It's easy to assume that a highly ranked college is a good choice. But is a "best" college really the best one for you?
The buzz around college rankings is impossible to miss. Putting some "top" schools on your college list may look like an obvious and easy decision. But rankings should support—not replace—your own research.
Who's on First: You or the Rankings?
It takes time and careful thought to find colleges that will fit you well. It might be tempting to let a college ranking point the way. But before you start adding top-ranked colleges to your list, ask yourself the questions below.
How Does the Ranking Define a "Good" College?
It can be hard to see why some colleges get to the top—or even get on the list in the first place. Look for an explanation of what college qualities are valued—and how they are measured.
- Each ranking assumes that certain college qualities are more important than others. For example, some rankings highly value academic strength. Some highly value the quality of student life.
- Some rankings rely on subjective input, such as opinions of college professionals or students. Others use objective data, such as qualifications of entering freshmen, graduation rates, or sizes of college endowments.
What Does It Take to Get to the Top of the List?
The organization conducting the ranking should provide an explanation of how it collects data and opinions, and how it weights these factors.
- The famous U.S. News ranking gives a great deal of weight to a "peer assessment survey," in which college presidents rate other colleges similar to their own. They are not asked how familiar they actually are with those colleges.
- For its "America's Best College Buys," Forbes bases 25 percent of the ranking on student ratings of professors. But participation in the student ratings is not monitored. Anyone, including those outside the college, can rate a professor.
Can the Ranking Help Your College Search?
A ranking might be useful if it reflects what you want in a college. Rankings can also educate you about college qualities you may have overlooked, such as campus safety and rate of admission to graduate schools.
- Look at specialized rankings. Students interested in a college's environmental polices might take a look at the annual Sierra Club college ranking. U.S. News ranks national liberal arts colleges and regional universities, which might include schools you may have overlooked.
- Student opinion rankings can give you an insider's take on dorm food, the off-campus atmosphere, what students do for fun, and more. Just be sure the opinions gathered are only from students at that college.
To explore a range of rankings, take a look at the list of undergraduate college rankings from University of Illinois.
Turn to the Ranking That Counts the Most—Yours!
Do yourself a favor. Don't start with the ranking, start with you. The most meaningful college ranking is based on qualities that make a college a good fit for you. The colleges you put on your list should be ranked highly—by you.