When applying to college, it's easy to get caught up in rankings.

It is a fairly common practice for students to rely on them, hoping they’ll provide a straightforward assessment of a school’s quality and reputation. However, college rankings are only one factor when it comes to comparing colleges. Here’s how to put rankings into perspective and use them to guide how you look at colleges.

How College Rankings are Calculated

There is no standardized system companies use to rank colleges, so it’s important to know how companies compare schools against each other. 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. The report uses seven factors to determine a college’s ranking. Here’s the breakdown (click here to see all of the metrics and methodologies that U.S. News & World Report uses to rank colleges):

  • Outcomes (40%)
  • Faculty resources (20%)
  • Expert opinion (20%)
  • Financial resources (10%)
  • Student excellence (7%)
  • Alumni giving (3%)

“Expert opinion” means the opinions of high school counselors and academics. This factor counts for one-fifth of how a college is ranked—and each of those people have different opinions of what constitutes a good education.

Not every source of college rankings evaluates colleges the same way. Niche’s 2023 College Rankings and The Princeton Review’s The Best 388 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 factors.

How To Use College Ranking In Your Decision

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 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.

What Else To Look For In A College Beyond Rank

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 are a good fit. This means a school that will provide them with opportunities to learn, grow, and be challenged. To determine that, he recommends looking at student life, programs offered, and employment rates after graduation. If you have an idea of what you want to do after college, it can also be helpful to see where alumni are working, too.

“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.

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