While there are many organizations dedicated to college rankings today, none is more famous than U.S. News & World Report. Their annual list of top undergraduate institutions is extremely powerful. It influences students hoping to gain entry to those schools and the schools themselves, as they work to climb the rankings.
The 2013 U.S. News rankings did not include any surprises at the top. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago led the pack in the top five positions. MIT, Stanford, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and CalTech rounded out the top 10. All of these institutions share several things in common: they have long histories of academic excellence, they have relatively small student bodies (none enrolls more than 10,000 undergraduates, and most are closer to 5,000), and they have tuition averaging roughly $40,000 per year.
For applicants, college rankings can provide information beyond numerical scores. Ranked schools include detailed profiles about things like history, setting, academic life, student life, and costs. They even offer firsthand reviews from students actually attending those schools.
If you want to use rankings as you prepare to start the application process, here are three tips that can help you get the most out of those lists.
1. Look beyond the numbers
Schools included in Top 10 lists like these have things in common, such as reputation, enrollment, and tuition. However, while they are ranked close together, each of these schools differs from the others in many ways. By reading more about each school’s profile, applicants can learn specifics about that particular institution. Look at things like location, class size, popular majors, and student activities to get a better feel for the school. Student testimonials will give you a vivid window into undergraduate life.
2. Compare and contrast
Don’t assume that you should automatically apply to all schools at the top of a college rankings list. You’ll be much better off if you spend time figuring out what makes these schools unique. Every school on the list is very different from the others.
3. Find a good fit
After you’ve used the rankings to learn about the schools and see what makes them unique, figure out which one best matches you. If you want a school in an urban environment, Dartmouth probably isn’t a great choice. If you are looking for a strong engineering program, MIT and CalTech may be higher on your list than Harvard or Princeton.
Overall, college rankings will always be both interesting and controversial. Smart applicants will use these lists to learn about elite schools and figure out which ones are worth applying to.
4. Professional school rankings
For many people college is just the first step in the higher education process of becoming a professional. That means law school, med school or business school might come next. It is important not to decide on a college based primarily on where you want to go to medical school. For example, Johns Hopkins has been at the top of medical school rankings for many years – but undergrads who go to college at Johns Hopkins could actually be at a disadvantage when applying to their medical school, since they can’t take many students from in house. Similarly, law school rankings don’t always match up with college rankings – so don’t choose a college based primarily on their law school.