How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College Search

Our counselors answered:

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Mollie Reznick
Associate Director The College Connection

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College rankings should be taken with a LARGE grain of salt. These rankings are based on things that you likely wouldn't care about as an incoming freshman: for instance what the president's annual salary is and what percentage of alumni are donors. These rankings do not in any way assess the *quality* of the education you would receive or how happy and successful you would be at any given school.

Chip Law
Co-founder Managing Director Educational Avenues

Hype, hype and more hype!

College rankings are informative: they tell you what schools have maintained their rank or even more importantly, did they move (or God forbid relinquish a spot or two); they tell you the percentage of those that got accepted out of all those seeking admission (the less accepted, the higher the ranking in theory; and among other things they tell you that for the creme de la creme schools the SAT or ACT scores of their incoming class averages in the 99th percentile. None of this hype should matter to you when you seek to find the best place to spend the next four years building skills you need to be successful in college and life. If you look at the way much of the public views the rankings, their charm comes from bestowing on those that are accepted into their hallowed halls, a patina of prestige, pride and elitism ostensibly earned by the student's overall excellence in achievement to date. (I won't even begin the discussion of these student's parents take on this subject.) While I'm being a bit cynical in my description, the reality of ranking envy can cause you look at schools for the wrong reasons. Develop your list of likely choices for college FIRST. Choose them on the basis of fit, affordability, having your possible major, offering a social environment that works for you, has the right size student body and location that is desirable to you. THEN look at the rankings: maybe some of your choices will be at the top: whoopee! The important thing is that you did your homework and picked your schools based on THE most important criteria for you.

Kathryn Lento

Getting to the Bottom of Rankings

College rankings can be useful, but they are only one data point and not the most important one at that. They can also be misleading because the underlying factors they base the rankings on may not be important to you. It is important to always look at what went into the rankings before you allow them to influence your decision. You also have to take a broader view of the numbers. Is a college that ranks 25 in a different class than one that ranks 30? Better to identify the bottom ranking number you are willing to accept and go about finding the best fit college in terms of academic opportunities and campus fit. You might to decide to attend a school that is ranked a little lower because it offers you more research, internship or scholarship opportunities...the chance to leave your fingerprints on something.

Willard Dix
Director of Programming Chicago Scholars

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Since choosing a college is such a highly individualized decision, college rankings mean absolutely nothing to individuals. There is no "absolute value" of colleges just as there is no "absolute value" of human beings; the question can only be phrased as "what is the best college for you?" Although it's tempting to say that top-ranked schools are "best," that's taking everything out of context. It's possible to say that College A has 32 Nobel Prize winners and College B has 2, but does that really tell you anything? And will you benefit from their wisdom, seeing as how they probably do very little teaching? If the top 10 colleges are mostly in rural or suburban areas and you're a city kid, are they top ten for you? Probably not. You're much better off ignoring the rankings and going with your own idiosyncratic requirements.

Geoff Broome
Assistant Director of Admissions Widener University

damn rankings and the rankers who rank them.

There are so many rankings out there it is baffling. What's even more is that no two rankings share the same methodology. Colleges can post whatever rankings they choose to show you. But, someone please tell me the difference between the number 1 school and the 20th school other than their name and location. For that matter, someone tell me the difference between #20 and #50. Across the country there are great schools that don't get ranked. There are several factors. Maybe they didn't get enough applications, or they didn't reject enough students. Maybe of the students that were admitted, only a certain percent actually decided to attend that college. These are determining factors in several rankings. Does this really measure the worth of a school? Absolutely not. There are countless successful people in this world that did not attend a "ranked" college or university. Don't buy the hype.

Cheryl Millington

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Rankings are great to help you narrow your choices. But it’s important to know the methodology of the ranking; how number one versus number 100 was determined. If you had access to the raw numbers, you’ll be surprised to know that sometimes there are very small differences in scores, for example, between number 15 and 20. Also, try to determine how the information was gathered. Who supplied the information? When was the research conducted? The answers to these questions can change the results of the rankings. Some of the factors considered may not be important to you or be as heavily weighted if you were to come up with your own ranking. You may have noticed that different rankings have different results, so look for consistency. I like to divide rankings into quarters and then see if a school consistently falls in a particular quarter. Not every school participates in every ranking, so don’t assume if they are not listed, they were below the lowest university on the ranking. Therefore, use the information carefully and wisely.

Michael Szarek
Director and Founder College Counseling for the Rest of Us

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

They can play a role in your initial search to identify colleges that have a strength in one of your areas of interest. But, once you've identified your top choices, go with your own eyes, your own research and your own conclusions.

Karen Ekman-Baur
Director of College Counseling Leysin American School

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

College rankings are interesting to look at, but more important than the overall rankings would be the reputation(s) of the department(s) in which you might choose to major. Some schools which are not at the top of the overall rankings have outstanding programs in certain areas. Quite negative rankings could raise "red flags" about specific institutions. In those cases, you would want to research those schools thoroughly to alleviate any concerns you might have. If you do feel compelled to consider rankings, the criteria on which the rankings are based might be more relevant to you - things like "Freshman Retention Rate", "Graduation Rate", and so on. You can also get an idea of the SAT/ACT range of most of the schools on the ranking list to determine whether a college/university would be a realistic choice for you based on your own scores. There may be other ranking criteria that are of interest to you personally. A number of institutions, some of them with excellent reputations, have stood up against the ranking systems, feeling that they inordinately sway student and parent opinion without providing a full picture of the schools involved. Keep this in mind as you use the ranking systems as part of your college research plan, and be sure to use a number of other research resources in reaching your decisions. Many students (parents) get so hung up on the rankings that they aren't open to investigating really great schools that didn't make it to the top of the ranking list - institutions where the student could get a wonderful education. That's quite a shame and is a great disservice to you - the student. You've probably heard it many times before, but remember that what you're looking for will be the best "fit" for you, and that's something so individual that it can't possibly be part of a ranking system.

Tony Tso
Headmaster Terasmanna Oikademy

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Think about it. If you were to go about ranking 10 latest movies and publish your report for your friends' benefit, how much weight should your friends give to your ranking? How about 2,500 movies? You see the challenge of ranking and interpreting its significance? But you have to start somewhere. So a ranking guide is a good starting place to identify the pool of candidates for your consideration. I would say a top 25 to 50 in any one category would be a good base line. Forget about the #1, #2 and so on ranking status. They are absolutely meaningless. The No. 1 selling automobile in America only means that there are more of them on the road than the next one, and why would any sensible car buyer care? We all have our own criteria by which to evaluate such a decision.

Pamela Hampton-Garland
Owner Scholar Bound

How important are college rankings when choosing a college?

Not very, choosing a college is like choosing an outfit, does it fit you and enhance your positives, if not the brand may impress others but make you feel out of your comfort zone.