Really? Not very much at all. The fact that the current population of high school students in the U.S. is pretty large historically speaking, a larger percentage of students than before are now able to consider attending college, and more foreign students than ever are applying to American universities, means the competition to get into a “great” school is fiercer than it has ever been.
Feeding into that, highly selective universities want to further enhance their profile by being considered “ultra selective” — i.e., admitting fewer than 10% of all applicants. Twenty years ago, only a handful of schools fit into this category. Today, Harvard and Stanford boast admissions rates well below ten percent and many more schools now fit into this category of “ultra selective.” Being ultra selective is not merely about bragging rights, it will also enhance your standing in U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings.
Presidents and provosts of universities will swear up and down that these rankings don’t matter to them. Nonetheless, plenty of schools are doing everything they can to raise their profiles (marketing to other universities to improve their reputational standings), lower their acceptance rates (encouraging students who probably won’t be admitted to apply just so they can deny more students), and increasing their yield rates (admitting a large portion of their class from a binding early decision pool, and admitting legacies and development cases, who are typically more likely to attend than those in the general applicant pool).
College rankings take these criteria (acceptance rate, yield, median SAT scores and GPA, reputation among other universities) and other criteria that probably don’t bear much on the quality of your undergraduate education (like alumni giving rates) and put them together in a formula that looks scientific, but really isn’t. The result is a list that changes a bit from year to year, not least because schools set out to try to improve their rankings so they can attract more applicants, lower their acceptance rates, enhance their reputations, and so on in an endless cycle. We personally don’t believe this process has improved undergraduate education or made it easier for students to pick a school that is right for them.
So if the rankings can’t help you pick a college, what can?
First, knowing what you want in a school (see our previous post, “It’s All About Fit,”). Then, doing the research to find out what’s out there. See if your high school has copies of college guidebooks like “Fiske’s Guide to Colleges,” “The Princeton Reviews Best 382 [or however many it is that year] Colleges,” or the “College Board College Handbook.” These books are not the end all, be all of college searching. They are a jumping off point that can give you a good, high level overview of many (but by no means even half) of the colleges and universities you might want to consider. As you start to make a list of potential schools, it can help to have a sounding board — someone you can bounce ideas off of and who can give you new suggestions. If you have a teacher or guidance counselor who can help, they can be an invaluable resource in this process. A good independent counselor can also help you, whether you need to narrow or expand your list of schools. Even if you are having trouble prioritizing the criteria that matter most to you, a good counselor can help you get started.
Whatever you do, don’t just run down a college ranking list and just apply to the “best” schools you think you can get into based on your grades and scores.