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Avoiding the Pitfalls of College Rankings

Rankings of America's best colleges and universities are compiled annually by a number of organizations based on a variety of criteria from standardized tests scores to student retention rate to alumni giving rate and more. For many college applicants and their parents, rankings are a useful tool to help them decide where to apply, but they can also add confusion to the already complicated application process. To help you understand how college rankings can be useful to you and what to watch out for, below is some information about college rankings including the benefits and criticisms, as well as detailed information about the major rankings.

Understand the Methodology

Rankings are often criticized for relying on arbitrary or obsolete criteria -- such as alumni giving and volumes in the library -- that may not be pertinent to measuring the quality of a school. For example, alumni giving may reflect how aggressive a school is in seeking alumni donations rather than how satisfied the alumni are with their education. Likewise, given the proliferation of the Internet, the number of volumes in the library may no longer reflect the quality of the educational experience. You should know and understand the factors that go into each set of rankings before drawing conclusions.

Consider the Trends

Applicants whose goal is to attend a top college may get too caught up in the numbers. But a college’s ranking number may vary significantly from year to year and from one ranking to the next. In addition, whether you attend a college that is ranked #9 or #14 is relatively irrelevant. Because of the way the numbers can fluctuate and the variety of available rankings, it is more useful to view colleges in tiers rather than focus on their absolute rankings. For example, if a college consistently ranks in the top 10 from year to year and across different rankings, then consider it a Tier 1 school. The number of tiers that you use to categorize the colleges you are considering will vary depending on how many colleges you are considering and how spread out they are in terms of their rankings. And if you are considering a very specific area of study, then it more important to look at rankings of that area of study rather than general rankings.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Individual Data

While the statistics that accompany the rankings are useful for providing a general idea of the range of standardized test scores and GPAs of admitted students, that information is insufficient for determining your chances of admission at those colleges. So, do not cross a college off your list because your test scores are below their average. There are more than 50 different criteria that are typically considered in admissions decisions.

The only way to really know where you stand at top colleges is to consider how well your complete profile matches each college’s criteria, which can be complicated to figure out. For example, your test scores may be below average for College A, but your GPA/class rank may be above average for that college, then you have activities and other factors to consider. So, it is difficult to understand where you stand at a particular college. But Go4Ivy has developed a “calculator” that can tell you how well your background and achievements match up with the admissions criteria of the colleges you are considering. To learn more about finding out your chances of admission, see How It Works.

…But Is It a Good Fit?

If your goal is to attend one of the “best” colleges, it’s easy to get caught up in the rankings. But focusing on whether a college is #1 or #5 is far less important that finding one that is a great fit for you. If you are interested in a particular major, it is more important for you to consider colleges that are well-regarded in that area of study rather than highly ranked overall.

How College Rankings Are Useful

Extensive Data in One, Convenient Location

College rankings are often accompanied by a significant amount of data about each college all conveniently aggregated in one place. So, even if you ignore the actual numerical rankings, there is value in the data that is provided that may help you get a better sense of the strengths and characteristics of particular colleges. For example, you may be interested in comparing average class sizes of particular colleges or the percentage of students who participate in Greek life.

Discover New Colleges

College rankings lists are a great way to discover colleges that are not currently on your radar. Even if you already have a list of colleges that you really like, you can scan the rankings data to find additional colleges with similar characteristics that you might want to research further.

The Rankings

There are a number of different college rankings sources and each one considers different criteria. Below is a brief summary of some of the most popular rankings to give you a starting point for understanding what’s behind the rankings and how best to use them.

U.S. News & World Report

The U.S. News rankings are the most popular and, arguably, the most comprehensive, since they consider a range of both qualitative and quantitative data. The rankings are calculated using a quantitative formula that measures sixteen factors that comprise “academic excellence” including academic reputation (by survey of peer institutions and high school counselors), student retention rate, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate, and alumni giving rate. Research universities, national liberal arts colleges, and regional colleges and universities are ranked separately, which makes sense in order to try to compare apples to apples; however, having separate lists makes it difficult for students to compare colleges across the lists. Rankings of undergraduate business and engineering programs, historically black colleges, and other specific rankings are also available. An extensive amount of useful data is published along with the rankings, which is worth perusing.

Princeton Review

The Princeton Review rankings are primarily based on student surveys. They also use data and feedback from administrators, parents, educators, Princeton Review staff, and Princeton Review Advisory Board members. What makes the Princeton Review rankings unique is that there are 62 separate rankings lists, so applicants can use the lists to focus in on specific aspects of colleges to help find ones that match their preferences. It is, however, important to note that these rankings are primarily based on student surveys and Princeton Review's "high opinion of [the colleges'] academics.” So, as always, it is important to consider other information sources as well.


Forbes’ annual college ranking is based on “quality of the education [the colleges] provide” and “the experiences of the students and how much they achieve.” More than 10 factors are used to determine the rankings. The most heavily weighed factors are “student satisfaction” (measured by student evaluations and retention rates) and “post-graduate success” (measured by salary and number of famed alumni). The Forbes ranking is unique in that it emphasizes the return on investment for each college by considering data such as alumni salaries, debt load, and student loan default rates; these criteria comprise more than a third of each college’s ranking.

The Wall Street Journal

The WSJ ranks 25 colleges based upon feedback from recruiters regarding the quality of each college’s graduates. It also includes a ranking of the best schools in each major, which is useful for applicants who have already determined their preferred area of study. While there is some value in these rankings, the ranking methodology and scope is highly qualitative and limited, so the information is best used in conjunction with other rankings and information sources.

Next Steps

While college rankings can help you identify colleges to consider and provide some useful data, the only way to really know where you stand at top colleges is to consider how well your complete profile matches each college’s admissions criteria.

Go4Ivy has developed a “calculator” that will allow you to know where you stand at your top choice colleges. Your background, test scores, and academic and extracurricular activities are run through our proven algorithms to calculate your percentage chances of admission.  To learn more about getting your chances of admission, see How It Works or click on the button below to get started.


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