Rankings vs. Fit, Part IV

Rankings vs. Fit Part IV

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Four of the series. Here are the other posts: Part I, Part II, Part III.

At the end of Part Three, I suggested there were four “corners,” or major sets of considerations, to assist in narrowing your college list from “all of the schools in the known universe” to “6 or 8 or 10 or however many applications one person can actually complete.” Those corners are Geography, Academics, Extracurriculars, and Amenities.


You may have been told that you can find your niche anywhere, and to some extent, that’s true. But it will be easier to find opportunities to go cross-country skiing in Minnesota than Louisiana. Do you have strong feelings about trees? Snow? Squirrels? Ragweed? Elevation?

Here are some geography questions to ask yourself: How far from home do you want to be? Do you want to be able to dash home on a weekend with a car full of laundry, or are you happy with Christmas and summer?

What kind of weather do you want to live with for the next four years? Do you really hate cold? Or heat? Or rain?

Do you want to be near the mountains? The ocean? Would you prefer an an urban campus integrated into a large city, or a peaceful retreat with tree lined walks and mossy brick and people playing frisbee on the quad?


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you have a ready answer, or are you now caught in a wave of panic? Either way, you can narrow your list! If you know what you want to do, you have a passion and a focus, it’s important to find a school that has that field. Meet with some professors, or at least send some e-mails. Talk to them about your interests.

If you have no idea what you want to study, you probably want to avoid schools that have a very limited focus or ask that you pick a major immediately. You may want to look for schools that encourage you to explore a few different subjects your first year or two. And even if you have no idea what your future looks like, you should be able to find a major, or two, or three, on the list of the college in question, and think to yourself, “Hm. Maybe.”

How about class size? Picture yourself in a lecture hall with 50 or 100 other students. Then picture yourself in a room with ten students and one professor who knows your name and expects you to have something interesting to say. One of those might sound horrible. Most schools will have some of each the distribution varies pretty widely.

Do you think you might want to go to graduate school? Some schools send a lot more students on to get PhDs than others. What about opportunities for undergraduate research or study abroad programs?


What keeps you sane? What keeps you centered? What has been your refuge throughout high school when things were a little overwhelming? Your ideal college should offer some opportunity to do that, whether it’s basketball or saxaphone or religious services of your denomination, either on campus or near by. If art is your hobby, but you don’t want to major in it, would you be able to enroll in studio classes, or are they restricted to studio art majors?

In addition to the hobbies and activities you know are important, what new things do you hope your college will have? Take a look at the list of clubs and activities at a few different colleges and universities – what kinds of clubs are (and aren’t) offered can provide a lot of insight into the culture.

How important is Greek life (or avoiding Greek life) to you? What about sports? The idea of a whole campus decorated in school colors and excited about the next game might seem a necessary part of your college experience, or something you’d rather avoid entirely.


It’s not enough to say, “nice dorms.” I loved my dorms. They were historic, with beautiful wood floors and high ceilings and old radiators that knocked and clanked all night in the winter. They had no air conditioners or elevators, but huge closets and plenty of windows. Old buildings are pretty, but they do come with some limitations.

What is “nice” to you? Also, beyond the building itself, think about policies. How do you feel about gender divisions in housing? Is it important to you that you be in a quiet or substance free dorm? What about restrictions on visiting hours, or even curfews?

“Good food” is not obvious, either. Having a choice between eighteen fast food options might sound amazing to you, or it might sound like torture. Do you have dietary restrictions for religious or health reasons? What are the vegetarian options like?

How about the athletic facilities? Art museum? Library? Weird little underground student-run pub?

Some of these things will seem very important to you. Others will seem silly and not worth considering. But by coming up with your own list of must-haves, you can rank colleges for yourself, and (hopefully) end up with a list of schools that fit you, not some obscure list of criteria made up by someone you’ve never met. And since you’re the one actually going to the college in question, it seems like that might be more important.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

Rankings vs. Fit Part III

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Three of the series. Here are Part I and Part II.

So, rankings may not be that important after all. They may give us some ideas, but they are not definitive – which schools are included and how those schools are ranked vary quite a bit from one rankings system to another, and the criteria may not include the factors that are most important to an individual student.

So what is important?

This is what was important to me: I wanted my campus to be pretty. I wanted people to be nice. I wanted to be able to get to know my professors a little bit, because I learn best when I’m face to face with someone. I wanted the food to be good.

That doesn’t narrow it down much, does it? I didn’t mind a religious affiliation, but I didn’t want mandatory theology classes, because I felt I’d had enough of that in my Catholic high school, so that meant Georgetown was out. I wanted to be able to take some electives, not just courses in my major (bye-bye, Cooper Union). I was pretty committed to the idea of seasons (there goes Arizona State) and putting a few hundred miles between me and my hometown (sorry, Washington University).

Some students will visit an older sibling or cousin who ended up at Ohio State and fall in love with the school, without looking at too many other places or asking very many questions. And those students might well have an amazing experience at Ohio State. Many of the things that determine the flavor of your particular college experience may not show up in a brochure or even an overnight visit: a particular class you stumble upon because the one you intended to take was full and you really need something Monday and Wednesday at 3:00, or the person who lives across the hall from you during your first semester, or the little all night diner across town that no one else seems to know about. Ohio State is just as likely to deliver these serendipitous intangibles as any other school. The list of factors I’m suggesting below is not for those students, nor is it for the ones who have always wanted to attend the same school as a parent or uncle and are certain they will be accepted to that school (although I’d point out that having backups is still wise).

This list is for students who are certain their perfect school is out there, somewhere, and are tempted to turn to rankings guides to find it. This list is for students who wanted to attend the most selective school that would accept them before they read that the most selective school that accepts you might not actually be the best fit. This list is for students who are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of schools – even in an abbreviated list like Princeton Review’s – and have no idea where to start.

Choosing a college that works for you is like folding a giant, unwieldy blanket. Which corner you start with matters less than the fact that you need to start with a corner. Once you’ve got a handle on that, you can move to the next corner, and the next, until what was a giant, uncoordinated mess is something manageable and organized. “Corners,” for the purposes of my metaphor, are geography, academics, extracurriculars, and amenities. So pick a corner, and start narrowing that list.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit Part II

Rankings vs. Fit Part II

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part Two of the series.

In Part One, we introduced an important idea: college rankings may not be the most important factor in choosing a school. This may sound simple, but the very purpose of rankings is to present a list of schools from most to least desirable, based upon a series of criteria which vary from one ranking system to the next. U.S. News calculates its rankings based upon “undergraduate academic reputation” (assessed by college administrators and high school guidance counselors), student retention, “faculty resources” (professor salary is the largest component of this section, while student to faculty ratio is the smallest), selectivity (most of this category is determined by SAT and ACT scores,) financial resources, graduation rate, and alumni giving rate.

The Princeton Review’s rankings are composed a bit differently; schools are ranked in 62 different categories, based on student surveys. Topics are diverse, and include information on dorms, dining, health services, and the prevalence of alcohol on campus. As a student I may care quite a bit more about the quality of the food than the salary of my professors, so the Princeton Review ranking system may seem to have more to offer me than the U.S. News version.

However, the number of colleges ranked by The Princeton Review is less than 400 – just over 13% of the total number Title IV institutions granting 4-year degrees in the country. Robert Franek, who authors the guide, says: “Every college in our book offers outstanding academics.” Is the implication that the colleges and universities not included in their rankings don’t offer quality educations?

Unfortunately, the Princeton Review is less than specific in revealing the methodology used to select the schools they review, noting only that “[w]e selected these colleges primarily based on our high opinion of their academics.” U.S. News, by contrast, collects data on approximately 1600 colleges and universities, about 56% of the total schools in the country. While the U.S. News system still appears less than comprehensive, it includes far more schools than The Princeton Review.

One could certainly argue that the number of schools reviewed by any given outlet provides students with an overwhelming array of choices, and that tracking down more colleges and universities to investigate, beyond the several hundred provided, is, well, a bit silly. But understanding the underlying logic of ratings systems can be invaluable in choosing the best colleges for an individual student.

Forbes provides perhaps the most surprising ranking system. One might expect such a magazine to provide mostly financial information. And, in a way, it does. “We’re not all that interested in what gets a student into college, like our peers who focus heavily on selectivity metrics such as high school class rank, SAT scores and the like. Our sights are set directly on ROI: What are students getting out of college?” Forbes’ ranking includes ten percent weight given to RateMyProfessor scores, as well as several metrics measuring student success after graduation: graduate salaries as well as the number of students winning certain awards (Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, for example). Forbes ranks 650 schools, falling between the relatively small number ranked by The Princeton Review and the more comprehensive U.S. News list.

Other ranking systems exist – focusing on everything from public service (Washington Monthly) to earnings after graduation (Money). Which rankings, if any, to consider in the college search should be compatible with a student’s goals and priorities. Because rankings systems disagree regarding which criteria are important for evaluating schools, and even which schools ought to be evaluated, rankings can’t generally be accepted without research into methodologies and some consideration of which factors are most important to an individual student. We’ll discuss what some of those factors might be in the next part of the series.

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

Rankings vs. Fit Part I

In this series, Audrey dissects a recent debate over the merits of Ivy League Universities which has opened up a much broader and more important conversation – one about choosing colleges and the importance of looking beyond selectivity and rankings when choosing a school. This is Part One of the series.

William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has generated heated debate at the New Republic and elsewhere. In the original piece, excerpted from Deresiewicz’s new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, the author argues that education at Ivy League institutions is fundamentally mismanaged and that our most elite institutions are producing graduates incapable of living the kinds of lives that Deresiewicz seems to think they should.

In the ensuing flurry of responses, a few critical questions emerge: What is college for? How should one choose a college?

Deresiweicz, and the authors who have joined the debate, are using “The Ivy League” as shorthand for a group of schools none of them define clearly, muddling the conversation significantly. The Ivies are, of course, a group of eight elite colleges: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale. The combined undergraduate enrollment of these schools is just shy of 100,000 students, or about one half of one percent of the total undergraduate enrollment in the country. Deresiwiecz’s ostensible clarification that he refers to “our entire system of elite education,” including private and some public high schools, tutors, test prep, graduate school, and hiring practices, is problematic in its lack of precision. If his concern is, as it seems to be, with the entire system by which we educate and hire young people (not with the Ivy League specifically), why invoke the Ivies in the title?

Here the Ivy League is employed as a symbol of elitism, and of success – pointing to a much larger issue with the way we choose colleges. He comes closest to salient criticism of our current system when he writes: “Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.””

Prestige. Selectivity. Rankings. These are the criteria college lists are made of, right? Most prestigious is synonymous with “best,” which is somehow synonymous with “best for me.” In the hierarchical system of evaluating schools, the Ivy League colleges live at the top of the mountain with all other options somehow less shiny and promising.

Deresiwiecz hints at this disconnect but fails to make the next logical step: the ideal school for me may not be the ideal school for you, the most prestigious school that will accept a student may not be the one at which he or she will get the best education. If we can’t simply choose a college based on its rankings, how should we choose?

Audrey Hazzard is a Tutor at Get Smarter Prep.