Guidebooks, rankings and relatives, oh my

College Advice

By Marilyn G. S. Emerson, College Planning Services, Inc.


They can provide you with lots of facts and figures, although, due to the time lag between writing and publishing, the statistics cited might not be current. Some guidebooks also provide the reader with descriptions of the campus and the student body.  Realize that, no guidebook can keep up with changes to curriculum and facilities, and no guidebook can substitute for seeing a school for yourself. 

Guidebooks definitely make a good jumping off point for your college search, but you need to remember that the accounts college or university and campus life, provided by some guidebooks, may be quite subjective. Three reviewers may look at the same campus setting, on the same day at the same time, and describe it differently. Their descriptions will be based on their own background, experiences and biases. One reviewer may find a particular city location scary, while another finds it delightfully energetic. Also reviewers might even use the same words to mean different things.  For example, a setting might be described as bucolic, meaning rustic, by one reviewer and bucolic, meaning pastoral, by another.  Still a third reviewer might think that any kind of bucolic setting is hellish. All of the reviewers are “correct,” because what they feel about a school is based on how they see the school through their own eyes - their own likes, dislikes biases and prejudices.
There is no substitute for seeing a school for yourself and developing your own opinions.


Wouldn’t most of us love to point with pride to a ranking and be able to say - “My college is in the top 10%?”  It is human nature to want the best and the rankings play to this aspect of our psyche.
Rankings are at best oversimplified measures based on somewhat arbitrary sets of weighted variables selected by “experts.”  When you think about the variables that are used in a specific ranking, ask yourself who is to say that a specific category should be given so much weight. What would happen if we were to change the amount of weight given to five of the variables used in a specific ranking?  What would happen if we added or subtracted a category or two?  Would the list look different?  What makes the “experts” experts?

Don’t put more weight on the rankings than they deserve. Think instead about creating a list of colleges where you will flourish academically and be happy socially.

It is okay to use the rankings as a basic guide, but don’t treat them as “gospel.”

Friends and Relatives

Have you ever noticed how things are either wonderful or terrible?  The same holds true for college or university reviews from well meaning friends, relatives and hair dressers. When they learn that you are college bound, most everyone you meet will suggest their son’s, aunt’s, cousin’s college for you and/or their own alma mater.  With smiles on their faces they will recount many happy times. While Big Mountain College may have been great for Uncle Jack in the 70’s, you need to remember that his favorite history professor has probably retired, disco is now a once a year theme night and the campus probably looks a lot different than did back then. 
Additionally, these kind-hearted people will happily give you their opinions about many different institutions of higher learning. Their biases are determined either by their own specific experiences or that of a family member, friend, neighbor or acquaintance. Sometimes it is even something they just heard in the elevator.  Some will be trying genuinely to help, others may have their own agendas, all will relate their stories with relish.

While listening to these tales, remember to keep an open mind.  You need to know the source and the facts to put what you are told in context.  Just because someone says it is so definitely, does not mean it is so. 

Smile, thank them and move on.