Defining the 'Best' in Colleges

Over the last month, the release of college rankings has created a mad rush among families of college-bound students to find validation for the colleges that appear on their emerging short lists. Forbes, Newsweek, and The Princeton Review have all weighed in with their superlatives. And now the "grand-daddy" of ranking guides, Best Colleges from U.S.News & World Report, will be available for review Sept. 13.

While critics argue that rankings adversely affect the college-going landscape by distorting institutional priorities and misplacing the emphasis in the choice of a college, their popularity is an ongoing testimony to the insatiable desire of many consumers to have the "best."

[Learn how to use the U.S. News college rankings wisely.]

But what is the "best" when it comes to defining options in higher education? Where and how might the label be justified? Is it the place with fractional advantages in admissions selectivity, test scores, student satisfaction, graduation rates, or faculty productivity? Or might it be the campus regarded as most spirited, party-oriented, academically rigorous, or reputable? Given the amorphous and highly personalized nature of the college experience, is it even wise to think about the "best" in universal terms?

In evaluating college options, honest reflection will lead to solutions that make the most sense for you. The best college will be the one that acknowledges your strengths and weaknesses, accommodates your needs, supports your ambitions, and invests in you as you strive to achieve your goals. It is the place that values you for what you have to offer--something that ranking guides can't measure.

Finding a good "fit" in this regard isn't easy--there are aren't any shortcuts for firsthand research. Can rankings guides be helpful? Sure, if you keep them in perspective, use the accompanying data wisely, and remind yourself that the pecking order is indeed mythical. The following are additional guidelines for making effective use of college ranking guides:

1. Don't obsess on a ranking. Nothing in the ranking process is absolute. There is no such thing as the best college unless the term is used to describe the best college fit for a young person. Focus on finding and getting into the colleges that best suit your needs and interests rather than obsessing on a college because of its ranking.

2. Use the rankings as a guide, not the gospel. College rankings are derived from data, both objective and subjective, collected from and about colleges and universities. While the data is at least interesting, much of it can't really be used comparatively due to vast differences between the culture, mission, and politics of the institutions being assessed. For example, how can you compare testing profiles across colleges that vary greatly in terms of how they use (or don't use tests) in the admissions process?

[Get tips from the U.S. News college test prep guide.]

3. Use data from ranking guides as a reference point as you triangulate on colleges in the search process. Fold the information you glean from the data into impressions you are gathering about colleges from your own research involving campus visits and discussions with teachers, counselors, current students, recent graduates, and professionals in the community whose interests mirror your own.

4. Take a step back and focus on the three W's. By presuming to "score" colleges against each other, ranking lists tend to be enticing illusions that often distract students from thinking about the things that are most important to them as they contemplate their educational futures. You need to remain focused on the three W's: who you are, why you want to go to college, and what you hope to get out of the college experience.

5. Don't change who you are to get into college. Too often, families become fixed on particular college destinations, especially those with impressive rankings, and proceed to remake the student into the image of what they think those colleges want. Rather than squeezing every hour out of every day in the pursuit of the perfect credential for the dream college, focus on the things that give you joy in life. Invest in them and in yourself--and then look at the colleges that value you for what you have to offer.

[Avoid 5 scenarios when choosing a college.]

6. Find the colleges that fit you best. Regardless of where they rank, the best college fits for you will be those that:

-- Offer programs of study to match your interests and needs

-- Provide styles of instruction to match the way you like to learn

-- Provide levels of academic rigor to match your aptitude and preparation

-- Offer communities that feel like home to you

-- Value you for what you do well

7. Read the articles--they're great! While it is best to approach the actual rankings with a jaundiced eye, the editors of ranking guides really have compiled outstanding resources in the articles that wrap around the numbers. Check them out!