Making the Most of College Guides and Rankings

General Education

Dialing Your Number: Use College Rankings to Find the Right School for You

If you've ever opened up a college guide or navigated to a list of rankings online, what you find can be overwhelming. Sure, you often see the same schools take the top categories (ahem, Harvard and Yale . . .) but what exactly do those top rankings mean? And how do you translate a ranking into knowledge of what a school can offer you?

Believe it or not, becoming a savvy reader of college guides is possible. Once you learn to read between the lines of college rankings and statistics, you'll be able to see a school for its real value: whether it's a good fit for you.

How do college rankings work? What are they based on?

The first step to understanding college guides and rankings is to understand how they work. Googling "college rankings" will lead you to a plethora of options, but two well-known rankings come from U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review. It's important to know that all rankings and guides are based on different criteria. U.S. News and World Report gathers data about each school in 16 areas related to academic excellence. Schools that are not regionally accredited or that don't have at least 200 students are not included. The Princeton Review gives each college a ranking that is similar to a GPA and that is based on multiple-choice student surveys.

So what kind of information is available? These rankings include information like graduation and retention rates, class size, and selectivity (high number of applicants + low number of admitted students = high selectivity, like for Harvard and Yale). Additionally, the Princeton Review includes information on demographics, quality of life, the social scene and more.

Whether you're looking at The U.S. News and World Report or another source, each ranking assigns different weights to the data collected. And certain categories of data receive extra weights that go into the final ranking (like selectivity). Confusing, right? You might not care about class size yet could be looking at a ranking that places a high emphasis on it and you wouldn't even know it!

While it's important to look at the rankings or statistics for a school, remember that they're not everything. Nicole Corcoron, counselor and director of the Transition Center at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, Calif., related a story about one student she worked with who spent years focusing on attending U.C. Berkeley because it was a big-name school. He was in for a surprise.

"When he finally physically went to Berkeley, he hated it," she said. "Everything had revolved around Berkeley for years, and then he realized that it just wasn't a good fit for him environmentally."

Focus on what matters most: You

When you open up a college guide, it's essential to consider the most important factor of all: You. What do you want in a school? Corcoron recommends looking at the details that are of most importance to you. Are students fiercely competitive? What is the climate of the area? How close is the school to your home, if you plan to commute? Santa Rosa Junior College offers an online resource that suggests various categories to consider, from size and setting of campus to diversity and social life. Details like these can be a great starting point to determining what you want most out of a school.

You also want to check and make sure that the schools that interest you offer the type of programs or subject areas you are interested in. This seems obvious--but students attending a large school or a highly-ranked school might assume their college has it all. You might be set on majoring in theater design and stagecraft, for example, but find that top ranked schools don't even offer that as a major. Glancing at a college guide or rank won't tell you that, so it's important to use guides/rankings as just one resource in your college search.

Different types of guides

Luckily, college guides are becoming more interactive. There's a whole new generation of great resources at your fingertips that will allow you to get the basic statistics of a school and explore it in more detail. One such website is College Prowler, which is written by students for students. You can read student reviews directly on the site, see stats, and even watch a video tour of a school's campus. Another such website is Unigo, which allows you to sort schools by popularity, but also by the number of student reviews it has. Both websites even offer help in matching you up with the right school based on a series of questions they ask you.

Reading between the lines of a college ranking or guide means determining how the reported information of a school relates to your own school search. If you remember to focus on what matters most to you--be that class size, environment, or major--you can be a savvy reader of college guides and rankings right from the start.