Every year, the best-known university rankings publish their yearly result of the top universities in the world. Whether it’s international university rankings like World University Rankings (by Times Higher Education), Academic Ranking of World Universities (by Shanghai University), QS Rankings (by TopUniversities), or local ones like U.S. News Rankings, these lists of prestigious institutions bring a lot of buzz, attention and potential stress to prospective students still considering their study options.
And that’s only natural, because you want to find the programme that gives you the highest chance at a bright professional and personal future.
In most cases, college ranking results aren’t a big surprise, with American and British universities taking the top spots, with only minor changes from one year to another.
There are no doubts rankings have their place on the higher education stage, but they do have their limitations. Let’s take some top universities and see how they score:
- Columbia University: ranks 17th according to THE, 7th according to ARW, and 19th according to QS
- London School of Economics and Political Science: ranks 27th according to THE, 151st according to ARW, and 49th according to QS
- Peking University: ranks 23rd according to THE, 49th according to ARW, and 23rd according to QS
- The University of Edinburgh: ranks 30th according to THE, 42nd according to ARW, and 20th according to QS
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech): ranks 38th according to THE, 101st according to ARW, an 80th according to QS
- KU Leuven: ranks 45th according to THE, 97th according to ARW, and 84th according to QS
If you look at the huge differences between the rank given to the same universities in different tops, it might actually make it harder for you to assess the true value of that university: Is it a 70th place uni or a 100-something one? How can you know for sure?
If you also check what students say about these universities, you might get a more complex view:
- Ranking and student reviews for Columbia University
- Ranking and student reviews for London School of Economics and Political Science
- Ranking and student reviews for The University of Edinburgh
- Ranking and student reviews for Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech)
- Ranking and student reviews for KU Leuven
So, what are the main downsides students should be aware of when checking out the latest international rankings?
1. The university popularity contest
Just like cinema blockbusters versus independent movies, top-ranked universities make lower ranked institutions pale in comparison. But that doesn't mean you can't be surprised by a relatively unknown movie that turns out to be a masterpiece.
Same goes for lesser-known universities which don’t have as big of a budget to promote themselves or don't meet all the criteria set by rankings. Maybe a university isn’t best at everything but it can do a few things perfectly. But if it is great for you, then you have a match made in heaven that might not even appear in the top 300 institutions ranked. Truly, a greatly rewarding study experience is difficult to rank.
2. Differences between ranked universities are not always obvious
Is there a significant difference between a university ranked no. 1, and another marked 30? Maybe. How about number 40 and 50? Probably not. In rankings, many universities have very similar scores, with only minor differences. As a result, their position may vary over the years, but not by much.
That's why you shouldn’t immediately dismiss schools which rank lower. The difference is more likely a perceived one, fuelled by the importance many people place on these numbers. So, if you enrol in university number 170 in THE Ranking that's not a reason to worry.
- Best universities in the U.S.
- Best universities in the UK
- Best universities in Germany
- Best universities in Netherlands
- Best universities in Canada
3. Each university ranking uses its own criteria
Each one of the major university rankings mentioned above considers some of the aspects below, to come up with the final score of a university:
- Academic reputation
- Graduation rates
- Research citations and papers published
- Internationality of faculty and students
- Employer reputation
- Student to faculty ratio
- Industry income
- Award winners
- Funding offered to students
However, no ranking includes all the markers mentioned above. This suggests some rankings may be more appropriate for certain types of students compared to others. Based on the categories each ranking prefers, you can find out if what you are interested in is better represented by a certain ranking.
Each student can find a category which is more useful compared to others. Here are a few examples:
- Scholarship seekers – U.S. News – an important focus is placed on faculty resources and financial aid for students, but also graduation rates
- Ph.D. students – THE and ARWU focus a lot on cited and published research papers, as well as research funding
- High achievers – ARWU and QS – emphasis is on institution reputation as well as awards won by graduates
- Students interested in an international environment – QS and THE – follow metrics of international students and teachers
The majority of students worldwide don’t attend a university included in these rankings. Does this mean they are not good universities? Not at all! Best advice is to seek other sources of information as well.
4. Some important factors are not measured or cannot be measured
Higher education abroad is not only about the best reputation, research, salaries, and internationality. An important part of selecting a good university is finding an education you can afford, or a campus you enjoy living in.
It’s about all the experiences you gather during your study years with your colleagues and other academics you’ll meet. It’s about who inspires you to continue on the path you have chosen, after graduation. This all results in a mix that’s very personal, and often unique for each prospective student.
It’s difficult if not impossible for a ranking to capture less subtle elements that turn studying abroad into an excellent experience, like:
- What you’ll actually learn, beyond the grades
- Campus diversity
- Activities you’ll enjoy doing
- How good the food on campus is
- Loving the city or town your university is in
- The great teachers
- The emotional support
- Finding and connecting with people you share passions with
Try to get to the bottom of these important questions and factor them into your decision.
5. A degree with prestige vs. getting the education you like
Would you rather graduate a programme at a famous university and discover you’re not enjoying the experience, or find the best match for your development? A university might excel at business studies, but may be only 'OK' when it comes to social sciences. Or maybe their teaching is great, but lack the practical classes you’re really interested in.
Reputation factors can also be rather subjective, as academics are asked to identify what university they consider being leading in their field. The answers they give may just reflect what the institutions already considered famous.
International university rankings are not the only way
What if you don’t get accepted or didn’t have the resources to get into a top-100 or top-200 college? Is your life ruined? No way! You should just look for other sources of information. Widen your search for the university that speaks to your heart!
- Compare study options worldwide
- Read articles helping you find a degree abroad
- Find out what other students are saying and read student diaries
- Check subject-specific rankings targeting a discipline you are interested in
- Ask questions on forums and other platforms
With or without the help of international university rankings, don't give up on the perfect degree course abroad! It's surely there and you will find it!