The Empire State Building lit up in violet.

Help, I’m Lost!


College rankings, in one form or another, have influenced application, enrollment, and employment decisions for roughly 120 years. The modern parent of current rankings, U.S. News & World Report, allows its users to carefully comb through comprehensive college-related information. Many other rankings, from the Wall Street Journal, QS, ARWU, Times Higher Education, and Barron’s to the Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, are thriving. All use their own methodology to offer a variety of ratings, measuring schools and programs in myriad ways.

You could decide to follow one ranking source or to explore all the options out there. You could also ignore them! It’s up to you. Rankings supply interesting, though often complex, information. So it’s important to make sure you understand the techniques used to evaluate it all.

What Do All These Numbers Mean?

Each ranking may use different—and differently weighted—metrics to make calculations. Take the time to investigate these methodologies. Winning the 100-meter sprint at the Olympics is a clear fact, measured by your timed performance. But who wins an Oscar, for example, is decided in a very subjective way. College rankings can incorporate both measuring styles, so you should check out which evaluation tools are driven by hard data and which are less objective.

In addition, you may notice that the same college may rank very differently depending on which ratings list you look at. You should also consider rankings over several years to understand the variations and fluctuations. Look for signs of progression. Is this school on an upward trajectory? For example, the Times Higher Education ranked NYU No. 60 in the World University Rankings at one time. In 2022? We are No. 26.

Finally, a college ranked No. 15 may have very little separating it from another school ranked No. 35. In fact, the actual differences may be statistically insignificant. That is especially true for universities in the United States, a country with a large number of quality higher education institutions.

Why Do These Rankings Matter Then?

For colleges, competitive rankings can be reputation boosters. This is often linked to attracting a larger volume of high-caliber students, faculty, and recruiters. Industry recognition is also a sign that things are going well. Similarly, weaker scores may spring a school into action for improvement.

Rankings can help aspiring students differentiate between the numerous colleges out there. It’s a starting point to understanding a school’s ability to meet and exceed the elements that support a good student experience. They are indicators that can be included in your research.

Tips on How to Use Rankings in Your College Search:

Go Beyond the Number

On websites or in brochures, you may come across statements such as, “We are ranked No. 3! Yay us!” Great! But for what?

You should always look for the specifics behind the number. Is it for the engineering or the African literature program? Is it a regional or international ranking?

For instance, NYU Abu Dhabi’s Economics program recently ranked No. 5 in Asia for their research publications. That’s brilliant news! But it’s about more than being No. 5. It’s about a specific department’s high-quality research output in a competitive region of the world.

So, when evaluating rankings, always make sure to dig beyond the basic score.

Identify What Matters to You

Is the university’s selectiveness important to you? Do you care about the student body’s average GPA or SAT? Are you looking for a college that offers the most generous scholarships or the best social mobility? Does the level of socioeconomic, racial, or identity diversity on campus matter to you? Is quality of student life high on your list? Let’s not forget the class size and graduation rate!

Make sure to read rankings that assess characteristics that match your own interests. Explore the data in detail. Especially if you are vacillating between a few schools. Let’s say you are considering colleges that all have close overall rankings. One, however, ranks higher in innovation. If that factor is important to you, you can use it to refine your selection. For instance, diversity is important to me. Therefore, I’m excited that QS World University Rankings: USA ranked NYU No.1 for Diversity and Internationalization in 2021!

A quick tip: research beyond the institution’s accolades. Find out which awards, scholarships, and fellowships its students are receiving. They are also strong indicators of success!

Deal with External Pressure

Many of you may be in a position where you wish to apply to a determined set of colleges—including your favorite, NYU! First, you must convince the people around you to support your choices. Peer pressure (“I am applying to all the top 10 schools, why aren’t you?”) may come into play. Your family may demand that you only apply to schools they’ve heard of or that are ranked in the world’s top 3. Ignoring these influential opinions seems easier said than done.

But don’t forget school fit. Being the right fit for a college (and them being the right fit for you) is a big part of the selection process here, on both sides. In short, you will not be the right fit for all the schools in the top 10 of any ranking. Why? Because they are not carbon copies. They might be close in rank but vastly different in their vision, values, and the type of student experiences they offer. Finding the right fit is more important than a school’s number on a list. It will set you up to be happy and successful at university.

My Final Opinion

Rankings offer a lot of useful details on specific college characteristics. That said, they should not become the main deciding factor when choosing your dream school(s). The wonderful human element of the college experience does not always align with the rankings. Talk to people in the community. Visit if you can or attend online sessions. Essentially, go beyond the rankings in your research. Will I have access to my programs of interest? Is it located in an exciting city? What’s the campus vibe like? What are the student support programs? Are there any internship opportunities? What about studying abroad? These are certainly all great questions to ask.

You want to enroll in THE BEST SCHOOL FOR YOU, rather than just the “best school.”

Lisa is a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for NYU Abu Dhabi and the Global Admissions Team, based in the London office.
Born and raised in France, Lisa also lived in Denmark and spent a couple of years in leafy upstate New York.  She is a dedicated gardener, a keen traveler to India and Japan, and loves watching the tennis at Wimbledon. She now spends her free time playing with her little rescue terrier dog, Cooper.