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Navigating university rankings

I’m convinced there’s a university-ranking list for just about everything at this point. There are the exhaustive Princeton Review rankings that include everything from the most politically aware students to the top party schools. According to NerdWallet, if you want to become a billionaire, you have a better chance if you attend one of the schools on their “Best Schools of Becoming a Billionaire” list. Forbes, being a business publication, decided to go a different route and focus on the rate of investment in choosing its top 100 colleges. For the first time ever, Money magazine jumped into the game and named their list of “Best Colleges for Your Money” with a surprising choice for the top school overall this year. If you’re trying to figure out the top-ranked universities in the world, you can visit shanghairanking.com, topuniversities.com or even timeshighereducation.co.uk. Even the stalwart U.S. News and World Report has recently added global rankings to their annual lists. 

Like beauty, university rankings are in the eye of the beholder. Rankings are not inherently bad as they can help an overwhelmed student narrow down and explore their options. However, they shouldn’t be the sole factor in finalising the college application list.

Know who is behind the rankings and why. Chances are someone is trying to sell magazines or get traffic to their website. Trust me, you garner a lot of attention when you compile lists such as the "top party schools" or the "richest alums". The big and outrageous titles sell magazines. In addition, rankings can stoke the proverbial arms race when it comes to applying—especially to highly selective colleges. This is especially important for international students. These rankings can get confusing and international students may mistakenly think the government is responsible for these lists. In most cases, they aren’t. It’s often a private entity that compiles the data.  

Like beauty, university rankings are in the eye of the beholder.

Understand the methodology. One of the main criticisms of the U.S. News rankings is that information relies heavily on school reputation. This gives older, well-established institutions higher points and advantage over newer (used loosely) universities. Make sure you understand how the evaluator is comparing schools. Know who is giving responses and how the responses are being measured. This can give you important insight to the “quality” of the rankings at hand.

Keep in mind that rankings are based on someone else’s metrics. Rankings aren’t individualised so they say nothing about whether or not you will be happy at that campus. They just tell you about the general type of student that attends there. And while it might be fantastic that a school ranks number one when it comes to ultimate Frisbee, that is completely irrelevant if you have no intention of ever playing the game. Ultimately, it matters what you do once you get on campus. All the rankings in the world don’t matter if you do not have a particular plan for your education and career. Plenty of students are successful graduates from schools that don’t even crack the top 200 on plenty of lists. Not every student from the top 10 is impressively successful. 

Every college has strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is to assess how they stack up against your personalised college criteria. As a smart consumer, it’s more important to evaluate a school against features that YOU find important. Not the U.S. News and World Report. Not the Princeton Review. Not anyone else. 

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