U.S. News Rankings, Business Week Rankings, QS World Rankings, Forbes Rankings which rankings should you base your college selection on and are college rankings really the best way to shortlist your colleges?

This post is not to examine the various ranks and what that reflects about the school. This post is to understanding the ranking process, both what we learn from it and why they can sometimes be misleading and disheartening.

First though, there is a clarification needed. While most people know that all Ivy League schools are good, the word Ivy League is sometimes used to name the top 10 colleges on the list. However, that is incorrect.

What is the Ivy League?

The Ivy League is the term used to refer to the eight schools that make up the Ivy League athletic conference. Below is the Ivy League schools list and their U.S. News Rankings for 2016:
• Princeton University – #1
• Harvard University – #2
• Yale University – #3
• Columbia University – #4
• University of Pennsylvania – #9
• Dartmouth College – #12
• Brown University – #14
• Cornell University – #15

The term Ivy League has become synonymous with prestige, selectiveness, and high rankings and for this reason, so many people use this label incorrectly. However, it is important to note that this list does not include other private universities like Stanford, UChicago, Duke and MIT to name a few.

But Ivy League is NOT EQUAL to Top 10 Colleges

Having clarified that, let’s dive into a couple of things

1) What Goes Into Rankings?

2) How do you Use these Rankings?

3) Why do People Like Rankings?

4) What Do I Do Instead?

First, What Goes Into Rankings?

That depends on who is ranking them. What do we mean by that? Different rankings use different criteria to measure effectiveness.

US News’ list most strongly emphasizes the academic reputations of the colleges. They take into account opinions of peers (e.g. Harvard’s opinion on Stanford), evaluate research and professors.

The Forbes list most heavily emphasizes student outcomesAmongst various factors, it evaluates student salaries after graduation.

Similarly, the Bloomberg list is incredibly valuable when looking at Undergraduate Business Schools. This is because the list takes into account employer feedback on these schools which is an important opinion for graduates from these colleges. The Niche looks at the quality of life and Princeton Review uses a variety of criteria and has rankings like “Best Campuses.”

TLDR: Each ranking is unique in what it chooses to focus on and so, use a variety of rankings to form opinions instead of putting on blinders.

Second, How do you Use these Rankings?

Well, rankings shouldn’t be the reason to apply to a college. More specifically you should never say, in your essays that rankings are the reason to apply. Saying “Dear Princeton, I’m applying because you’re #1” is like saying “Dear Girl / Guy, I’m dating you because you’re rich.” It’s crass, don’t do it.

However, use rankings to understand where a college stands. In Delhi University, when you consider a list of just about 20 colleges, a top 10 list helps you compartmentalize the list. But the U.S. has 300 good colleges and so the difference between #1 and #5 is drastic in DU but not in the U.S.

Why do People Like Rankings?

Because they are quick. If you’re new to the process of admissions, the information can see overwhelming. Rankings are a quick and easy way of simplifying the data.

What Do I Do Instead?

Figure out what you want from college. Do you like big cities or want a campus that has open fields? Do you like large class sizes or small ones? That will help you figure out which college you are best fit for. These differences are massive. Even if you look at the Ivy League colleges, in fact, Columbia is a city campus and quite a bit smaller than say Princeton which is a suburban campus. Read up more here.

And we aren’t saying don’t use rankings at all. Just don’t use one ranking. Even with US News, they divide Liberal Arts colleges and National Universities. So, you can’t compare Williams (#1 Liberal Arts College 2016) to Princeton (#1 National University 2016). Using a mix of rankings allows you to figure out if a school is in a top-tier band or a second-tier band.

A quick note: While we focus on the U.S. here, these notes apply to the Guardian Rankings for the U.K. or the Q.S. World News Rankings. Even the India Today rankings!