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#1 on the top 10 list of mistakes people make when choosing where to apply

For decades, international students have been using this shortcut to shortlist colleges or universities, but there are many reasons it should not be a determining factor.
BY Parke Muth |   20-07-2017
Image by US Embassy Phnom Penh
Image by US Embassy Phnom Penh (used under CC license)

I have just used the phrase “top 10” to underscore the biggest mistake people make when applying to US schools from overseas—determining where they want to apply and then enroll based on rankings and lists. (Frankly, all these mistakes apply to those within the US too.)

We all do it. We can’t help it. We are wired that way*. We all too often judge things quickly and superficially. Whether it’s picking TV shows or universities, we search for shortcuts—what is hot, cool or Gucci? The shortcut that most people use when it comes to universities is the US News rankings.

These rankings have been around for over two decades. While the US News has the best brand, there are now dozens of other rankings put out by nearly every major media outlet. But just because The US News rankings have been around a long time and many people judge schools based on them does not mean others should follow this common approach to choosing schools.

There are several important reasons why rankings – whether the US News or any others – should not be a determining factor in choosing schools. The first is pretty simple. They are anything but scientific. Yes, they gather lots of data and put all of it in a formula, but just because someone collects numbers does not mean that the result will permit distinctions that should be valued as the “truth” when it comes to determining which schools are best.

Malcolm Gladwell critiqued the methodology of the US News a number of years ago and I think he was right on target: “There’s no direct way to measure the quality of an institution—how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the US News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality—and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.”

His New Yorker piece goes on to dismantle the way US News proxies for quality. Anyone who reads his piece will never look at rankings the same way again. Or that is what I would hope, but I also know that I myself am subject to the spell cast by rankings. When I see a school ranked as number one I tend to be impressed, even if I know it isn’t based on much. If this were not true for most of us, then clickbait would not work. But it does.

Rankings matter even if they are based on bad algorithms in part because we have had unending advertisements and rankings flashed across our synapses every day if not every hour that primes out mid to value them. More importantly, reputation and spin makes something “true” even if it’s not. (We do live, after all, in a world of “alternative facts”.) In other words, we tend to evaluate people, places, and things more on gut feelings than deep investigative research and thought. Feelings are not facts, but they make us act far more often than accurate stats.

If this sounds like a simple rant and against rankings, it isn’t. I don’t think university rankings are significantly harmful to anyone, as a sizable group who work in education seem to think, but they are not all that useful either. They are an introductory overview of schools, and so they are at least one place to start the university search, given the thousands of schools out there.

They should not, however, be determinative, either of the list of schools to apply to or the choice a student makes about which school to enroll in. It is one piece that we will look at and, in some sense, value, whether we want to admit it or not—neuroscience does not often lie about the way our brains heat up and our synapses snap.

By ending here, it may seem I have misled you, since have not addressed other 9 mistakes here. Like a cliffhanger at the end of a TV Series I hope this opening episode will keep you coming back as I work through more episodes.

*See Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which outlines the way humans make decisions and persuasively demonstrates that we are anything but rational when choosing things and making up our minds.

Parke Muth is a consultant in the field of admission to selective U.S. colleges and universities. Between 1984 and September 2011, he held a number of leadership positions within the University of Virginia's Office of Admission, the last being Associate Dean of Admission and Director of International Admission. For more information, please visit The above article was originally posted on Quora on March 3, 2017.


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