When looking online for information about colleges, one of the most referenced websites is the U.S. News & World Report. While it is a great website for getting information about applying and general statistics, don’t be dismayed by what you see—just because a school ranks a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you. There’s more to it than numbers when it comes to picking the right college.
U.S. News has its own methodology for ranking schools. It uses a formula to measure “quantitative” aspects of academics, as determined by educational experts. Once it categorizes the types of school (i.e. Regional or National), it ranks them based on “15 different indicators of academic excellence.” You’re probably thinking that sounds pretty mathematical and confusing—and we agree. Plus, some of the indicators aren’t just based on academic achievement and graduation retention, but also things like “high school counselor rating scores” and “peer assessment.”
Plus, for as advanced as the U.S. News ratings may seem to be, they just simply cannot take into account the little things that make a college so special and the measurements used have the potential to become biased. The statistics might be a good starting point, but if you really want your dream school, you’ll have to look beyond whatever place it ends up on the list. So here are ten things to keep in mind out for when skimming the latest U.S. News rating.
1. They don’t take campus size and surrounding area into account
Although there are maps that show where each school is located, actually seeing the location is something you can’t get from a website. Some people want more secluded schools and others want campuses in big cities or small cities.
Let’s be honest, looking at a map and actually walking the route that you’ll have to take to an 8 a.m. are two very different things. Big schools like University of Pennsylvania require buses to get around campus, but it’s still considered a terrific school with a high ranking. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d enjoy, then it probably isn’t the school for you. Size preference isn’t something the fancy “quantitative formula” takes into account.
Additionally, until you visit the school, it’s hard to get a feel for its surrounding area. The rankings aren’t based on how college-friendly the area is, the restaurant scene, or the fun off-campus activities you can do. Trust us, the older you get the more you’ll want to branch off campus. You have to make sure it’s an area you’ll like.
2. They don’t factor in athletics
For some people, college sports are the be-all-end-all. Whether it’s football, basketball or hockey, there’s no denying that sports are a huge part of many college experiences. Although there are tons of great college sports teams, there’s a huge difference between an SEC football team and a D3 football team. But although something like that might be important to you, it’s not a huge factor in determining the “top schools.” For example, Harvard and Yale don’t have D1 sports teams, but they’re ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively on U.S. News. Sports can be a great way to feel school spirit, plus the tailgates that come along with them are pretty fun. You can’t get that from a rating!
3. They use selectivity as a measurement
Selectivity concerns how many students a university rejects in the admissions process. In USNR rankings, schools with higher selectivity are also ranked higher. The problem with this method is that certain schools may receive a lot of applications simply because they are well-known, like Ivy League colleges. That means that they also get to reject more students and inevitably end up with a higher ranking. By doing this, the more “prestigious” colleges have a greater chance of ranking high.
4. They don’t take into account what classes you’ll end up taking
You’ll usually find a list of the most frequent majors for each school, but that doesn’t take all of the classes into account. Some schools offer more classes than others, or classes that are more interesting to you specifically. Unless you have a very specific major or a major that is the most prevalent at a school, you might need to look beyond whatever rating a school received.
If a liberal arts school is ranked lower than a school that is more business focused, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. In fact, it might rank lower for reasons totally unrelated to your major. Choose a school that will have the right courses for your interest. Check out a school’s website for a full list of majors, requirements and courses so you know exactly what your options are.
5. Spending money is heavily factored
This measurement favors the Ivy League and private institutions heavily because it basically just gives a higher rating to schools that spend more money. Plus, the amount of money doesn’t even have to go towards academics.
6. The social scene isn’t considered
No matter how highly ranked a school is, there is simply no way to take into account what the nightlife is like. Sure, it may provide students’ opinions on it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually like it. Some schools are bigger party schools, some have a larger Greek life, and others are bar schools.
If you have a preference for a certain social scene, then the rating isn’t enough to go off of. The best way to ensure you’re picking the right social environment is to contact someone who goes to the school and ask them, or visit the school yourself. Some of the highest ranked schools have a pretty dismal social scene, so if that’s important to you, then you can’t just look at the numbers
7. They don’t take post-graduation success into consideration
So you know how the whole point of college is to end up with a career at the end? Well the USNR rankings don’t necessarily think that’s an important aspect to keep in mind. Their quantitative rating doesn’t factor in post-grad job rates or quality of education. Isn’t that the whole point though?
8. “Peer assessment” is part of the rating process
Although peer assessment may sound like something you’d want to include, it isn’t what you think it is. Instead of taking student commentary and opinion into account, peer review is actually referencing the reputation of a university. This measurement, which determines 22.5-25 percent of a university’s ranking, means that more renowned schools have the upper hand. Plus, the so-called “peer reviews” aren’t even from college students, they’re actually determined by college professors, provosts, admission directors and high school counselors.
9. Living arrangements aren’t included
Most often, rankings will tell you what type of living arrangement is most popular at a college. Whether it is freshmen-only on campus, four years of on-campus living or all off-campus housing, living situations are a crucial part of the college experience.
Plus, you don’t know what the dorms look like, or what the off-campus housing options are like. Or, what if you don’t want to live off campus? Remember, you’ll be living there, so it’s pretty important that you’ll actually enjoy wherever you end up. Classes only take up so many hours of the day, and chances are you’ll want a welcoming place to go home to.
10. Extracurricular activities aren’t factored in
One of the best things about college is the tons, and tons—and tons—of extra-curricular activities you have the option of joining. College is a great time to get involved in something that you love, or even gain some leadership experience. While most schools have plenty of options when it comes to extracurricular activities, not all of them will have everything you’re looking for. In fact, although Princeton is ranked No. 1 on US News’ Best Colleges of 2018, there is absolutely zero Greek life on campus. If that’s something you want during your college career, then it’s a huge turn off—even though it’s the top school!
No matter what the rankings of a given college are, it’s impossible to decide the next four years of your life based off of a number. Everyone has different preferences and ideals when it comes to college, so focus on your own. It’s okay to use websites like U.S. News to get a general idea of what a school is like, but don’t stop there. Check out other websites, like the Princeton Review, which uses surveys collected from actual college students, and do some of your own research too! Visit schools, talk to students and look at school websites. When you find the right one it will be because it’s right for you.