How to make sense of college rankings

When it comes to utilizing college rankings, I’ve found that most families fall into one of three camps:

1. Those who don’t consider them.
2. Those who plan to incorporate rankings into a variety of college factors.
3. Those who let the rankings drive their entire college process.

I’ve seen some families in that third camp arrive at their first Collegewise meeting with the latest US News college rankings in hand, intent on limiting their college list to schools in the top ten. Matchmaking, shmatchmaking—it’s all about getting into the highest US News-ranked school possible.

I don’t expect to effectively convince many folks in that camp to migrate, but if you’re on the fence and might be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not any agency can effectively rank colleges, please check out Frank Bruni’s latest New York Times piece, How to Make Sense of College Rankings, the gist of which can be found in this excerpt:

“But [college] rankings cannot take into account, and thus ignore, the most consequential part of the equation, which isn’t some spell that a given school casts on a student but a student’s commitment, curiosity, daring. An obsession with rankings obscures and invariably minimizes this essential truth.”

Glimpse your future

I remember my first Collegewise student who had an incurable case of namebranditis.

Stanford was the only school he could envision himself attending. In his mind, if it wasn’t going to be Stanford, it had to be a school that was just as prestigious. And I knew after just one meeting that this was going to be a problem.

He was the consummate good kid. Smart, hardworking, and polite—all the tools a student needs to be successful. But while he earned almost entirely A’s in high school, he had consistent B’s in his math classes. He scored in the mid-1200s on the SAT. Those credentials were good enough for him to be a certain admit at hundreds of colleges. But they just weren’t going to get him admitted to schools that deny droves of seemingly perfect applicants.

Still, at every meeting, he asked the same questions about how to improve his chances of admission to Stanford and “colleges that are just as good.” It didn’t matter what I said or did to try to get him to see that he deserved better than the stress and uncertainty that would come with hanging his hopes on a short list of colleges that admitted fewer than 15 of every 100 students who applied. He reluctantly added some more realistic schools, but only because of my urging, and he never could muster any excitement for them.

All those reach schools he insisted on applying to said no. The only “good school” (his words) that said yes was Tufts.

Now, Tufts is—and was back then—no slouch in terms of selectivity. But it wasn’t Stanford or the Ivy League. To him, that meant that Tufts just wasn’t good enough. And he was heartbroken.

The good news is that, as is almost always the case with admissions decision disappointment, once he stopped looking back and started looking forward to everything that was waiting for him in college, he perked right up. He bought the sweatshirt and registered for classes and threw himself into life as a Tufts Jumbo. He invested all that innate work ethic and character into carving out a remarkable college career for himself, earning top grades and enjoying a very successful stint on Tufts’ sailing team.

Four years later, he graduated and went to medical school. Today, he’s a happy and successful pediatrician.

What if he could have glimpsed into his future while suffering from namebranditis back in high school? What if he could have seen how much learning, growth and fun were waiting for him at a college that he felt at the time was beneath him? And most importantly, what if the crystal ball had shown him the future proof that his career dreams were all going to come true, even without the admission he craved from one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges?

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream college or two. Take your best shot and see what happens. But remember that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Your future career may not be certain, with or without a magic crystal ball. But your success and happiness will not be dependent on an admissions decision from a prestigious college. If you could glimpse your future, you’d be certain of it.

Great together

At a wedding I attended last weekend, the groom’s father gave a heartfelt toast about raising a sensitive, happy boy who truly blossomed when he went to college. Dad spoke about watching his son throw himself into Model United Nations, spend a summer interning on the South Side of Chicago doing outreach for those who were HIV positive, and eventually emerge four years later a confident, mature, socially-conscious leader.

Today, the groom is a successful public relations executive. He’s also a proud graduate of Willamette University in Oregon.

This isn’t a post touting Willamette specifically. College applicants need to find the schools that best fit them. And just because Willamette sparked this transformation in the groom doesn’t necessarily mean it would have the same effect for every student.

But prestigious colleges don’t hold patents on transformative college experiences. A student who is eager to learn, grow, and take advantage of the opportunities that college has to offer can fulfill those goals at plenty of different schools. For you, that could be Willamette, Williams, Wabash, or Wesleyan.

It’s not about getting into what the rankings say are great colleges. It’s about finding schools where you can be great together.

Salespeople, not scientists

Parke Muth is a former associate dean of admissions at University of Virginia and an independent college counselor. His take on the US News rankings, as quoted in this article in the Yale Daily News, sums up the problem with choosing your college based on a purported ranking.

“'[The US News ranking] wasn’t done by a bunch of scientists — it was just a few guys wondering how to sell more magazines,’ Muth said. ‘The idea that there is somehow a distinction between schools a few places apart on rankings is just ridiculous.’”

Getting the most

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, in response to “What got you interested in technology?”

“I went to Stanford and started my pre-med classes. After my freshman year, I went back to Wausau [her hometown in Wisconsin], and I realized that I was learning all the same things that all my friends who went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison were learning. We were all memorizing the same flashcards and had the same carbon atoms and molecules. I’m doing something much more expensive, so how can I really get the most out of Stanford?”

She found her answer by diving back into the course catalog and finding her new major—symbolic systems—which “combines philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and computer science.”

Wherever you go to college, the path to success will be asking—and answering—the question, “How do I get the most out of it?”

The myth of the Ivy League

The Myth of the Ivy League doesn’t indict the schools themselves (there are plenty of graduates from highly selective colleges who have nothing but fond recollections of—and effusive praise for—their undergraduate experiences). But author Eileen Torrez, herself a graduate of an Ivy League school, is more concerned with the adverse effects that a relentless push to achieve can have on kids, and the fact that those effects are often only exacerbated once students join the coveted “best and brightest” in college.

“High standards are important. Aspirations can make the difference between a student floundering or reaching her full potential. The trouble with high-achieving students is that their broad range of abilities can crowd out the unique interests that drive individuals toward passionate, fulfilling lives. Students themselves can get caught in a praise-seeking trap, especially if they’re consistently rewarded for right answers rather than genuine interest or hard work. But just because a student has the perfect grades or a profile studded with stellar achievements doesn’t mean an elite university is the best place for them. If anything, it means the opposite: that they have the drive to succeed anywhere, and that if placed in an environment that suits them, they’ll be both happy and successful.”

Those who do

Chris, a Collegewise counselor and former MIT admissions counselor, shares this recent post from MIT Dean of Admissions, Stu Schmill, about what they look for—and don’t look for—in prospective students.

In simple terms, we want students to pursue the things that interest them with energy and enthusiasm. We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them. We want students to engage with their community in their pursuits. And, we want students who demonstrate strong ethical character. In short, we want young people to be students and community members first, and applicants second…We don’t want students to do things just because they think they have to. We don’t want students to take advanced classes out of a sense of competition, rather than the joy of learning. We don’t want a laundry list of a million activities. And we don’t want students sacrificing quality for quantity – something that is happening far too often.

I think Schmill’s sentiments are honest and forthright. I also think that the admissions officers at most highly selective colleges would concur. But to really understand and appreciate what he’s sharing, you’ll need to read the entire thing, and you’ll need to read between the lines.

It’s true—MIT doesn’t want students who take every AP class out of a sense of competition. They don’t want students who do things because they think they have to. They don’t want students who focus more on their quantity of work than they do on the quality. They want genuinely curious, engaged human beings who will make valuable contributions in and out of class when they get to college.

But this year, MIT received applications from 20,000 of the very best students in the world, and they only needed to admit about 1500 of them to fill the class.

Those students who were admitted may not have diligently plodded through all of their schools’ AP classes driven only by a sense of competition. But most of them probably took the most challenging courses offered, and voraciously pursued their intellectual interests outside of class driven only by their curiosity and desire to learn. There aren’t very many teenagers who learn that much, that well, driven only by their own intense intellectualism. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted may not have done things because they thought they had to. But they probably did commit themselves passionately to things they really cared about. And they almost certainly achieved impressive success within those activities, whether it was community service, drama, baseball, the math club, Kung Fu, playing the cello, or training guide dogs for the blind. There aren’t very many students who can make that kind of an impact in high school, and do it all driven only by an innate sense of passion and drive unrelated to college admission. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted probably didn’t care about quantity. They never asked how many AP classes, activities, hours of community service, awards, etc. were enough. They cared more about what they were learning, doing, and contributing than they did about whether or not it would be sufficient to earn an admission to their dream college. But their applications almost certainly revealed that they did more, achieved more success, and made a greater impact than most of the applicants applying to college. There aren’t very many students who can do that much, that well, and legitimately claim that they did it because they wanted to, not because they were trying to impress colleges. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Is it a perfect process? Is it even fair? No, it’s not. There are lots of kids who worked, achieved, and cared enough to prove that they deserved to be admitted. But it’s a numbers game, and the reality is that schools like MIT just can’t admit every qualified student who applies. That’s the rub at just about every highly selective college. Too many stellar applicants, too few spaces to offer.

If you want to attend a highly selective college like MIT, please understand that there is no magic formula, no hard-and-fast list of necessary achievements that will guarantee your admission.

So what should you do?

Take the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle without sacrificing sleep or sanity. Work hard to get the best grades you can. Commit yourself to, and make an impact within, activities you care about. Be a class participator. Make efforts to learn about things that interest you, academic or not. Be a good person who cares about your family, your friends, and your community. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Have faith that your work ethic and character will always be more important than any grade, test score, or admission decision from a particular college.

And most importantly, find colleges that fit, regardless of their prestige. Your list may include some schools like MIT where statistically, nobody stands a good chance. But balance those choices by including schools where your counselor agrees that you have a strong chance of admission.

Taking this route still won’t guarantee that you’ll get into a highly selective college. But it guarantees there will be plenty of great colleges where you’ll be one of those who do.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.

Learn from the child genius

Tanishq Abraham has accomplished quite a bit for a 12-year-old. He’s been enrolled in community college since he was 7 (the same age he also gave a TED Talk). He earned his high school diploma at 10. He’s earned three associate’s degrees, and he’s currently deciding where he’ll transfer (with junior standing) to college this fall—he’s been accepted by UC Davis and by UC Santa Cruz, where he won the Regents Scholarship, the highest honor they award entering undergraduates.

But Tanishq didn’t get into Stanford. And even this child genius is struggling to understand why.

To most counselors and admissions officers, the outcome actually isn’t that surprising. Stanford admitted only 5 of every 100 applicants this year, the lowest acceptance rate in the school’s history. When a school receives applications from the most accomplished students—not just from the United States, but from all over the world—they have to look for reasons to say no to plenty of brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime type kids. That’s what it means to apply to a highly selective college.

Good counselors have to spend a lot of time convincing high-achieving students (and those students’ parents) to include some less selective schools on their college lists. When students have taken the hardest classes, earned A’s, scored off the charts on tests, and flourished in activities, they’re recognized as some of the best and brightest at their schools. So it’s not surprising they often expect to be admitted to highly selective colleges. In fact, it’s totally reasonable for them to wonder what more they could possibly have done.

But if you’re going to take your shot at any school that denies just about all of its applicants, it’s important to understand what—and who—you’re up against. You owe it to yourself to have a college list that guarantees you a few options you’ll be excited about. And you can’t write off all your hard work as worthless if a highly selective college doesn’t say yes.

Tanishq is living proof that nobody, not even a genius, is a sure admit. But he’s also a good reminder that you can find smart, accomplished, talented students at plenty of colleges that may not vie for the top spot on the rankings lists.

Debunking admissions myths

From De-bunking College Admission Myths:

“The reality is that admission directors at highly selective colleges across the country — including Stanford — have acknowledged that almost 75% of their applicants would be terrific students at their universities, but they can only take a much smaller percentage. So what happens to the 70% or so of the smart, motivated, dedicated students who are denied admission to these schools? You’ll find them at a broad range of other colleges: private, public, big, and small. Similarly, what happens to the brilliant Ph.D. students who learn that there are too few openings for new professors at the Ivy League schools? They go on to be brilliant professors at a wide range of other universities. So of course it makes sense that you can find engaging and high-level, intellectual discussion, excellent teaching, and outstanding professional networks at universities all around the country. We have over 2400 four-year colleges in the United States, and at least another 2000 two-year colleges. Our kids deserve to know the truth about the full range of post-secondary options available to them.”

Denise Pope
Co-Founder of Challenge Success
Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education
Author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids