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  • Writer's pictureJulie Simon

Rankings: How to Use Them in the College Search Process

student thinking about college rankings

“I want to apply to a top-ranked business school.”

“My parents want me to apply to Harvard even though we know how unlikely it is.”

“I’ve worked hard in high school, so I only want to look at colleges ranked in the Top 25.”

These comments are all too common as we begin working with high school students and discussing colleges. At Beasley College Consulting, we are very data-driven and encourage students to use objective data in their college research, but always after a student thoughtfully considers the factors most important to them in their college choice. We do this through various assessments and ongoing conversations with our students, including debriefs after college visits. This allows students to identify the top 3-5 priorities most important in their future university and colleges that match the criteria.

So, are all rankings bad? Of course not. If I were shopping for a new car, my first step is to access Consumer Reports and what they recommend after researching and test-driving a new model. I’d use their recommendation as a launching pad for my own research.

Here are some issues with starting the college conversation with rankings:

  • Students often haven’t determined what’s most important to them in a college

  • College rankings are subjective

  • There are dozens of rankings often measuring completely different variables

  • Factors aren’t necessarily indicative of quality

  • They prevent students from thinking critically about what they want in a college

According to a recent study by the Art and Science Group, students using rankings utilized the following sources:

chart showing most influential college rankings source for seniors in high school

The only commonalities across the top three influential ranking sources (U.S. News, Niche and WSJ) are graduation rates and borrower debt. Therefore, the schools found on each list will vary considerably. Here are the criteria included in the rankings of each of those sources:

comparision chart of the top three most influential college rankings

So, if you start the college conversation with, “I want to apply to a top-ranked business school,” I will push back a little and make you think a bit deeper about what you’re looking for in a college. Based on further assessments and conversation, if you come back with, “I want a diverse campus with a high graduation rate, with a high starting salary at a top investment firm.” I’m probably going to suggest that we take a look at College Scorecard, measuring graduation rates and starting salaries by major, the Hechinger Report, measuring campus climate, including DEI policies and hate crime, and Mergers & Acquisitions ranking of investment banking target schools.

Remember, these tools will provide a starting point for your college list, but ultimately, your list will be finalized after thorough research, campus visits, and ongoing conversations about your priorities and the colleges that meet them.

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