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College Rankings: What Do They Really Mean?

Apple and orangeVarious magazines publish their college rankings issues every year, generating a lot of attention from the media, colleges, and college-bound students and their families.

But what are they really telling you? Should these rankings have any influence on what college you choose?

The short answer: No.  

Just because a magazine says that a particular college is No. 1 doesn't mean that it would be a good fit for you. So do yourself a favor. Relax, take a deep breath, and vow to avoid the hype and hoopla.

Just as no single factor determines a student’s admission decision, you should not apply to a college based solely on its national rankings.

One reason? Lists of the country’s “best” colleges and universities tend to reduce and simplify complex concepts, according to a 2011 NACAC report on the issue. Key factors, such as learning outcomes and student engagement, are often overlooked, in part because no such data is available on a comparable basis.

And perhaps more importantly, a college’s rank cannot predict the type of experience you will have after you enroll.

Fully engaging in academic and campus life is the best way to make the most out of your college years.

Rankings aren't completely useless. The lists can provide a good starting point for researching different colleges and universities, and even help you discover schools you may not have heard of before. So go ahead and read the college rankings magazines.

But then take some time to ponder the factors — from location to academic offerings — that matter most to you. Create a college list that reflects those elements, make campus visits, and trust your gut.

Ultimately, your No. 1 college is the school that’s the best fit for you.