How to Use Lists and Rankings in Your College Search

How much weight should you give national college rankings in your final decision? Learn how you should use these lists to guide your college search today.

Every year, list after list (after list) of college rankings come out, rating everything you can possibly compare on a campus, from colleges with the best Greek life to schools with the worst dining halls. College lists and rankings can be found all across the internet, from news sources to blogs (and even on!). College and university websites may highlight U.S. News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and other common college rankings on their home page, showing the best statistics to draw you to their school. But while students love seeing which schools are “the best” in a given area, do rankings reflect the real experience you'll get at a college—or the real worth of a degree from a school?

Well, here’s your answer: some college rankings do reveal a kernel of truth about a school, but it's best to take them all with a grain of salt. College rankings should be a small piece of your college search puzzle (and a small factor in how you think about your college once you enroll). Here's why. 

Using lists and rankings in your college search

While the top schools may appear #1 on the list of the “Best Colleges in the United States” and brag about their top-ranked programs, there’s a lot more to look into when deciding where to spend the next four (or more) years of your life after high school. When you’re looking at college lists and rankings, it’s important that you back up anything that matters to you with real facts and your own research. And while you shouldn't base your college search on what these lists reveal, they can act as a starting point in many instances. For example, if you're looking for a school that's especially good in Biomedical Engineering or Musical Theater, college rankings might clue you in to some top programs. College lists are a helpful tool to become familiar with well-known universities and colleges, but these rankings should only be the beginning of your research. It’s up to you to investigate more. 

Some organizations issue “best of” lists every year, taking into account different responses to answered surveys (and also taking into account the incredible popularity of these lists). Organizations like U.S. News & World ReportForbes, Peterson’s, and even CollegeXpress publish lists that range from the Best Liberal Arts Colleges to the "Best Value" Colleges to the Best College Ski Towns. And who wouldn’t want to go to one of the “best” colleges or universities? If you want a small business school that's great in actuarial mathematics, you might find one on a “best colleges” list.

Related: The True Value of National Rankings in Your College Search

Searching by major and other interests

It’s a great idea to search for the top schools of your intended major and interests, especially when beginning the college search process. For example, those interested in science and research may want to look for the colleges and universities with the most funded and most successful research programs. Athletes may look at the top athletic programs based off sports networks’ national team rankings. Checking out college lists and rankings is helpful when you’re putting together your own top 10 list of schools, and looking through rankings online gets you familiar with the names of the top schools with your interests.

Sometimes it’s just fun to look at schools that make these college lists for more unique or even weird reasons. There are lists for the Best Colleges for Surfing and the Most Sleep-Deprived Schools in America. Most students are very interested in the food they will eat at college, so checking out schools with Great Campus Food is a must for many. So are the schools with the Best College Dorms. These lists and rankings do add some flair to both the college search process and the college experience once you're at school. After all, you could boast about your school's #1 ranking in Business or being part of one of the Happiest Student Bodies! (Or if your school gets a low ranking, you can all band together at the unjustness of it all.)

Should you rely on these college lists?

All that fun stuff aside, here’s why you shouldn't rely solely on these lists to help you find a college: the data collection methods and response rates vary greatly from company to company. That can change results year over year and makes the actual lists impossible to compare equally. Sometimes different school representatives answer the surveys used to build the lists or a school might even skip a year, which can alter the results too. Remember, even the most egalitarian, well-researched, and good-intentioned college list out there is only a collection of data points. It’s never the full story about a college. And a college list will never beat a real college search. Period.

Here’s the thing: there are plenty of excellent programs at other schools that didn't make the list for one reason or another. And they are also worth checking out! In fact, they might be a better fit for you than one of the "best" schools. And you can find them through your own detailed college research or perhaps by asking for recommendations from your high school counselor, friends, and family.

Related: What Really Matters in Your College Search 

Making your final college decision

When you have your list narrowed down to a few schools, college lists should not be the deciding factor of where you go. Instead, you should to make your own pros and cons list for your top picks—factors that are important to you, not just to the #1 rankings. This is a great way to visually see what draws your interest. Once you have your list for your personal top picks, start researching what you want most in a university. Cost of tuition is often a big factor when it comes to choosing a college, as well as availability of financial aid. Location can also be important. If you hate dark and cold winters, I wouldn’t recommend any post-secondary education in Alaska. And if heat and humidity aren’t your friends, colleges in the South may not be the best decision. Does the college have clubs you enjoyed in high school? If they don’t, are you able to start your own? If your faith is important to you, are there ways to keep you rooted in your beliefs on or near campus? Find a college where you can enjoy and be yourself while earning a valuable education.

All in all, college lists should be used as a jumping-off point rather than a decision-maker in the college search. If one of these lists catches your eye, use it to get to know the schools better, starting with online research and ideally working up to at least one in-person campus visit at your top choices. You can also talk with admission counselors and other students about the schools. This way you can get an honest feel for the colleges and universities on the list and see if they're actually a good fit for you. For example, if the school ranks high (or low) for campus food, get lunch there to see if you agree. If small class sizes and getting to know the professors is important to you, sit in on a couple of classes to see if your experience matches what the lists are saying. 

Use these lists and rankings to find colleges to compare to one another. Which has your intended major? How about extracurricular activities you want to pursue? Which college from the rankings has the best cafeteria food or the best opportunities to volunteer within the local community? How difficult is it to get accepted into one college compared the next? These are the questions you need to answer, and searching through college lists is a great way to find potential contenders to fit your needs. With some luck—and a lot of research—you'll find the ranking and your experience match up perfectly. 

CollegeXpress has a ton of unique Lists & Rankings—use them to start your college search today!

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