5 Things Most College Rankings Won’t Tell You

Photograph of trophies, representing college rankings

Source: Flickr user stopbits.

As students begin to search for a college, one of the first places many look at are college academic rankings–which schools are the best?

Rankings can definitely be useful (we have our own, in case you missed them), but they also offer a lot of limitations. After all, it’s impossible to rank something that’s as subjective as the best college–best for whom? Best in what way?

So, while rankings may be a good place to look for some ideas of colleges that may be right for you, they shouldn’t be treated as gospel. After all, all rankings are bound to leave out some seriously important factors.

Here are just a few things to look for other than just a school’s spot on a list:

1. Academic fit

Sure, Princeton might be the “best” college in the country, and we all know that it’s certainly rigorous in terms of academics–but is it a good fit for you, as a student?

The idea that all students should strive to attend “elite” universities is a well-known myth, and in fact, students shouldn’t feel compelled to attend a college or university simply because it’s selective and they were accepted.

Instead, look at the academic fit–is it the right school for you to learn and succeed?

Grades, test scores, and academic preparation play a big role in the fit for you. It’s clear that you may not feel comfortable if you go to a college where you’ll be behind your peers. Likewise, you may not feel at home if your academic performance is much higher than those around you. But, it’s not just about these numbers.

Academic fit also involves a number of factors–learning style, programs/majors, specific courses, and even certain professors or research opportunities, depending on your goals.

So, don’t assume that just because one college ranks better on a single list that it makes it a better fit for you, as a student. Instead, investigate it more thoroughly to get a sense how you would fit in with your peers and your professors.


2. Cultural fit

Culture matters–a lot!

In the race to get into a top-tier institution, students can often forget about how different each campus can be in terms of culture.

Things like college size, geographic location, and majors/programs can heavily influence the culture at a school. And, it’s important for you to figure out what you like!

You may be looking for a big-college experience with tens of thousands of students and packed lecture halls, or you may want to attend a small, liberal arts college which may not have the “state university” feel, but also gives you more face-time with professors and classmates.

Political and social culture can also be hugely important. Some rankings certainly do not factor these into the rankings of “top schools”.

So, consider your options carefully. Because, even if you attend the “#1 school in the country”, if the culture isn’t a fit for you, as a student, then you probably won’t get the experience you’re looking for.

3. Majors and programs

Just because a college is ranked well overall, doesn’t mean that it’s great for all majors or academic paths. Prestigious schools with top-tier computer science programs may offer a lousy writing or business education.

The programs and majors at a university also play a big role in academic and cultural fit. Even if the school offers your particular program, if it’s just a tiny pool of students studying in that field, you may feel isolated or out of place amongst your peers.

So, it’s critical to investigate the majors that are offered at each college, along with their sizes and quality for that particular field of study.

4. Real costs and financial aid

If there’s one thing that’s on just about every student and parent’s mind, it’s the cost of college.

With price tags often so high, it’s easy for most top-ranked schools to seem completely out of reach. And, many rankings show the “sticker” price–or the absolute maximum cost of attendance at each college, without considering financial aid.

But, not every college offers the same aid, and colleges with similar rankings may offer your student and family dramatically different aid packages, resulting in similar schools having a price difference of $10,000, $20,000, or even more.

Be sure to estimate how much financial aid you’ll receive from each college, which will give you your net price.

5. Extracurricular opportunities

You go to college not just to get an education, but also to gain new experiences, meet people, and learn your passions. Many of those opportunities come from experiences outside of the classroom–sports, clubs, and activities.

So, whether you’re looking for intramural badminton or a burgeoning startup scene on campus, do your homework first to learn whether the college can offer you the kind of activities and opportunities that are important to you.

Each of these factors can be a critical component of the college search, and while rankings can be helpful, they certainly can’t tell you the whole story. So, consider your options carefully, investigate each college, and learn what you like and what will be best for you.

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