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Do College Rankings Matter?

May 06, 2024 :: Rose Ngo

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve researched universities in the United States before. If that’s the case, you’ve also likely come across rankings of national universities. US News & World Report, Newsweek, and Princeton Review are just some of the most prominent publications that rank “the best schools in the country.” The criteria they use may be different, but their basic philosophy – that there is a way to quantifiably determine the quality of a school by looking at certain characteristics – has taken over the conversation about higher education in the United States.

The rankings are relatively predictable: at the top of the list, you’ll find schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and so forth. Smaller liberal arts colleges like Williams and Macalester also figure highly in these lists. In general, these rankings suggest that there exists an elite group of universities that provide a much better education than the rest.

But should these rankings influence your college choice?

Understanding College Rankings

There’s no one system of ranking schools; every publication weighs categories differently, which explains why rankings are sometimes radically different. US News, the pioneer in this industry (it began ranking schools in 1987), explains that it differentiates between schools (national universities, liberal arts colleges, and schools that specialize in master’s degrees) before it determines its parameters of academic quality.

In general, however, it looks at undergraduate academic reputation (22.5% for national schools), rates of retention (20%), faculty resources (20%), student selectivity (15%), financial resources (10%), graduation rate performance (7.5%), and alumni giving rate (5%). [Read more about how US News ranks schools.] This methodology can make some rankings more reliable than others, but it also means they might not capture the full picture of a school’s value to you personally.

Do Rankings Matter?

Everyone’s experience is different, but the rule of thumb is that you should look at the rankings and not depend on them entirely. There are many great schools in the United States, and if your school isn’t in the top 100, it doesn’t mean you won’t get a quality education. It’s best to look for the schools where you’ll feel most comfortable and can excel.

The school you attend won’t make you a better student; that’s on you. While going to nationally prestigious schools might make networking easier, which can facilitate finding a job after graduation, you should be thinking about where you’ll be able to grow productively. If you’re a hard worker and do well in school, companies will recognize that. Tailor your search to schools that best fit your criteria, not publications’ opinions.

Different Types of College Rankings

Rankings can be categorized into three types:

  1. Alumni Clickbait: These rankings are created more for current students and alumni, featuring categories like “Hottest Student Body” or “Best Tailgating.” They are more about school pride than useful information for prospective students.
  2. Fodder and Fluff: These rankings, such as “Most Insta-Worthy Campuses” or “Swankiest Dorms,” are based on subjective and often irrelevant criteria. They may be entertaining, but they don’t provide substantial information to base your college decision on.
  3. Real Deal: Rankings like those from US News & World Report can offer valuable information. They provide data on average test scores and acceptance rates, which can help you assess your chances of admission and organize schools into competitive tiers.

The Reality of Ivy League Acceptance Rates

When discussing college rankings and the allure of prestigious institutions, Ivy League schools often come up due to their esteemed reputations and historically low acceptance rates. These rates can be intimidating and often make headlines for their competitive nature. For instance, recent statistics show acceptance rates for these schools hovering around 5%. 

However, it’s important to understand what these low acceptance rates actually mean. Acceptance rates are influenced by the sheer volume of applications these schools receive, which has increased dramatically with the advent of the Common Application. This system makes it easier for students to apply to multiple schools with a single application, leading to a higher number of applicants and, consequently, lower acceptance rates.

But the admissions process is not a lottery. Ivy League admissions committees are made up of thoughtful, intelligent individuals who carefully consider each application. They look beyond grades and test scores to evaluate the whole person, including extracurricular activities, personal essays, and letters of recommendation.

For prospective students, this means that while the competition is fierce, it is not insurmountable. Successful applicants are often those who present a compelling, well-rounded application that showcases their unique strengths and potential for future success. High test scores and GPAs are important, but they are not the only factors. Demonstrating passion, leadership, and a clear sense of purpose can make a significant difference.

Moreover, low acceptance rates reflect the popularity and name recognition of these institutions rather than the quality of education you can receive. Many non-Ivy League schools offer excellent programs and opportunities that might be a better fit for your personal and academic goals.

In conclusion, while Ivy League acceptance rates can be daunting, they should not deter you from applying if you believe these schools align with your aspirations. At the same time, it’s crucial to look beyond the numbers and consider a wide range of schools where you can thrive and achieve your educational objectives.

The Insider’s Guide to Ivy League Admissions

Check out this webinar we recorded called The Insider’s Guide to Ivy League Admissions to get an inside look at the Ivy League admissions process. We’ll walk you through the key aspects of successful Ivy League applications:

  • What the admissions committee is looking for.
  • Why they want it, and how you can build a profile and create an application to beat the odds.

The webinar includes advice for high school students (and the parents of those students!) ranging from rising 9th to rising 12th graders. 


While college rankings can provide useful information, they shouldn’t be the sole factor in your decision-making process. They offer a broad view but miss the personal aspects that can make a particular school the right fit for you. Use them as a tool, but complement that information with advice from school counselors, family, and friends. Remember, the best school for you is one where you can thrive academically and personally, regardless of its place in the rankings.