Contrary to its name, the Big 10 athletic conference is made up of 14 colleges recognized for their academic and sports prowess. In fact, the Big 10 regularly dominates college football, an essential aspect of student life.
Since the conference was founded in 1896, most Big 10s are in the Midwest, whose distinct cultures provide a nice contrast to their elite Ivy League counterparts. For one, these schools have large student bodies, and all but one are public.
Yet their high research activity and academic standards earn many of these elite schools the nickname “public Ivies.” The Big 10 tend to have higher acceptance rates, though, so if you’re looking for an Ivy-caliber education without the razor-slim chance of getting in, consider the following schools.
The order of this ranking is based on each school’s appearance in the U.S. News National Universities.
After discussing the highlights of each university, we’ll explain some of the criteria you’d need to get accepted. They vary from school to school, but we’ll go over some commonalities.
14. University of Nebraska (Lincoln, NE)
Ecology was born here. UNL has a dedicated college for agricultural sciences and natural resources, with majors in horticulture, agribusiness, grassland systems, PGA Golf management, and more.
University of Nebraska Press and the creative writing department at UNL also publish Prairie Schooner, a 95-year-old renowned literary magazine. It has published work by Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, NEA recipients, and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellows.
UNL is particularly great for psychology majors. The world’s first undergraduate psychology lab began at UNL in 1889. The Nebraska Symposium on Motivation is the world’s longest-running psychology symposium. Advanced research by faculty today gives psych students a dynamic, interdisciplinary education.
Nebraskans are passionate about football. Memorial Stadium has sold out an NCAA-record 375 consecutive games since 1962.
Acceptance Rate: 78%
13. University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA)
The University of Iowa was the first public U.S. university to admit men and women on an equal basis, regardless of race. The very first Master of Fine Arts degree was conferred at UI in 1938 for creative writing.
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the oldest and most prestigious creative writing graduate program in the country. It has attracted the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Joy Williams, and Philip Roth. Of the 46 Pulitzer Prize winners affiliated with the university, 27 either taught or graduated from the workshop.
Undergraduate programs in public health, bioinformatics, and biomedical sciences are popular for those considering a career in healthcare. In fact, UI has educated 79% of the state’s dentists, 48% of pharmacists, and half of its physicians.
Famous alumni include actors Ashton Kutcher and Gene Wilder, Hall of Fame footballer Andre Tippett, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams.
Acceptance Rate: 83%
12. Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI)
U.S. News has named MSU #1 in elementary teacher and secondary teacher education for the past 26 years. It’s also first in African history, nuclear physics, and rehabilitation counseling graduate programs.
Over the years, MSU has been a leader in research. Back in 1877, botany professor William J. Beal was the first to make hybrid corn from genetic crossing, producing higher yields. In the 1960s, MSU researchers created cisplatin and carboplatin, important cancer-fighting drugs.
Today MSU is home to the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, where leading experts have flocked to conduct research on nuclear science, astrophysics, and isotopes.
Prominent alumni include current Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, NBA basketball MVP Magic Johnson, and former South Korea prime minister Lee Wan-koo. Indian entrepreneur and MSU grad Verghese Kurien became the “Father of the White Revolution” for transforming India into the world’s largest dairy producer.
Acceptance Rate: 71%
11. Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
Indiana University Bloomington is the state’s largest university, with over 40,000 students and a plethora of designated colleges.
The renowned Jacobs School of Music has produced Grammy winners like violinist Joshua Bell and bassist Edgar Meyer. Additionally, the William and Gayle Cook Music Library is one of the largest academic music libraries in the world, with over 700,000 cataloged items in a 55,000 square-foot facility. Recently, we ranked IU among the top three performing arts colleges in the country.
The university also ranks highly in informatics, business, public and environmental affairs, and public health — all of which offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Notable alumni include The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, billionaire investor Mark Cuban, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. Another significant Ph.D. alumnus, James Watson, shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology for discovering the structure of DNA.
Acceptance Rate: 78%
10. University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN)
The University of Minnesota sprawls over twin cities Minneapolis and St. Paul, two leading US cities recognized for their cleanliness and high volunteer rate.
Minnesota grads have paved the way in STEM. Earl Bakken developed the first wearable cardiac pacemaker in 1957. Melvin Calvin co-discovered the Calvin Cycle of photosynthesis, for which he won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Another researcher at the University of Minnesota, Doctor C. Walton Lillehei, pioneered open-heart surgery and other techniques for cardiothoracic operations.
U of M encourages undergraduates to research — some are guaranteed research opportunities in their acceptance letters, and many of these opportunities are paid. Showcasing their significant commitment to R&D, Minnesota has five buildings dedicated to biomedical science research alone.
Acceptance Rate: 57%
9. Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ)
Rutgers University in New Brunswick was one of nine colonial colleges established before the American Revolution.
Today, Rutgers is made up of five campuses with their own unique character. The historic College Avenue Campus is the heart of the university in downtown New Brunswick, while Douglass, Cook, and Busch Campuses feature rural landscapes. The modern Livingston Campus is perfect for students who prefer a quieter urban setting.
Thanks to the Program for Disability Research in the School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers ranks first in the world for disability and employment research. They’ve studied the discrimination that disabled workers face, advocating for equal pay and reasonable accommodations.
Rutgers grads succeed in every field. Alumni include actors James Gandolfini and Sebastian Stan, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Acceptance Rate: 61%
8. Pennsylvania State University (State College, PA)
Penn State is one of only four other U.S. universities that participate in land-grant, sea-grant, sun-grant, and space-grant research.
This intense research focus has pushed Penn State to the top of many college ranking lists. This site names it the #1 school for pre-veterinary studies, and U.S. News puts the school at #2 for its supply chain management/logistics business degree.
Penn State academics are excellent, but so is its philanthropy. Every year Penn State hosts THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. The 46-hour dance marathon raises over $10 million a year for pediatric cancer patients and their families.
Famous Penn State alumni include actor Keegan-Michael Key, former Bhutan prime minister Jigme Thinley, and Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Paul Berg.
Acceptance Rate: 76%
7. University of Maryland (College Park, MD)
Being close to the nation’s capital comes with a few perks. The University of Maryland regularly receives funding from the National Institutes of Health, NASA, FDA, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
UMD offers over 200 degree programs through its 12 schools and colleges for specialized fields. Some of Maryland’s many top-ranked programs are computer science, aerospace engineering, and business management information systems.
Outside of academics, Maryland men’s lacrosse is one of the sport’s best programs, and the women’s field hockey team has won an unbelievable eight NCAA championships.
Notable alumni include NASA scientist Charles Bennett, TV journalists Connie Chung and Gayle King, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and Sesame Street creator Jim Henson.
Acceptance Rate: 44%
6. Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN)
Purdue was founded as an engineering school in 1869 and continues that legacy today as one of the top engineering schools in America. U.S. News ranks Purdue #1 in agricultural engineering and #2 in industrial engineering. Other competitive areas include civil engineering, aerospace engineering, and cybersecurity.
In 1995, the English department at Purdue launched OWL Purdue, the first-ever Online Writing Lab. Today, many colleges still refer to this initiative for standards in academic writing.
Purdue grads go on to achieve high honors. Three of them — Neil Armstrong, Brian Lamb, and John Wooden — have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At least nineteen alumni have been on a Super Bowl-winning team, including quarterbacks Drew Brees, Bob Griese, and Len Dawson.
Acceptance Rate: 60%
5. Ohio State University (Columbus, OH)
OSU is a huge school: over 65,000 students study almost 400 distinct programs, participating in over 1,000 student organizations and sports.
All that energy revolves around research, as OSU is #3 nationally in industry-sponsored research and a top 12 public research university. For 2020-21, Ohio State was the #1 top producer of Fulbright scholars.
The freshman experience is especially notable, with almost 80% of first-year classes having 50 or fewer students. CBS MoneyWatch calls OSU freshmen among the “happiest” out of the nation’s public schools.
Four Nobel laureates, seven Pulitzer Prize winners, and 104 Olympic medalists have either learned or taught at Ohio State. A handful of U.S. members of Congress have also spent time here, including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Delaware Senator Tom Carper.
Acceptance Rate: 54%
4. University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana, IL)
Like the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis-St. Paul, University of Illinois straddles twin cities Champaign and Urbana.
It started out as the Illinois Industrial University, which set out to provide education in agriculture and industrial arts. Today, UIUC has expanded into a sprawling liberal arts university, which houses one of the world’s top agriculture colleges: the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences.
In total, there are over 150 undergraduate majors and 100 graduate/professional programs to choose from. This includes a booming computer science concentration: the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois advances state-sponsored STEM research.
Notable alumni include YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, and touchscreen inventor Donald Bitzer.
Acceptance Rate: 59%
3. University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI)
The University of Wisconsin at Madison is the state’s biggest employer, with over 21,000 faculty and staff spread out over 20 colleges and schools.
“The Wisconsin Idea” permeates every aspect of UW’s research, which endeavors to improve the health, quality of life, and environment for all Wisconsinites.
In 1905, UW granted the first ever PhD in chemical engineering to Oliver Patterson Watts. Over 100 years later, the school still leads the country in chemical engineering, especially for undergraduates.
The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at UW offers a competitive nine-month fellowship for writers to hone their craft. Famous past fellows include Ann Packer, Quan Barry, and Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr.
Other notable alumni include naturalist John Muir, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Acceptance Rate: 54%
2. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)
The University of Michigan gained the nickname “Harvard of the West” after John F. Kennedy gave a speech there where he called himself a graduate of “the Michigan of the East,” Harvard University.
Famous jokes aside, Michigan carries high standards to the modern-day. It’s best known for graduate programs at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, College of Engineering, School of Medicine, School of Dentistry, and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Undergraduate programs are also top-notch. U.S. News rates Michigan #3 in business and #6 in engineering. Additionally, Niche.com ranks Michigan as the very best public school in the nation.
Famous alumni include actors James Earl Jones and Lucy Liu, playwright Arthur Miller, and Google co-founder Larry Page.
Acceptance Rate: 23%
1. Northwestern University (Evanston, IL)
Located near downtown Chicago, Northwestern is a private top 10 national university and the most selective Big 10 school. Northwestern home to several big-name graduate schools, including the Kellogg School of Management, Pritzker School of Law, and Feinberg School of Medicine. The top-ranked Medill School of Journalism offers both undergraduate and graduate programs.
Like Penn State, Northwestern hosts an annual dance marathon that raises money for a different charity every year. From children’s hospitals to organizations for underprivileged communities, the university has raised upwards of $1 million per year since 2011.
Famous alumni include Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin; Emmy award winners Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stephen Colbert, and Mayo Clinic founder Dr. Charles Horace Mayo.
Acceptance Rate: 9%
How to Get Into a Big 10 School
It’s hard to generalize the Big 10 schools. Though most are Midwestern, some — Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State — are based on the east coast. Demographics and major offerings will vary accordingly.
However, all Big 10 schools value athletics and research-based academics. They come with all the benefits of going to a large university: diverse majors, vibrant Greek life, ample student organizations, and more.
It would be wise to look into the specific requirements of each school, but here’s a baseline of the kinds of grades, test scores, and extracurriculars that will make you stand out.
You’ll want to be average to above average in your high school graduating class. This means a GPA of at least 3.0 (preferably higher), ACT scores in the upper 20s and 30s, and SAT scores breaking at least 1100. Better yet, show that you’ve succeeded in AP, IB, and honors classes.
If your scores are on the low end, make sure your extracurriculars shine. Big 10 schools want to be able to see you excel outside the classroom. Did you volunteer at a local organization? Do you have meaningful job or leadership experience? How have you demonstrated your passion for particular subjects?
There’s no single formula for getting into any school, let alone the Big 10, so do your research. Applying to Northwestern will differ widely from applying to Iowa, which will vary with Purdue, and so on.