How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

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Our counselors answered:

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Todd Weaver
Senior Advisor Strategies for College, Inc.

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

As American's, we love "lists" and the college ranking system is no exception. However, what is right for one student may not be right at all for another. Using the standard lists to determine a college to apply to is not the best approach. I would advise keeping the influence of a "list" to a minimum and really focus more on what type of school you are looking for and where you'll find a great match for your academic goals and personality.

Joan DeSalvatore
Owner/Director College Bound Advising Today

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College rankings should be a very small factor in your choice of college. There are more and more types of rankings available right now. You can select a school that has been deemed: the best value, the best dorms, the happiest students, the biggest party school, or even the best cafeteria food. Of course you can also look at the rankings that claim to tell you which is the "best" school. As unbiased as those ranking try and appear to be, they are not necessarily going to reflect your values or interests Further, there is always some way for the school to slant the information. One thing that the recent rankings are likely to be able to determine is, which colleges are going to be the most popular. Since most people do pay attention to those listings, the rankings are likely to provide a larger amount of applications for those at the top of the lists. My best advice is to take a look at the factors used to compile the lists and consider which of those is most important to you. Once you have found the colleges that seem to best match your own criteria, visit them. When you do, take along a list of questions that you will want answered during your time on campus. By asking the same questions at each, you will have your own device for "ranking" the colleges that you are considering.

Bob Tillman
Director of College Placement Creighton Preparatory School

College Rankings offer limited information...

If someone is consulting college rankings it is important to know what the rankings are based on. For instance US News and World Report rankings provide a person with a list of schools that have a strong academic reputation, have good graduation and retention rates, are selective in admission of students, and have good salaries for their faculty and smaller lasses. Those rankings do not tell you about student satisfaction with teaching, the campus living environment, percentage of students admitted to graduate school, or friendliness of students. Some important factors to consider that often are overlooked by students and might not be included in the rankings are the core course requirements at different schools, quality of the teachers encountered in the first two years of college, ability in enroll as a freshman in my desired major, guarantee of on-campus housing beyond freshman or sophomore year, the presence of an Honor Code on the campus, and the extent of study-abroad options. The rankings can provide a prospective student with some limited information, but there is so much other information a student needs to learn to determine if a school is a good fit for them.

Whitney Bruce
Independent College Counselor

Rankings provide context for considering unfamiliar colleges...

When discussing college options with families, I sometimes use rankings as a conversation starter for colleges which might be unfamiliar to the student or parent.   If a college ranked #33 on one list is well known to a particular student,  then my suggestion of the college ranked #29 or #36 has a little bit more context and legitimacy.  I don't encourage families to place weight in specific numeric rankings, but to use rankings as an opportunity for research and discovery of other college options. 

Susie Watts
College Consultant College Direction

Look for the Fit, Not at the Rank...

I suggest students put rankings at the bottom of their list and concentrate on schools that are a good fit for them. Rankings just add to the hype surrounding college admissions and the information you get is not always relevant to choosing a college. I don’t look at rankings except to check the four-year graduation rates at different schools. Far more important than rankings, students should do some self-reflection and write down a list of qualities they consider important in a college experience. The schools they choose should have as many of these qualities as possible.

Steven Graff
Sr. Higher Education Professional The College Board

Rankings are generally unimportant to your choice of colleges...

The simplistic and subjective nature of college rankings make them only peripherally helpful and generally unimportant to choosing a college. Because of the wide variety of colleges and universities, as well as the differences between students, any ordering of institutions cannot address the many important elements critical to a good fit for you – e.g. your academic interests, the campus culture, student body compatibility, etc. If you must consult rankings, pay attention to things like attention to teaching and the qualities of the institution’s graduates, rather than those that focus on the students they admit.

Steve Thomas
Director of Admissions Colby College

You can use college rankings, but don't get lazy!...

College rankings are not vital in choosing the college you decide to attend.  They usually comprise an interesting list of very good schools, but choosing between them should be an exercise each student undertakes regardless of rank.  Be aware of each list's methodology for compiling the list and keep in mind that college rankings should not be used to shorten the exercise of finding the right fit for each student.  There is no one school that is #1 for everyone.  Dig deeper.  Always.

Stacey Kostell
Director of Undergraduate Admissions University of Illinois

Rankings don’t provide holistic reviews of universities...

Rankings can be helpful tools for evaluating colleges at a very quick glance, but can be a misleading measure if you look no further. Rankings also offer a general idea of a university’s reputation. However, talking with professionals can provide more meaningful insight into how highly regarded a degree from a certain university is after graduation. What rankings don’t measure is student life activity, such as amount and involvement in organizations and events. Nor can they share how well the school fits a particular student. The best way to determine if you picture yourself on a campus is to visit.

Scott Hamilton
Founder Future Stars College Counseling Center

Students need to understand the factors influencing a college's rank...

One of the major components in US News and World Report's annual ranking is peer ratings, in which college administrators are asked to rate other colleges. Do high schools poll students for their opinions when determining class rank? Of course not, because this would be based on personal perspective and incomplete information. Understandably, an institution's effectiveness cannot be expressed through empirical data alone. But this only serves to underscore the necessity for prospective students to ask questions of a college that will lead them to discovering the best match based on individual needs and desired outcomes.

Robin Groelle

Rankings are only helpful if they are tailored to you...

There are many resources to help students find the right colleges for them.  Starting out by visiting a few campuses in different settings will help to clarify what feels right.  Giving thought to your learning style, social character, intellectual interests and talents are other criteria that will pave the way toward finding the right college fit.  Finding college rankings for these criteria can be very helpful.  Two of my favorites are The College Finder by Steven Antonoff and The Rugg’s Recommendations by Frederick Rugg.  The US News rankings are of little help, however the articles and commentary are!