do college rankings matter?What Makes a College Different?

When I was an undergraduate student at William & Mary, my mom’s friends with younger children who were visiting campus would often ask me to take them and their prospective student on an informal tour. I relished these opportunities to show off what I believe are some of the most tranquil emerald trees in the country, in addition to the college’s academic buildings and hubs of student life. The fact that these prospective students were considering William & Mary usually guaranteed that they were also looking at other wonderful Virginia state institutions, such as UVA and Virginia Tech. Therefore, a common question that I would receive toward the end of a tour was: “What makes this place different?” This question, then, was followed by a whole slew of ancillary inquiries like: “Isn’t UVA ranked a little bit higher than William & Mary? Why is that the case?” and “Can you, in your own words, compare William & Mary to some of the other in-state options?”

College Rankings

I enjoyed thinking about questions regarding college rankings like these because they were the exact same ones that I had when I set out on my college journey. As a confused and anxious 17-year-old, the services that ranked universities, those like U.S. News & World Report, Times Higher Education, and The Princeton Review, impacted my impression of a school before I’d even set foot on campus, creating a fantastic ideal of what a “good college” should look like. This kind of presupposed perception can be extremely damaging to an applicant who is hoping to find the right home. Because, really, that’s what your student’s university is going to be: their home for the next chapter of their life.

Looking Beyond College Rankings

For this reason, it is important to look beyond college rankings when choosing the right school. To be clear, I am not decrying those who consider rank as a major factor in their application process. It’s an understandable and (sometimes) beneficial factor to consider, especially in terms of how your future graduate will be perceived in their chosen profession. However, it is much more useful to consider the college application process as an ecosystem, one in which perceived rank is but one of the factors that will make up a healthy experience for a student.

College Rankings vs. “Ecosystem Thinking”

In order to encourage this more holistic brand of “ecosystem thinking” in the college process, I’ve come up with a three-step, question-based checklist for families to review in order to decide how much a college’s rank should factor into their journey. Being honest with one another about the answers to these questions will help get your student closer to a new home that’s right for them.

  • Does your child have a desired major and/or professional path already in mind?

If the answer to this question is “yes,” then you can go ahead and throw all of the general ranking lists out the window. You might have a little more luck with major-specific rankings, like this one from U.S. News, or it might just be best to research your student’s chosen program at individual schools within your geographic and/or price range and then cross-reference that research with other factors that you are considering. For example, if you’d like to become a nurse, the University of Pittsburgh, a college with one of the most robust Bachelor of Science in Nursing programs in the country, might become a top choice. Whereas, otherwise, it might be viewed just as another large state university, with all of the pros and cons that come along with that kind of student experience.

  • How, exactly, is the service that you’re using coming up with their rankings?

All of the ranking services that you’ll find in print or online will list their methodology. Here is an example from U.S. News. Reading up on the different factors that carry weight within a college’s rank might make a student more or less inclined to apply to that college based on their perception of the method that a service uses. Even amidst all of the percentages that companies list to validate their rankings, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the numbers are actually coming from.

  • Have you done the “Home Test” together?

I first heard about the Home Test from my friend Daniel when I visited Northeastern University during my junior year of high school. While we were standing in the middle of campus on a grassy quad, Daniel, an undergraduate at Northeastern at the time, said:

“Now, Jonny. I want you to do a visualization exercise. I want you to look around at all of the students walking around. I want you to look at the architecture here. The buildings. The insides of those buildings. The way you might interact within them with the students who you see. Look at what the students are wearing. Look at their faces and the way they move. By doing this, you are taking in the campus not just as a location, but rather as a home. Is this your future home?”

Trusting Your Feelings

The answer was no, and I knew pretty much right away. That day, Daniel taught me how to be honest with myself surrounding a gut feeling that comes not just from the way a college looks, but also how it feels. I encourage students to perform a similar test for themselves when they visit colleges. Visualizing these kinds of factors will help them decide if they would actually like to spend some of the most formative years of their life at a particular university. In my opinion, the gut feeling that arises after performing Daniel’s Home Test should carry much more weight than a college’s ranking.

Choosing the Right College

All of this being said, the most important thing to remember for applicants and families alike is that, as long as a student enters their new home with an open mind, that home will yield life-changing memories. Any university can be the “perfect” place, regardless of college rankings, as long as you treat your process like an ecosystem and trust your gut! If you want to learn more about how to choose the right college, reach out to us.