America is rankings crazy. Everyone wants to know how something compares and contrasts to something else. Graduate schools are not an exception. Each year, organizations and publications like US News & World Report put together categories and statistics and rank the heck out of graduate programs. If you've looked up graduate school rankings for comparison purposes, how can you best use the data provided? Here are some things to look at when you compare graduate school rankings.
- Consider what's important to you. Obviously, if a school is top-ranked in sciences, and you're going to be getting an MFA in theatre, that particular ranking is of no interest to you. But knowing what's important to you goes beyond just picking a field of study. What are you really looking for? The best reputation? The best education for the price? The best small-sized school? If you go into your rankings search with a vague idea of what kind of program you want, you will likely only find vague answers. Before you start looking for the "best" program, find out what "best" means to you, then target your research accordingly.
You probably don't have only one criteria that's important to you, so - dare I say it - rank what your "dream program" should have. Then look at those respective rankings, say "best priced," "best Northeast school" and "best research department." Then see where schools fit along that list. Is one program near the top of each category? Hey, that might be the graduate program for you. On the other hand, if one program is highly ranked in some of your key categories, but isn't located in the Northeast, let's say, well, maybe you need to consider if location or good price is more crucial to you.
- Consider the criteria. Most ranking systems will list the stats they use to make their choices, for instance, they deem X Law School is #1 for its student-faculty ratio, its post-graduation employment record, and its student satisfaction. That kind of thing. They will give you the criteria they added up to get the final "scores" that let them rank the programs.
This is useful if you're interested in finding out these specifics. For instance, the #7 business program might not have the best student-faculty ratio, but it might have great success getting candidates jobs, and that might be important to you. So, when you are comparing graduate school rankings, look at the criteria by which the final "ranks" are reached. This will help you pinpoint even further what program might be best for you. If no such criteria are given, which is sometimes the case, the rankings will be less useful to you.
- Consider the source. Rankings don't come out of thin air - they're compiled by various groups using various methods. When you look at rankings for a program that interests you, you might find that program is highly ranked with one ranking system and low on the list with another. This may be because the people who compiled the rankings have different standards, different goals, or judge by different criteria. US News & World Report is famous for its ranking system. But what other people put out rankings? Well, professional societies and undergrad departments put our rankings to help students who are looking to further their studies. Education-related corporations like Princeton Review put out rankings, mostly because they know people like rankings and it's a way to make money. Some individuals online even compile their own lists. The point is: Take the value of the "ranker" into consideration when you're looking for information on graduate programs. Joe Smith's Grad School Insights (dot com...) might not be as useful to you as what they compile at US News & World Report.
- Consider the big picture. Graduate school rankings provide a lot of information in a small space. You can open up a magazine and see before you how great a particular program is and all the reasons why. But keep in mind that statistics and rankings will never give you the whole picture of the graduate experience. A rank is not a substitute for research. Talk to faculty, admissions counselors and even former students of the programs that interest you. Also talk to your undergrad advisor about graduate programs, and talk to professionals in the field. You would never buy a car just because some magazine says it's the best on the market: You would do some research, comparative shop, and make sure you have at least a second opinion. Graduate school can cost a person a lot more than a car, so make sure you take the same precautions. Rankings, if considered carefully, can be useful, but don't let them be the be all and end all of your graduate school pre-application research.