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When applying to college, it's easy to get caught up in a quest for prestige.

It is a fairly common practice for students to rely on college rankings, hoping they’ll provide a straightforward assessment of a school’s quality and reputation. However, college rankings are only one factor when looking at comparing colleges.

Take U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges. The most well-known source of college rankings, it has been an important part of students’ application decision-making since its inception in 1983. 

U.S. News uses seven factors to determine a college’s ranking: 

  • Outcomes (35%)
  • Faculty resources (20%)
  • Expert Opinion (20%)
  • Financial resources (10%)
  • Student excellence (10%)
  • Alumni giving (5%)

That means one-fifth of any ranking boils down to how other academics and high school counselors view a school. To see all of the metrics and methodologies that U.S. News & World Report uses to rank colleges, click here.  

But not every source of college rankings evaluates colleges the same way. Niche’s 2020 College Rankings and The Princeton Review’s The Best 385 Colleges put significantly more weight on the opinions of current students. While they do include specific lists of say, schools with the tastiest food or those that are best for conservative students, their primary lists don’t focus on these things.

“Most of my students — and their parents — are highly focused on rank but have no idea the criteria that goes into rankings.”

– Kristen Moon

With so many different ways of calculating college rankings, it’s hard to know where a given school stands. This doesn’t mean there’s no value in college rankings, however. The mistake students tend to make is using them as the primary indicator of a college’s quality, says Kristen Moon, an independent college counselor and founder of Moon Prep. “Most of my students — and their parents — are highly focused on rank but have no idea the criteria that goes into rankings,” she says.

By fixating on overall best-of rankings, students can overlook schools that meet other, less quantifiable needs, such as class size, cost of attendance, quality of specific programs and student happiness. As important as these may be, only some play a part in how any given ranking site evaluates colleges. 

Greg Kaplan, author of Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting Into Highly Selective Colleges and founder of College Path, advises students to seek out schools that will provide them with opportunities to grow and where they believe they’ll be a good fit. To determine that, he recommends looking at student life, programs offered, employment rates after graduation and the caché a given school carries among potential employers where the student plans to live after graduation.

“Students who focus too much on college rankings lose sight of the important question of how a college can further their goals for their education and life after college,” he says. “This can result in a student failing to end up in the environment most conducive to their success in college and beyond.”

As exciting as it might sound to attend a highly ranked college, experts agree that finding the best fit for you is worth as much or more than where a school lands on a list. Rankings are a useful tool, but they aren’t the only thing that matters.