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From US News to the Princeton Review, there are hundreds of different college rankings based on hundreds of different factors. They all seek to answer the age-old question: is one college better than another? It seems like a clear cut question, but what does it even mean for one school to be better than the next? How do you know what components they use in their rankings and if they line up with your preferences? And how can you even compare a small, private liberal arts college in a rural area, to a big public university in the middle of a city? Here, we will unpack what actually goes into college rankings, what they mean, and how they can guide your college decisions.

How do they work?

To make a college ranking, organizations assemble data on the many different aspects of each school. These facets may include average class size, average GPA, graduation rate, or financial resources. All of these data are then fed into a weighing system that averages the score of each category (Academic Reputation, Financial Resources etc.), and analyzes the importance of each division (e.g. US News weights Academic Reputation at 22.5%).

The most important thing to remember is that each college ranking uses a different rating system. For example, US News does not take the cost of tuition into its ranking at all, which may not be very helpful if you’re looking for more affordable college options. Each ranking uses different data and weighs things differently, so it’s important to know what goes into a college ranking when you use one.

One more thing to remember: college rankings try to compare colleges that may be extremely different from one another. Two similarly ranked colleges provide different experiences, and it’s important to remember this when examining them. Also, remember that a higher college ranking does not mean a college is better. It just means that a college scores higher in that particular rating system.

Tips for Using College Rankings

Don’t rely on the rankings

No college ranking should determine your college decisions. They serve as a useful tool, but your final decision should come down to reasons beyond the rating, such as campus life, location, and academic profile. Be careful of relying too much on the rankings!

Use them as a starting point

While college rankings shouldn’t have the final say in your decision, they can be a great starting point in finding the school that’s right for you. If you already have some schools you like, you can look at rankings to find similarly ranked schools that may interest you. Also, many ranking websites have tons of helpful information on all the universities, such as average class size, student population, and average salary after graduation.

Don’t try to compare extremely different colleges

College rankings can give the illusion of being able to compare very different college experiences. For example, both Brandeis and Georgia Tech are tied for #34 in the US News rankings, but Brandeis is a small, private liberal arts school, and Georgia Tech is large public university in Atlanta. Though they are ranked the same, the colleges offer contrasting experiences. You should look carefully at the type of college experience offered, rather than just its rating.

Look at specific rankings

By looking at rankings based on a specific major or certain type of school, you can compare colleges in areas that matter to you. If you know which factors that are most important in your college decision, you can look for rankings based on those. Some examples: rankings by major, by type of institution (public, private), and by affordability.

Be aware of the rating system

Finally, make sure you look at how each agency creates its rankings. The data should be listed on its website, including the process and how the rankings are weighed. This will help you better understand what the rankings actually reflect, and whether they measure the things that matter to you.

Rankings are a good place to start your college exploration journey, but be sure to focus on fit when searching for your dream college.