College Rankings: What Do I Need to Know?

By Emilio Giuliani

(Admissions Consultant at The Edge Learning Center)

When rankings are mentioned in the context of college admissions, there are some frequent themes that jump to mind. Labels like elite, prestigious, and exclusive, alongside schools like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge. College rankings, at their essence, are a summary judgement of institutions that all too often play an outsized role in how we approach the university admissions process.

By reading beyond the numbers on a list, college rankings and what they tell us can be valuable and help better orient students to a program that will best fit their interests and goals.

Reading is important, but is evaluating a school by the number of books in their library an important metric for you?


Ranking the Rankings

Not all rankings are created equal! Even the most prolific and established ranking systems will vary in their methodologies and thus will result in scoring universities uniquely. Understanding these differences can orient your college admissions search in the right direction.

Times Higher Education (THE) World Rankings – focuses on institutional performance and gives more emphasis on teaching, citations, and international outlook. Comparatively to QS, the Times rankings are less concerned with student results.

QS World University Rankings – covers perhaps the widest range of universities, and places greater weight on academic reputation and ratios like students to faculty and employer reputation. QS rankings are regarded as more subjective due to the reliance on survey opinions.

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) – also known as the Shanghai Rankings, ARWU is similar to the Times for its priority on objective research and alumni/faculty achievements.

US News and World Report – commonly touted as the primary list for US institutions, USNWR takes into account five main factors: student outcomes, faculty resources, expert opinion, financial resources, and student excellence. USNWR also has a separate list for liberal arts college rankings.

America’s Top Colleges by Forbes – like USNWR is exclusive to US schools, and is based on the six categories as follows: alumni salary, student satisfaction, debt, alumni success, graduation rate, and academic success. Forbes also offers subcategories that are useful to explore on additional criteria.


Beyond the Rankings 

When evaluating different rankings and making your college list, you first need to establish what is most important to you. Narrowing down the criteria in terms of country, region, and program will give drastically more tailored results. The top ranking lists will offer different options to direct your search in this regard. Next, think about all the other factors involved, from employment rates to campus resources. Do you care more about how many professors have been publishing articles in recognized journals, or student satisfaction rates?

Success itself can be subjective, and many more students would be better served by forming their own individual concept of success that is not tied solely to rankings. Environment, campus culture, student life and many more subjective factors are typically not factored into the college ranking lists outlined above. Nonetheless, these are critical elements to consider when approaching the four years of your undergraduate experience.


What’s the Next Step?

Firsthand knowledge is preferable in gaining deeper insight. The more individual research and connections you can make with alumni, current students, and academic counselors, the more you will be able to truly judge which program and school will be the best fit for you. Rankings are a decent place to start, but don’t make your choice on a number alone.


About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which students gained acceptance to schools such as Columbia, Yale, UChicago, UPenn, Oxford, and more! Check out our latest Admissions Results!

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