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Looking Beyond Rankings in the College Search Process

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Aysha Wong College Coach

Written by Aysha Wongon November 15th, 2022

I started my career as a freshman admissions counselor at the University of Florida, where I grew my passion for higher education while recruiting students and evaluating applications from the three largest counties in the state. I also took on the challenge of leading the planning and execution of large-scale recruitment and yield events targeting underrepresented and underserved student populations. I sought out opportunities to expand my knowledge as an assistant director of admission focused on international admission. In that role, I recruited and evaluated both undergraduate and graduate applications for students applying from all regions of the world. I also created and optimized our international student recruitment and yield strategies while collaborating closely with the international student services office, Graduate School, and academic graduate departments to develop admission policies and guidelines that best served students of all backgrounds. Although I have worked with students from every corner of the world, my specific interest and focus included students from Latin America and the Caribbean. I also served on the university student petitions committee, the admission rescind committee, and the admission merit scholarship committee during my time at the University of Florida.
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by Aysha Wong, former admissions officer at University of Florida There are very few moments in life when we get to make a choice that potentially shapes the way our lives play out for the foreseeable future. You find these moments when you’re deciding which neighborhood to buy your home in, or when deciding if you should accept a job offer in a new city, or in the case of most of you reading this, when deciding which colleges to apply to and enroll in. When making choices like these, which seem like they will decide our futures, we tend to lean into the measurable. The quantifiable offers comfort because it allows us to simplify a process which feels uncomfortably complex and create a visage of order. How should students use college rankings in the college search process? As it relates to the college search process, this is where rankings often come in, creating a sense of a firmer grasp on where colleges stand. With over 3,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. to choose from, the process of narrowing down to a select few can feel overwhelming, and the vast amount of information that families are left to wade through can leave them feeling as if they are drowning. In these scenarios, college rankings can feel like a life-preserver, as they seem to provide an easy-to-process snapshot of the quality of a college, much in the same way our credit scores provide a snapshot of our financial responsibility. But, just as our credit scores don’t paint a complete picture of our financial circumstances, rankings fail to provide us with the comprehensive insight needed to fully understand all that a college has to offer. It’s important to first understand that rankings are almost always entirely calculated using only academic data and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it does leave a major gap in one’s ability to understand what an experience on that college’s campus may consist of. While colleges are indeed academic institutions, what they offer goes far beyond academic and career outcomes, faculty data, and admissions stats. When we look at the college experience as a whole, we see that at the heart of a student’ success are the interactions they have with the campus community, the levels of academic and non-academic support offered to them, and the ease and comfort with which they are able to navigate their daily lives. And it’s in these less quantifiable qualities that we find what’s needed to fully understand the culture and quality of an institution. What factors should students consider beyond college rankings? So now that we’ve established that an informed decision about where to apply and enroll cannot be made without looking beyond a college’s ranking, the next step will be to explore how and where we can gather the information necessary to make the best possible choice. Just as I would in the home buying or job selection processes, I would first identify what I value, need, and desire in a potential college experience. For most students this requires deep self-reflection and a look into their past to identify what has contributed to prior successes. From there, what a student ultimately identifies as important can range from the ability to compete in co-ed sand volleyball to access to a curriculum that supports a multidisciplinary approach to their study. What, specifically, they identify matters little. What matters is that they can now take that information and use it to zero in on the institutions which align with their values and satisfy their needs. To accomplish this, I encourage students to connect with the colleges’ virtual resources, including visiting their websites, attending virtual tours and events, and following the colleges’ social media pages for a broader perspective on campus life. With cost and affordability often being important considerations for families, a great resource can be College Scorecard, which can assist in making financial comparisons between colleges. To complement this, it may also be useful to explore an institution’s Career Resource Center’s website, where information on career placement rates and internship opportunities can typically be found. If you are curious about the way a college supports its student body, whether it be through mental health counseling, tutoring, or mentorship opportunities, I would turn to the Dean of Student’s Office website, which often serves as the hub for student-centered resources. It’s also a good idea to connect with currently enrolled students at the college for a firsthand account of student life.  Many admissions offices house ambassador programs which will put prospective students in direct contact with current students. Ultimately, I believe one of the most impactful ways to gain some perspective on a college is through an in-person campus visit where a prospective student can experience for themselves what life on that campus could potentially be. After all, most of us would never commit to a new house or a new city without seeing it in person. So, as you approach this process of selecting which college you might make your home for the next four years (and potentially beyond), I encourage you to not only rely on the concrete and measurable, but to lean into the personal, and to place yourself at the center of this process. Stop to consider who you are, what you need, and what will support your individual success and, instead of turning to a system built on lists, create your own system which supports your values and priorities.

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