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University rankings – should I care?

This post will help you understand a bit more about university rankings and how to use them to inform your decisions on graduate school abroad.

In the United States, ranking, and particularly university ranking is practically a national sport. But how important are these rankings? Should I care about them when I apply to graduate school abroad? And if so – which ranking is the right one to look at?

Universities are ranked by different bodies, such as – newspapers, news websites, academic oversight bodies, student recruitment agencies and more. Each use different criteria to determine the rank, and, not surprisingly, each one comes out with a slightly different ranking. If the answers are indeed different, does it really matter then?

The short answer is – yes. The more accurate answer is – it depends on who you are, what career you want to pursue, where in the world, and how high you are aiming. Studying abroad opens doors. Great schools open more doors.

Especially in the US, the ranking of the school you went to could haunt you for the rest of your life (or make your life much easier). In some cases, especially in the extremes of the school rankings charts, it will indeed have a very strong impact. Being an Ivy League (Harvard / Yale / Columbia / Penn etc.) graduate allows many advantages and career opportunities and provides a network of peers who will be able to help you with business and personal development later on in your career. A good university serves as a proxy that you are a good job / academia candidate and will open many doors for you. There is also probably a strong correlation between a school being ranked as a top university and the actual quality of that school.

A low ranked university will make it much harder for you to get accepted to further academic degrees and find a good job in the U.S. (this is unfortunate, but in the US it is quite true). In the second tier  universities (the mid-range of the rankings scale), rankings get a bit trickier, and the ranking becomes all the more important, since there is a large variety and range of quality of schools, so you need to better understand the rankings of these schools. Some schools may be number one in one field, but not so good in another. Don’t be fooled by the schools’ PR. They will always try to present themselves as ranked highly on some sort of ranking. For instance, a school may write on their website – we are the no. 1 ranked school in the State, when there are actually no schools in that State that are ranked highly on any national or international rankings. So the statement is true, but will not help you meet your goals.

So – how do I navigate this ranking maze?

Some things never really change. The top 10-20 universities in the US have been so for hundreds of years! Most chances are they will remain in that range for years to come.
Try to anchor your understanding in data. Look at things that will matter to you. What percentage of grads finds jobs in business, how many in academia? Are any of the professors at that school ranked highly? You will need to be in a class led by a specific professor for your field of interest – you may want to assure that they will be good teachers, mentors and recommenders in the future.

Have a strategy when you approach your application and look at the rankings. What does your profile look like? How are your scores as they compare to last year’s cutoff for the schools of your choice (the GPA and GMAT / TOEFL/ GRE cutoffs will be shown in many of the rankings)? You can deduce some clear actions from what you see. If your GMAT / GRE scores are too low – redo them. If your TOEFL is too low – redo it. Or decide that you are willing to go to a lower ranked school – but remember the potential consequences.

In general - don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Just like in investments in stocks – you need to diversify your application strategy – you can do this with the help of the rankings:
  1. Check out your profile as it compares to the various rankings (look for the cutoff scores and compare them to yours).
  2. From the ranking lists, choose 5-10 schools / programs you are interested in.
  3. Rank the schools you are interested in compared to your chances of acceptance.
  4. Filter down the list until you have 2-3 “safety schools” that you feel like to you have a 80-100% chance of getting accepted to and will be happy if you get in to.
  5. Choose 2-3 schools that are below your profile but you could still live with if you ended up going to them.
  6. Choose 2-3 schools that are your “dream schools” but you have a lower chance of getting in to (10-20% chance).
  7. Now you have a list of 6-9 schools to apply to. If you can and feel confident in your chances, try to apply to 5-6 programs and save some money (applications are not cheap…).

To make your life easier, below are some of the leading rankings in the world right now. It is best to compare your program across several rankings to determine its actual “value”. Another way to learn about your prospects is to look at GradTrain profiles of grads of the universities you are considering and see where they came from, what they achieved and if that is where you want to be in the future. You can of course connect with them and discuss your chances.

US News and World Report – probably the most popular ranking of US Schools ONLY:

Times Higher Education:

Ranking web of universities:

The Guardian rankings:

The Telegraph rankings:

World university rankings:

Still not sure how to understand the rankings and how they pertain to your profile? Post your scores on the GradTrain forums (you can do it anonymously) and one of our coaches will give you a rough assessment of your chances and what you need to improve. If you want a deeper look and detailed advice, search for a coach and connect for 1:1 consultations.

Remember – be realistic and diversify! You can make it happen.


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  7. Each use different criteria to determine the rank, and, not surprisingly, each one comes out with a slightly different ranking.

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