College Rankings, what do they really mean?

By Ally Ip

(Senior Admissions Consulting Partner at The Edge Learning Center)

Princeton University

Just last week, a senior came to me and asked what he could do to convince his father that the university he was accepted to is a “top school.” On one hand, that university was a dream school to many of his friends. On the other hand, his father looked the school up in one of the “world university rankings” and found that this university was ranked outside the top 100 in the world!

Upon hearing this, I pointed out to the student that according to the same ranking his father used, Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Yale both ranked below some regional universities which my student would not even consider.

The student’s mother, who was sitting next to him, asked, “What do these college rankings really mean anyway?”

Good question.

For the brand-conscious and ranking-aware Asian population, the logic about college rankings is that “the higher the ranking, the better the college, and vice versa”. The truth is that many of the metrics used in these rankings are chosen haphazardly and weighted subjectively.

US News Ranking Best Colleges

Let’s take the well-known U.S. News and World Report ranking system for example. If we look past the page about “Top U.S. National Universities” on the website and go to the ranking methodology, we find that ranking factors that are associated with the size of the university’s endowment can make up as much as 40% of the ranking. Ranking criteria like this show very well how and why universities with the largest endowments such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale constantly rank in the top 3, while schools with similar if not better reputation in academics and research such as MIT, Caltech, and the University of Chicago, are almost always outside the top 3, and sometimes even outside the top 5.

Yet, I personally believe that there is huge value in using U.S. News Top National Universities charts to introduce American universities to my clients. This is because the U.S. News chart, while it does not necessarily reflect the quality of education our students would get in these schools, reflects the perceived prestige these universities have among the elites of our society. If so-and-so billionaire in the city would donate a building to “help” place their son or daughter in that school, this specific university must mean a lot to the rich and famous!

After explaining to the student and his mother about how different ranking systems work, I reassured the duo that the university the son got accepted into is one of the top schools in the U.S. by demonstrating to them a long list of the school’s famous alumni. The fact that the son was accepted into this school without having any connections should make his parents proud.

Last but not least, for those students who are serious about going to places with great academic and research activities, please do not follow these rankings and charts. If you really are academic, please do research on the publications and research papers to see which institutes have led changes in your areas of interest.

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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 student gained acceptance to schools such as Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago, and more! Check out the rest of our 2018-9 Admissions Results!

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