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How to Make Most Out of College Rankings [Quick Tips]

Kofi Kankam

Every year, eager college prospects, parents, and folks in admissions alike clamor for various reports on college rankings. With our insatiable need for statistics and superficial information overload, we review the lists for validation (Yes, our ivy-covered towers are still standing strong!), redemption (Fingers crossed, please let our ranking improve from last year’s abysmal standing!), or the recognition we so desperately crave (Look at us, look at us — we’re an awesome school you’ve just never heard of!).  

What I would suggest, however, is that you look at the college rankings in a different, more meaningful light:  

1) Consider the information as merely one data point among many as you evaluate colleges;

2) Use the information to shed light on schools that were perhaps not on your radar;

3) Read the articles that often accompany these lists rather than just peruse the statistics, as they often highlight interesting programs and opportunities at schools that would otherwise be missed in merely scanning the numbers.


1. One Data Point in a Sea of Many

The college selection process should be just that – a process. No one thing should be the single deciding factor in your school selections, be it a particular class, professor, friend, parent, statistic, or coveted school ranking.  

Rather, multiple criteria should be used in aggregate to support the selection or dismissal of each school under consideration. Not all of your selection criteria should be considered equally, so this is something that each student must figure out for himself. 

Prioritize your college selection criteria based on what is most important to you. For some students, this may mean a specific major followed by a cultural climate of tolerance and location of the campus. For others, the chance to conduct research on the undergraduate level, small class size, and division I athletics may be the most important considerations.

   1. Create a list of the criteria that matter to you most, factoring in your personal goals, preferences, background, and advice from those around you.
   2. Use the list as a personal guide as you’re processing the rankings and options. Use it as a reminder of the things that are personally and professionally important to you.
   3. Be flexible. Feel free to reassess or alter the list throughout the process as you consume more information from different sources. Just make sure you’re not changing it around so often that it defeats the purpose of having a list of criteria in the first place!

Understanding that college rankings, whether they be from a trusted internet source or a traditional print publication, are only one metric of how well colleges and universities are doing is the first step to make most out of the rankings. They should suggest, not determine, your school selection.


2. See Past the Obvious: Name Recognition is Not Everything

When I look through a coveted online college rankings website and see that Princeton is ranked number one with Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford trailing closely behind, I can honestly say that I’m not shocked. Nor, I suspect, are you.  

There are going to be lots of obvious choices on most college rankings lists, especially considering many of the standard metrics commonly used: peer assessments, faculty resources, yield, selectivity, and alumni giving. The top 20 schools on most “best colleges” lists are almost always easily recognized throughout America and the world, and aptly so, admission to one of these elite institutions will inevitably be difficult.  

But here’s where I think it gets more interesting or, at the very least, less predictable – drop down into that 20 and above category and you might discover some of the lesser-known schools that may be the real gems.  

Consider a school like Case Western Reserve, an academic stronghold in Ohio with formidable programs in the sciences and located in a cultural hub in Cleveland. Look to the north and discover Northeastern University, a school that both recognizes the value of real world experience and then requires students to go about developing some before graduation in their cooperative education program. Destined for a career as an engineer? Consider Rensselaer in New York, which offered admission to 44% of its applicants vs. a paltry 9% offered at the more widely known and prestigious MIT.  

I could pick and choose additional schools from a number of reputable sources that probably aren’t cracking anybody’s top 20 list and use the next ten pages highlighting why you might consider them. But I won’t – there are already great resources out there, like Colleges That Change Lives.

The more open you enter this evaluative process of colleges, the more likely you will discover nearly endless possibilities of rich and rewarding programs. 

3. Do Your Research

As fascinating as a list (or a series of lists) might be, they’re still merely lists, and only so much useful information can be gleaned from them.

Step back from the numbers and read some of the anecdotal stories provided by students highlighting their experiences and why they chose particular schools. Or read the pieces that challenge you, as the applicant, to do an assessment of your college and learning values and priorities. Scan the articles about interesting majors and real-world experience that will help you land a job post-graduation. 

From year to year and publication to publication, the focus of these articles that accompany these lists will vary somewhat, but the topics will be relevant and encourage you to stay in the moment as you walk through the college selection and application process.  

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Kofi Kankam

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Kofi Kankam

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