How to Make the Most of College Rankings

The following piece was written by Kofi Kankam. Kofi has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former admissions interviewer for The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the co-founder of Admit Advantage.

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

One Data Point in a Sea of Many

The college selection process should be just that: a process. No one thing – be it a particular class, professor, friend, parent, statistic, or coveted school ranking – should be the single deciding factor in your school selections. 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 essentials based on what is most important to you. For some students, a specific major followed by a cultural climate of tolerance and location may be the driving forces behind his school selections. For others, the chance to conduct research on the undergraduate level, small class size, and Division I athletics may be the most important considerations. College rankings, be it from a trusted internet source or a traditional print publication, are only one metric of how well colleges and universities are doing across the country, not necessarily the most important and certainly not the only.

See the Possibilities and Not Just the Obvious: Name Recognition is Not Everything!

When I reach for a coveted report on college rankings and I flip through the pages to discover 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 the lists get 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 of it 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 10 pages to highlight why you might consider them. The point is this: the more open you enter this evaluative process of colleges, the greater the possibility of discovering that the number of rich and rewarding programs being offered is almost endless.

Don’t Forget to Read the Articles: Yes, More Reading!

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, 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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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.