preparing for college

Why You Should Ignore the College Rankings Hoopla This Year and Every Year

At this point, it feels like an annual tradition in higher education. The US News and World Report releases its rankings for the “best” colleges and universities, sells a huge number of copies of their magazine, and triggers an avalanche of responses from academics and thought leaders who assault the value of one-size-fits-all rankings. I weighed in two years ago on this blog, breaking down the methodology for the US News and World Report college rankings (which remains largely the same), and encouraging students to think more generally about the value of their education.

Get Outside The Top 10

Whether we like it or not, the rankings are not going anywhere. Colleges continue to fill out the annual survey (well, except conscientious objectors like my alma mater) and students continue to use it to build their lists. So I’d like to encourage you to at least think about the rankings differently. If you’re focused on the top 10 or 20 or even 50 colleges on the US News and World Report college rankings, you’re boxing yourself into a very small percentage of the colleges in this country. There are approximately 2,900 four-year colleges and universities in the United States—an embarrassment of riches!—and for some reason the news media focuses exclusively on the schools in the top .3% of rankings: the Top 10. Ask yourself whether you’d be satisfied with a school in the top 10%. If so, there are 290 colleges out there for you. The top 5%? Great. There are 145 colleges out there that fit that criterion. Do you see where I’m going with this? Limit yourself to the top 10 and you’re setting yourself up for sure disappointment, but re-define the meaning of the rankings, and you’ve got breathing room to find an institution that truly matches you.

What Is Good?

At my first meetings with my students, I almost always ask them for their goals for their time working with me, and almost universally they answer “I want to get into a ‘good’ college.” As a philosopher by training, I focus on that word in quotations and throw it right on back at them: what does good mean to you? What are you looking for out of a college experience? What are your values, your preferences, your academic and social instincts, and how can colleges help your understanding of those characteristics evolve over the next four years?

I find that the students most willing to engage in these kinds of questions—and most willing to challenge their own concepts of what constitutes a “good” education—have the best-fit lists and are well-positioned to choose a college or university that makes them truly happy. Those that put this question aside until the very end of the summer before their senior year often look to college rankings systems like US News and World Report to tell them what “good” is. And their lists are ultimately more representative of what a newspaper thinks is good than what they themselves do.

Where College Rankings Come Up Short

Rankings are helpful when we want to buy a car or choose a toaster. I almost always look at the highest rated products when choosing a new pair of shoes or a winter coat—rankings are invaluable for simple transactions. But I do not choose my friends based on where they might be ranked by others. I choose them because their personalities and senses of humor fit my own. I did not choose my wife because she was at or near the top of the list of the best women in the city in which I was living—I chose her because I loved her, and she loved me. We fit in a way that enriches my life every single day, irrespective of what outside ratings systems might have to say (though most other people think my wife is pretty great too, I will admit). The point is that for personal choices like who we love, how we spend our time, what we read, what makes us passionate, we pay attention to our heart and look for ways to make our own best selves. Choosing a college—a truly powerful and life-changing experience—should be no different. Follow your mind, follow your heart.

To learn more about putting together a good-fit college list based on more than college rankings, listen to our episode of Getting In: A College Coach Conversation on college admissions by the numbers.

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Written by Ian Fisher
Ian Fisher is an experienced educational consultant, part of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Ian received his master’s in policy, organization, and leadership studies from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Ian worked as a senior admissions officer at Reed College. Visit our website to learn more about Ian Fisher.