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Studying in America: Does University Rank Matter?

does university rank matter

Chancellor Green Hall at Princeton Unviersity. Photo credit: Andreas Praefcke

A lot of Magoosh students contact us for advice on how to get into a top school. And we have a good resource for TOEFL scores at top universities.

But as you ask questions about the requirements of top schools, there are other questions you should be asking yourself as well. You should start to think about how university ranks are calculated in the US, why these ranks matter, and how much the ranking of a school should matter to you.

How School Rank is Calculated in America

To understand what it means when a university is ranked as a “top school” in the U.S., it helps to know how these ranks are calculated.

The most widely-accepted source of school rank in America is U.S. News and World Report. Educators, prospective university students, and university administrators all pay close attention to the annual release of U.S. News and World Report’s “Best College Rankings.”

U.S. News and World Report is completely transparent about their criteria and weights for ranking schools. These criteria are: graduation and retention rates, academic reputation among college students and high school counselors, selectivity (the percentage of applicants who actually get accepted), teaching conditions (teacher pay/teacher level of education/class size), money spent per student by the university, and the number of graduates who go on to donate money to the university.

These criteria aren’t bad per se. In fact, this may be the best criteria for measuring the quality of a university. However, these measures aren’t perfect. The perceived reputation of a school is not necessarily the same as the school’s actual quality. Teacher pay isn’t directly tied to teaching ability. Money spent per student doesn’t indicate the exact resources allocated to each student. You get the idea….

Will a Top School Make You Competitive in the Job Market?

If you want to study in America in order to improve your career prospects, this is the real question you should ask yourself. The short answer to this question is “yes.” But the full answer is a little more complicated.

If you go to a school that consistently ranks in the top ten, someplace like Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford, the name recognition alone will attract the attention of employers once you graduate.

But if you go further down, within the top 25 or 50, you’ll start seeing schools that have a bit less name recognition and less instant appeal to employers. Universities like Notre Dame or the University of Minnesota are “top” in a strict ranking sense, but they have less powerful reputations and lower name recognition than the very top American schools. So it’s important to consider just how recognized a top school is, especially in your own home country. In some cases, a lower-end “top” school and a mid-ranked school offer you the same long-term job prospects.

It’s also important to remember that a degree at any American school that doesn’t have a bad reputation can help your career. If you can’t get into a top school, this doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for your future ability to get a job. Many students come to America, attend solidly good mid-tier schools, and go on to do very well for themselves, either in their home countries or in the U.S. itself.

Will a Top School Provide You with Your Personal Best Educational Experience?

This is a question only you can answer, and it’s something you should investigate carefully. How well you fit in at a university, how well that university meets your personal learning needs…these things matter. To give a few examples, Harvard may technically outrank Duke. But both are very good schools. You may research the academic cultures at Harvard and Duke and decide Duke will work better for you. Or you may realize you’re more of a Harvard person. Or you may decide to attend a mid-tier school — perhaps even a small public university.

What’s important is that you treat school rank as just one criterion. To find the right school for you, you need to see past rank and look at the big picture.