Understanding the College and University Ranking Systems

When high school juniors and seniors are exploring options for their post-secondary education, one of the big questions is, “Where should I go to college?” And while we can’t offer advice that will show you exactly where you need to go, we can help you in the exploration process.

This blog post deals with a very divisive, confusing, and widely-used aspects of looking at colleges: rankings.

Ranking Systems

There are many different ranking systems. In the United States, the U.S. News and World Report ranking system is very popular. In other parts of the world, schemas like THE – QS (Times Higher Education – Quacquarelli Symonds), the Academic Ranking of World Universities (the Shanghai Jiao Tong University system), and the Global University System are more common.

What’s the difference?

Well, to answer the first question, the difference between the rankings is primarily in how they are calculated. All ranking systems are at least slightly subjective, so it’s good to understand what kinds of things each system values.

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The Shanghai ratings, for example, heavily favor the natural sciences, so schools with strong natural science programs will rank pretty high. In contrast, the Webometrics system  ranks pretty strongly on how many articles the college published on the internet (which can be misleading).

It’s good to understand the criteria of the list that you’re looking at if you’re going to use it to judge any colleges.

Which should you look at it?

Which ranking you should use comes down to what your priorities are.

If you’re looking for a school with a strong biology program, the Shanghai rankings are a good way to go. If you’re not as concerned with that, and want a more balanced approach, US News might be better.

The truth is, you can probably find a ranking system that will rank the school that you’re looking at pretty high.

Because of the subjective nature of the ratings, you may see a great deal of variation in the rankings across different systems. And because of this, the rankings actually are pretty limited in their usefulness. You can use them to get a general idea of which schools are going to be really difficult to get into, and which have a very strong reputation around the world.

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Other than that, we recommend talking to a number of different schools to find out what their strengths are. Many schools that aren’t ranked very high have fantastic specific programs, even if their overall academic reputation isn’t stellar.


In short, we recommend against using college rankings to judge different schools. Use them to get a general idea, and then start going to specific schools. This way, you can get a starting point and work out, getting a much clearer picture of your college choices.

Don’t put too much stock in these ratings. Choosing a college goes beyond just academics. To get a better overall picture of what the school is like from the students’ perspective.