College Info

Rankings – Not the Full Story

August 14, 2020

Sarah Abrams, Harvard ’15

Ranking lists are pretty cool – they give us immediate, objective information on the quality of schools or teams compared with one another. They tell you which school is the best, which is the worst, and apparently even identify the exact order of all those in the middle… (!)

But who creates these rankings and how do they compile them? There is no mathematical algorithm that can accurately measure and calculate the order of so many factors. This is shown in the notion that no two rankings lists are the same; how do you decide which to trust?

Think on a football team. One player might score all the goals and thus put them top of the “rankings” for the team, but are they the most valuable player? What about the defender who blocked the most shots during the season? This analogy reflects the need for different rankings for different aspects of a team, and a sophisticated approach to understanding each player’s worth.

For a university, we might need a rankings list for quality of research, breadth of extracurricular activities, % of students who graduate straight into a job, average salary 5 years after graduation, sports teams with national championships, quality of the town or city the school is located in (which itself can be based on many factors – the population, culture, nightlife, average house price, restaurants). We can’t possibly fit ALL of these into a comprehensive rankings list. And some of these factors may not matter to you – you might not care where the university is, but you might be very focused on the results of the sports teams. When looking at rankings lists, it is important to consider whether they are an accurate reflection of what is important to you.

By all means, use rankings lists to garner some information. They may help you to refine the list of schools you are looking at, but don’t forget to look outside the list. In our previous blog, Jonathan talked about the decision he faced in choosing between programs. UCLA and UC Davis come up higher than Missouri in general academic rankings, but did it address the aspects important to him? UPenn, an Ivy League school were also interested and who wouldn’t want to be there? He went into depth, however, to understand which university would be best for him to get the most of his specific sporting and academic goals. He was a prospective International Studies student, looking for a unique university experience and wanting a coach that could lead him to greater successes in his event. He went on to make his decision specific to these preferences. It pays to really consider what is important to you and do some deeper research to truly understand the quality of the university, and whether it’s right for you. It’s ok for your perfect university to be different to somebody else’s perfect university!

You must analyse your own profile and compare it with the profile of the universities you are looking at to find the best fit. Maybe you really vibe with a coach, maybe you are amazed by the research going on in the neuroscience department. Whatever it is, make it count. Rankings don’t tell the whole story. Make it your own story.