College Rankings: Getting In

College rankings are easily digestible resources for identifying reputable institutions. The most familiar guide is that produced by U.S. News & World Reports. Other rankings use different methodologies and produce different results, such as those published by Washington Monthly, Kiplinger's, Forbes, London's Times Higher Education, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. These rankings, however complex and controversial, can be starting points for in-depth personal investigations.

The problem with rankings is that they can become a shallow substitute for reflecting on the types of college learning that may bring success and happiness. At an extreme, reliance on one-size-fits-all college rankings ignores each individual's unique strengths and requirements. The real issue is whether an applicant is considering colleges that will support his or her intellectual growth and exploration.

Brand name paralysis means putting all of one's efforts to getting into a "top" college, and adds needless stress to the application process:
Prestige comes with fierce competition for admission.
It is assumed that a prestigious college bestows recognition, and thus advancement to the best jobs or positions of leadership.
It is critical to know whether the prestigious college offers skills development or carefully admits students with proven abilities.

Intellectual ability alone is not enough for admission to the most esteemed universities. College officials also seek students with the potential to contribute to the campus community or the public good. Personal characteristics such as maturity, integrity, reactions to setbacks, concern for others, self-confidence, initiative, and independence do matter in a college applicant, and are part of the Teacher Evaluation of the Common Application.

Students often underestimate the difficulty of college, and can get caught between a rock and a hard place. In general social circles, entry into the most competitive universities, where admission rates may fall below 10%, signals success in an uncertain world. In contrast, the individual collegian may discover that a brand name school can diverge from best practices in academic instruction, performance measurement, and connecting with its students. It's best to avoid situations of too much stress in striving for good grades and pre-professional activities, which are important for getting hired or getting into graduate school.