College Pete

A New College Rankings System – And How to Build Your Optimal College List

A New College Rankings System – And How to Build Your Optimal College List

Faced with what The Wall Street Journal once called a ‘mind-numbingly complex’ process of evaluating 4000 universities and determining which are the ‘best’, families often turn to independently produced and widely-touted but rather dubious indices and rankings systems (yes, US News, I’m talking ’bout you).

I have so many students who, when they’re first building or paring down their college lists (which we’re doing right now with our sophomores and juniors), will point to the rankings and say that they’ll only consider the top schools, which presumably are the ‘best schools’.

My response is often: Rather than consider what’s ‘best’, let’s look at what’s ‘best for you.’

Let’s start, for example, with identifying schools that offer academic programs, or majors, you’re interested in pursuing. My alma mater, Tufts University, is currently ranked #32 by US News, but you can’t take a single business class there. Is that a better choice for a DECA kid who is keen on studying business than #41 Boston University? or even #44 Case Western Reserve University? Probably not.

Now I’m not against using data to inform your college planning decisions. Data can be very useful. It’s just that ‘rankings’ are just a starting point. They are not an absolute.

As a whole, the rankings like those in US News do offer a singe place where data on schools is collected. And when that data is deconstructed, students can learn some interesting things about the schools they’re researching. But, when rankings are used as whole-scale evidence that the 15th ranked school, Washington University of St. Louis, for example, is ‘better’ than the 25th ranked school, New York University, there are real problems. There is nothing geographical, cultural or academic that makes it possible to really compare these two universities and assign a generic ranking that determines whether one is better for your child than the other. Fit matters – academic, social and financial!

In an effort to address these issues (and, let’s face it, to compete with the aforementioned rival media outlet, US News), the NY Times recently introduced a ‘Build-Your-Own’ rankings tool with 900 colleges and universities in its database. It’s an interesting endeavor with an appealing premise — and you can try it here. My concern is that any ranking system based on an individual student’s preferences is actually far messier — and thus less reliable — in execution than it is in its intent. That’s because many of the data points utilized to feed the algorithms include factors like post grad earnings of former financial aid recipients and racial diversity. These are measurable considerations but not exactly quantitative in that they are subject to the human interpretation of the people feeding the system. Like most any data, rankings data might be ‘numerical’, but not exactly objective.

So, how do you build a ‘perfect list’ of colleges? First, be mindful that there is no optimal list that applies to all. There is, however, an optimal process by which to build that list. And that process starts with each individual student identifying preferences (academic interests, high school performance, career aspirations, campus lifestyle, location and locale, student organizations, average class size, etc.), while taking into consideration the family’s ability to pay (budget, expected family contribution, financial aid generosity, availability of merit scholarships, etc.). Then it moves to looking at the schools that can meet those criteria.

The list-building process should be initially inclusive (think 40 schools to be researched in 10th/11th grade). And then a good college list is one that is ultimately focused, intentional and strategic (think 12 max by the summer before 12th grade).

Remember to consider the financial realities and make sure you understand your family’s Expected Contribution and your particular talents/achievements so that you can anticipate the level of discount you’ll receive from each school you’re considering (We utilize software that can accurately project this in advance). Nothing is worse than including schools on your list that you categorically won’t or can’t attend. And finally, recognize that a large majority of any applicant pool will meet the school’s requirements – this is competitive – so make sure you build a list with a mixture of reach, target and likely schools from an admissions and financial basis.

As we move into the final stretch of this academic year, we begin to focus in earnest on making sure our 11th graders are positioned to submit their applications BEFORE they get mired in the academic crush and pressure of 12th grade. This includes making sure that each student has the right colleges on their list!

If you’re an 11th grader (or a parent who loves one), there are steps you can be taking now to ensure that the entire application process goes smoothly – without the needless stress that comes with doing things late or without the proper guidance. We like to say, to get ahead it’s good to get a head start!

And with that in mind, we’re opening our early bird registration for our 17th Annual Summer College Admissions Bootcamp. This is a 6-week program with live instruction and one-on-one office hours. We guarantee that every attendee will have a submit-ready college application (including a stand-out essay and activities list) BEFORE the start of the next school year.

You can review the syllabus here – and if interested, register your child today. Please keep in mind that this program is guaranteed to all of our Gold/Platinum clients at no additional charge and has sold out to the public every year. We often have a waitlist of students, so be sure to register your rising 12th grader and avoid being on the outside wishing your child enjoyed the necessary support. We hope to see your soon-to-be rising 12th grader in our class!

Again, check our our syllabus by clicking here – and feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions about this program – or any other component of the college planning process. I know it may appear daunting right now, but I promise that with the right support, it need not be!!

comment closed