over 625 organized student groups.
Sport is popular, with students, faculty and staff enjoying state-of-the-art recreational facilities and wellness programs. Stanford students compete in 36 varsity and 32 club sports, including baseball, football, basketball, and squash. Sports teams are referred to as the “Stanford Cardinal”.
Stanford also has a rich tradition of fostering creativity and the arts: there is a vibrant campus arts district and two world-class museums which host regular exhibitions. Eight dining halls, a teaching kitchen and organic gardens provide the campus community with healthy, sustainable meals. The close-knit communal nature of life on campus has even given rise to “Stanford speak”, a special language only spoken on campus.
3: Harvard University, Cambridge United States
Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest higher education institution in the United States, and is widely regarded in terms of its influence, reputation, and academic pedigree as a leading university in not just the US but also the world.
Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three miles north-west of Boston, Harvard’s 209-acre campus houses 10 degree-granting schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, two theaters, and five museums. It is also home to the largest academic library system in the world, with 18 million volumes, 180,000 serial titles, an estimated 400 million manuscript items and 10 million photographs.
Like most of the United States’ pre-Civil War colleges, Harvard was founded to train clergy, but Harvard’s curriculum and student body quickly secularized, and in the 20th century admissions policy was opened up to bring in a more diverse pool of applicants.
Now, a total of 21,000 students attend the university, each of whom at some point can be seen bustling past the famous statue of John Harvard, the university’s first benefactor and founder, which looks on benignly in the center of the campus. The bronze statue’s gleaming foot is due to almost incessant rubbing by tourists and students, who believe the act brings good luck.
Only the academic elite can claim a place at Harvard, and the nominal cost of attendance is high – though the university’s hefty endowment is such that it can offer generous financial aid packages, which around 60 per cent of students take advantage of.
As freshmen, students live in one of the dormitories in Harvard Yard, a prime location, and eat in the historic and picturesque Annenberg dining hall. Harvard students are active around and beyond campus, with over 400 official student societies including extracurricular, co-curricular and athletic opportunities. Whether playing on the field in Harvard Stadium, fostering entrepreneurial activities at the Harvard innovation lab or writing and editing at the daily newspaper the Harvard Crimson, student life is a rich and rewarding experience.
Harvard\’s alumni include eight US presidents, several foreign heads of state, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars, and 242 Marshall Scholars. Whether it be Pulitzer Prizes, Nobel Prizes, or Academy Awards, Harvard graduates have won them. Students and alumni have also won 108 Olympic medals between them. The university is regularly ranked number one in the world, and the consistency of its chart-topping performances shows that success is yet to breed complacency.
4: California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena United States
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is one of the top private universities in Pasadena, United States. It is ranked #=6 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, located in Pasadena, California, around 11 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Caltech has a high research output as well as many high-quality facilities such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (owned by NASA), the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, and the International Observatory Network. It’s among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States primarily devoted to teaching technical arts and applied sciences, and its fiercely competitive admissions process ensures only a small number of the most gifted students are admitted.
The university was founded as a preparatory and vocational school by Amos G. Throop in 1891, with the mission “to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education”. It became a major hub of US scientific research in the early 20th century and was instrumental to the United States’ war effort during World War II.
Today, it is home to the Einstein Papers Project, an initiative seeking to preserve, translate and publish selected papers from the estate of Albert Einstein. It has also established an energy innovation hub that aims to discovery revolutionary methods of generating fuels directly from sunlight.
Caltech’s 124-acre campus is within walking distance of Old Town Pasadena and the Pasadena Playhouse District, and the two locations are frequent getaways for students. Life on campus is rich with social activities, clubs, associations and recreational facilities. Intercollegiate sport is taken very seriously, with the Caltech Beavers (the beaver – nature’s engineer – is the college’s mascot) competing in 13 intercollegiate sports.
Caltech also offers excellent opportunities for the study and performance of music, theater, and the visual arts, all activities that play a vital role in realizing Caltech’s mission to role in realizing the Institute’s mission of “educating outstanding students to become creative members of society”. Providing a touch of grandeur, the Athenaeum is a stately building in the center of the campus where members can go for formal and informal dining, meetings, rendezvous and private parties.
The balance at Caltech between a rigorous academic curriculum and activities that promote personal development ensures time spent there for students is both formative and an invaluable staging post to a successful career. Although it may lack the reputation of Ivy League universities or the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, Caltech is undoubtedly one of the best universities in the world, a fact reflected in all the university rankings, which regularly single out technology and engineering as the school’s key academic strengths.
5: University of Chicago, Chicago United States
University of Chicago is one of the top private universities in Chicago, United States. It is ranked #10 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
Established in 1856, the University of Chicago is a private research university based in the urban center of Chicago, the third most populous city in the United States. Outside of the Ivy League, Chicago is one of America’s top universities, and holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.
Beyond the arts and sciences, Chicago has a glowing reputation for its professional schools, including the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Booth School of Business, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. University of Chicago alumni are responsible for the development of many academic disciplines, such as sociology, economics, law, and literary criticism.
The college’s crest sees a phoenix rising from the ashes, a reference to the fire, foreclosure, and demolition of the Old University of Chicago campus, with the current University of Chicago emerging triumphantly in its place in 1890. The old university was founded through a land endowment from the controversial senator Stephen Douglas, a supporter of slavery who authored the Kansas-Nebraska act. By contrast, the new University of Chicago was co-educational and funded through donations from wealthy Chicagoans and the oil magnet John D. Rockefeller.
Today, the University of Chicago has approximately 16,000 students enrolled, with a male to female ratio of 56:44. A quarter of all students hail from overseas, a nod to the institution’s progressive credentials.
Students run more than 400 clubs and societies, which consist of a typical mix of sports teams, arts, cultural and religious groups, academic and political groupings, and societies that promote eclectic common interests. Among the more famous examples are the University of Chicago bowl team, which has won 118 tournaments and 15 national championships, while the university’s competitive Model United Nations team was the top ranked team in North America in 2013–14 and 2014–2015.
If you have an interest in media and film, then you’re well catered for: the university is home to the longest continuously running student film society Doc Films and publishes several newspapers and magazines. Budding thespians can join renowned improvisational theater troupe Off-Off Campus or learn how to broadcast at the university-owned radio station WHPK.
Notable faculty members past and present include 29 Nobel laureates and former US president Barack Obama. Illustrious alumni come in practically every field, including the novelists Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, political movers and shakers such as pollster Nate Silver and Obama strategist David Axelrod, pioneering balloonist Jeannette Piccard, and the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones.
6: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia United States
University of Pennsylvania is one of the top private universities in Philadelphia, United States. It is ranked #13 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
The University of Pennsylvania is a private Ivy League research university located in the city of Philadelphia. It was founded in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ founding fathers, who was eager to create a school to educate future generations.
Franklin advocated a concept of higher education that focused not merely on the education of the clergy, but on teaching knowledge of arts and humanities, as well as the practical skills needed to make a living and to do public good. His maxim of “well done is better than well said” lives on today through its commitment to inclusive policies and innovation.
As of fall 2017, there were 21,599 students studying at Penn, split equally between undergraduate and graduate students. Penn has a strong focus on interdisciplinary learning and research, offering double degree programs, unique majors and academic flexibility. This means competition to study at Penn is fierce, particularly at undergraduate level. The admission rate for the class of 2021 was 9.3 percent, of which 46 percent were either black, Hispanic Asian, or Native American. Unusually for an Ivy League school, women comprise over half (54 percent) of all students enrolled.
Penn’s core campus covers more than 279 acres in a contiguous area of West Philadelphia’s University City. All of Penn’s schools and most of its research institutes are located on this campus, with the surrounding neighborhood including restaurants and pubs, a large supermarket and cinema.
Student life at Penn serves up opportunities to discover new interests and passions galore, through a wide diversity of social, political, religious, and cultural activities. There are cultural centers and one-of-a-kind museums on campus that allow the arts to play a leading role in student life such as the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Arthur Ross Gallery, and Institute of Contemporary Art, which are all major cultural destinations and easy for Penn students to access.
The university also takes sports and recreation very seriously, with students taking part in ice hockey, athletics and joining a variety of competitive, instructional and recreational sports clubs.
With its arts and sciences programs ranking in the top 10 nationally, and the employment prospects for its students among the brightest (Penn boasts one of the highest numbers of graduates who go on to become Fortune 500 CEOs), there is little doubt that the University of Pennsylvania deserves its Ivy League status and reputation.
7: Princeton University, Princeton United States
Princeton University is one of the top private universities in Princeton, United States. It is ranked #16 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
Princeton is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States. It was founded in 1746 and moved to its current site in New Jersey in 1896.
Princeton is renowned for the spectacular greenery of its campus and for the architectural splendor of some of its landmark buildings, such as its Lewis Library, which was designed by Frank Gehry. Its student body is relatively small, with fewer than 10,000 enrolled in total, and international students make up 12 per cent of undergraduates.
Princeton is one of the world’s foremost research universities, and has educated two US presidents, James Madison and Woodrow Wilson. Other distinguished graduates include Michelle Obama, actors Jimmy Stewart and David Duchovny, Google chairman Eric Schmidt and Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad.
Princeton was founded by New Light Presbyterians to provide training to its ministers. After the American Civil War, the college expanded, and its curriculum was overhauled. Around the turn of the 20th century, it officially became a university and its famous graduate school opened.
Today’s Princeton provides undergraduate and graduate education in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering as well as offering a number of professional degrees.
Princeton’s main campus is spread across 500 acres and has around 180 buildings, including 10 libraries. The main campus was named one of the most beautiful in the United States by New York’s Travel+Leisure magazine. Most Princeton students live, eat, study, work, and are at leisure on campus.
The Ivy League institution guarantees accommodation to all of its undergraduate students across the four years of their degree and is committed to building a diverse campus community. Residential colleges offer a variety of academic, social, cultural and recreational programs, and opportunities abound for students to engage in interests beyond their academic study, whether that be writing for a literary publication, learning the science of beekeeping, or singing with an a capella group.
The university is within easy reach of both New York City and Philadelphia, with the “Dinky” shuttle train providing a regular one-hour service to both cities.
Studying at Princeton surrounded by natural beauty and architectural gems brings the best out in students. Several alumni and faculty members have been awarded Nobel prizes, and the university is consistently ranked in the top ten worldwide. Admissions are need-blind and, through a combination of grants and college jobs, few students graduate in debt – even though 60 percent of incoming students receive financial aid.
8: Yale University, New Haven United States
Yale University is one of the top private universities in New Haven, United States. It is ranked #18 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
Yale University is a private research university and a member of the prestigious Ivy League, a group of America’s most celebrated higher education institutions. Situated in New Haven, Connecticut, the first planned city in America, Yale was founded by English Puritans in 1701, making it the third-oldest higher education institution in the United States.
Today, the city, which is part of the New York metropolitan area, is very much dominated by Yale, though it’s also billed as the “Cultural Capital of Connecticut”. According to the New York Times, New Haven is also extremely picturesque, with “art almost everywhere you look”.
Yale University’s central campus spans 260 acres and includes buildings from the mid-18th century. The university is organized into 14 schools: the original undergraduate college, the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and 12 professional schools.
Undergraduates follow a liberal arts curriculum which allows you to think and learn across disciplines before deciding upon a major. Perhaps its most distinctive feature, Yale undergraduates are organized into a social system of residential colleges, which allows them to experience the cohesiveness and intimacy of a small school while still enjoying the cultural and scholarly resources of a large university.
A recently unveiled portrait of Barack Obama was by a Yale alumnus, and strolling across the Yale campus, you’ll find that you’re surrounded by public art. Be it in courtyards or plazas, lobbies or lecture halls, art at Yale inspires reflection and offers aesthetic pleasure.
College life is similarly rich, reflecting the diversity of cultures and nationalities on campus. There’s always a packed arts calendar which includes exhibitions at world-class museums and galleries. There’s also a Tony Award-winning theater, Yale Cabaret – a theater-restaurant run by students – and hundreds of student groups, ranging from the serious to the silly.
On top of this, you’ll also find the usual array of top quality sports facilities, a golf course and centers for tennis, polo, sailing, ice hockey, and more as well as competitive sports, with over 30 men’s and women’s varsity teams.
To study at Yale is to join great company: four Yale graduates signed the American Declaration of Independence, and the university has educated five US presidents: William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It is rightly regarded as one of America and the world’s most prestigious universities, with competition to be admitted as fierce as it gets.
9: Cornell University (Ithaca Campus) Ithaca United States
Cornell University is one of the top private universities in Ithaca, United States. It is ranked #20 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
“I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” is the motto of Cornell University, words first uttered by its co-founder Ezra Cornell. Cornell was founded in 1865 with the then radical intention of teaching and making contributions in all fields of knowledge.
Since its founding, Cornell has been a co-educational, non-sectarian institution where admission has not been restricted by religion or race. These are liberal traditions that Cornell holds dear: a recent article in the Cornell Chronicle heralded the first all-female class admitted to its famous Farrier program in veterinary science. Cornell was also the first university to offer degrees in journalism and the first to teach modern Far Eastern languages.
The main campus of Cornell is on East Hill in Ithaca, New York, overlooking the city and Cayuga Lake. It spreads over 2,300 acres and comprises laboratories, administrative buildings, and almost all the campus’ academic buildings, athletic facilities, auditoriums, and museums.
The architecture is an eclectic mix of Collegiate Gothic, Victorian, and Neoclassical buildings, international and modernist structures. There are other campuses and facilities in New York City itself such as the medical campus Weill Cornell in Manhattan, and the engineering campus Cornell Tech. Outside New York, Cornell has an outpost in the gulf state of Qatar, which is the first American medical college to open outside of the United States.
Ithaca campus sits at the heart of the Finger Lakes region, surrounded by green space and natural beauty. Students here are as likely to be found sitting under a tree with their nose in a book as they are taking advantage of the many clubs, societies and activities Cornell has to offer.
First-year undergraduates live on North Campus, while upper-level students often hone in on the communities that they have found, opting for a fraternity or sorority, a co-op, a themed residence hall, or an apartment off campus.
There are more than 1,000 organizations on campus, ranging from skateboarding to volunteer programs. Sporty or outdoorsy students can take part in courses as diverse as caving and rope climbing, and there are four sports centers for the fitness inclined.
Food lovers are also well catered for, with Cornell voted in the top ten universities for food, with more than 30 dining facilities across campus.
10: Columbia University (Morningside Height Campus), New York City United States
Columbia University is one of the top private universities in New York City, United States. It is ranked #22 in QS World University Rankings 2023.
Established in 1754, Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in Upper Manhattan, New York City. It was established as King’s College by royal charter of George II of Great Britain and renamed Columbia College in 1784 following the American Revolutionary War.
With an undergraduate acceptance rate of 5.8 percent, Columbia is currently the third most selective college in the United States and the second most selective in the Ivy League after Harvard. Its first president was none other than the literary great Samuel Johnson, and over the years Columbia has produced numerous distinguished alumni, from Oscar winners and Nobel laureates to Supreme Court judges. Three US Presidents and the authors of the Declaration of Independence and American Constitution were also schooled at Columbia. It also runs the highly distinguished Pulitzer Prize, an annual award for achievements in journalism, literature and musical composition.
The university is organized into 20 schools, including undergraduate schools such as Columbia College, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies, as well as graduate schools such as Columbia Law School, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia Journalism School and Columbia Business School. It also had global research outposts across the world. Its total student body numbers around 28,000 and is comprised mainly of postgraduates, with roughly 8,500 undergraduate students.
Columbia’s main campus is Morningside Heights, occupying around six city blocks in the Morningside Heights district of New York. It’s home to the neo-classical Butler library, one of the largest buildings on campus, and almost two dozen undergraduate dormitories. The university also owns 7,800 apartments in the local area, which house faculty members, students, and staff.
The campus was designed along Beaux-Arts principles and was a late 19th century vision of a campus where all disciplines could be taught. Some of its standout features include the Low Memorial Library, a National Historic Landmark, the site of the invention of FM radio, and the location where the nuclear fission of uranium first took place.
More significant for students are The Steps, a long series of granite steps which are a popular hangout and meeting place, and the bronze figure of Alma Mater, a female figure draped in an academic gown who serves as a daily reminder to students of their scholarly duties.