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When you’re looking into colleges and universities, it might be pretty overwhelming. You might not have the criteria you need in order to be able to make a good choice between the many options available to you. As a result, you may resort to some of the most readily available criteria out there: college rankings.

There are any number of resources available today, all of which have to do with ranking colleges against each other, in terms of value of education, rates of alumni success, the test scores of the entering class, and more. These rankings have the tendency to convince students that particular schools are always and forever better than others, because a rating institution has given those schools a better ranking.

Well, if you’re looking into colleges, then it’s critical you know: Rankings just aren’t everything. What’s important isn’t the ranking of the college; what’s important is whether or not the college is right for you.

Picking What’s Important to You

Whenever you look at any kind of college rankings, you should make certain that you find out exactly what is being ranked. No ranking is ever going to incorporate every piece of information that might be significant to your decision making, so you better know exactly what is being ranked, and how that information was gathered and presented.

For example, you might encounter a school touting that it’s ranked #1 for liberal arts schools. Wow! Sounds like a great school, right? But…what exactly does that mean? Well, it’s probably a conglomeration of a number of factors, including test scores of incoming students, job rates for alumni, and more.

But maybe it doesn’t include the amount of financial aid offered to prospective students. Or maybe it doesn’t include more seemingly cosmetic factors, like whether or not the school is located in an urban environment, or the overall size of the school’s student body. Those factors might not seem like they’re terribly important in determining the quality of a school, but then you have to consider: even if your school has fantastic academics, if you’re going to be miserable located out in a rural location, would you really want to go there?

Before you even start looking at school rankings, it’s a good idea to figure out what factors are most important to you. Are you willing to sacrifice everything else for a school that’s well-known as the best in the subject area you’re most interested in? Is it important to you that you go to a school in a location where there’s plenty to do and see? How about if you’re an international student — is it important to you that there’s a support structure in place?

Figure out which elements matter most to you, and then rank schools yourself, based on those factors. Lists of rankings provided by other sources can be of great value to you, and can definitely aid you in your process, but they should never supercede your own, personal ranking process.

Collecting Your Own Data

Another important element about college rankings is that they’re often based on objective information, collected by research departments at the various institutions that provide those rankings. They don’t take into account plenty of elements and factors that might not be objectively measurable.

For instance, if you talked to the students at a particular school, you might find out that they absolutely adore a particular professor, and think that she’s an amazing teacher. You might also find out about some exceptional research work that she has done in the past. You probably wouldn’t want to make your decision to go to a particular university based on the presence of a single professor alone, but knowing this kind of information can build you a picture that’s going to be of much greater use to you in your decision making process than pure college rankings.

If at all possible, you should try to visit the campuses of the schools that you’re considering and form your own opinions. Heck, visit as many schools as you can, even if you’re not really considering them. Every school you visit is one more set of data for you to add to your own, personal ranking process.

Making the Decision

The bottom line to keep in mind for using college ranking scores is that they’re tools, as useful as any other. They’re not the be-all and end-all of which college is best, especially because your decision shouldn’t be made based on what school is best, but on what school is best for you. Use college rankings to make your decision, but use them wisely, and use them in a way that suits your own goals and desires.