Academics Flunk College Rankings: It’s The Fit Not the Label that Counts

By Sam Rosensohn

Washington and Lee University’s president is furious with college rankings – I think largely due to the Princeton Review, which ranked his school as one of the nation’s finest party schools.

President Thomas Burish’s anger drove him to pen a defense of Washington and Lee this summer and to critique the national rankings in a brochure entitled, Straight Talk. College Ranking Services: How Useful Are They?

Whether Washington and Lee is the great party school that the Princeton Review says it is, or whether it’s “widely respected as one of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges” as Burish says it is, is of little matter to me.

What’s of importance is that students and parents get a handle on the college ranking game, and for this we have Burish and the Princeton Review to thank.

A terrific high school college counselor, Brad MacGowan, who works at Newton North High School in Massachusetts, noted years ago that besides attempting to quantify the unquantifiable, rankings confused selectivity with quality.

It was MacGowan who wrote that college rankings drove students to look at the label rather than the fit; a sure-fire recipe for disappointment.

“If a student is interested in physical therapy and Harvard is the number one school, it’s not your number one school, because they don’t have physical therapy,” Mike Konopski, director of admissions at Niagara University, said the other day.

“I’m concerned about how much weight those rankings are given by a prospective student and his family. Sure you can look at a ranking, but that’s only one small tool in the college search process. The fit is what’s most important.”

Christian Amport, a young Guilford architect, recalled freshmen orientation at Carnegie Mellon not too long ago. He was excited. The Pittsburgh school’s architectural program had been ranked number one in the nation.

At freshmen orientation Amport discovered he was very different from his classmates. Many had been working since they were 15 at what they wanted to accomplish professionally. They were hyper-focused, said Amport, a gifted student, who wanted to do more than study architecture, and who wasn’t rearing to burn the midnight oil.

Carnegie Mellon, according to this student, isn’t about fun. It’s about learning, learning, learning, and learning at the most demanding levels.

“The professors expected that everyone was going to be competing on the highest level. It’s like going through Marine Corps training,” said Amport, who has high regard for the Pittsburgh school, but who found himself in a program that made it difficult to take a breath or to explore courses outside of his major.

Amport went on to graduate from the University of Vermont in 2003 where he majored in architecture and minored in philosophy.

So the smart thing to do is to review the rankings, but spend most of your time visiting schools and trying to connect with students at those institutions.

A short visit to the school cafeteria, a couple of classes, a look at the school newspaper and a couple hours at a dorm will not do it. Take your time to find students at the schools you’re interested in attending and spend some electronic time together.

You can call a school’s admission’s office and ask to communicate electronically with some sophomores. Freshmen won’t know enough so speak with students who have made it through their freshmen year. They’ll be able to tell you just what the academic and social culture is like.

College publications, national rankings, books on colleges are all good starts, but nothing replaces visiting a school and getting to know some students there.

What follows is a list of ideas for school visits that MacGowan and his colleagues at Newton North High School have compiled:

  • Take a campus tour and attend an information session in the admissions office.
  • Arrive a half-hour before the appointed time and see a little of the campus on your own.
  • See what’s important to you (chemistry lab, radio station, dorms) if they’re not on the tour.
  • You should be neatly attired, but not overdressed.
  • Be honest, sincere, and interested.
  • Soon after the visit, jot down some notes on what impressed you about the school. Also note any particular likes or dislikes you had about the school. Include any additional questions that came up during the visit.
  • Take a few pictures of each campus to help you remember them later on.
  • Eat a meal on campus (check out the cafeteria and the snack bar).
  • Pick up a copy of the school newspaper and other publications.
  • Read the bulletin boards. She what’s happening on campus (concerts, lectures, social events).
  • If you visit when the school is not in session, and you are impressed, you may want to set up a return visit when students are on campus in the fall or after you have been admitted.

If interviews are offered:

  • Set up an interview with an admissions officer. If they only offer student interviews, set up one of these.
  • Arrive early so that you can compose and prepare yourself.
  • Look the interviewer in the eye during the interview.
  • Follow up with a thank you note to the interviewer.

If you attend a class, ask yourself:

  • Are students interested in the material?
  • Do students participate readily in discussion?
  • Are students prepared for class?
  • Were you intellectually challenged by what took place?
  • Do you feel the students learned – either new facts or new ways of thinking about a subject?
  • Is there a good rapport between professors and students?
  • Would you feel comfortable in this setting?

Academic

  • How much flexibility will I have in my curriculum?
  • Can I change majors?
  • Can I double major?
  • What minors are offered?
  • Can I cross-register with other colleges?
  • Is there a “core curriculum”?
  • What is the average class size? What is the average class size for freshmen?
  • What is the faculty-student ratio?
  • Can I get an internship in my major field?
  • How many classes/credirs do students usually take?
  • How often does each class meet per week?

Faculty

  • What percentage of the faculty teach freshmen/sophomores?
  • Will I be taught by graduate students?
  • How accessible are the faculty?
  • Do they have office hours? How many hours per week?
  • Do faculty act as advisors? Are there other academic advisors available?
  • Are faculty available outside the classroom?
  • Are the faculty encouraged to publish research?

Student Life

  • What types of students are here?
  • Are they diverse?
  • How many are from the local area? How many are from in-state?
  • Are they tolerant of different kinds of students?
  • What kinds of student organizations are there on campus?
  • Are there fraternities and sororities? What percentage of students are members?
  • Is there school spirit?
  • What kinds of athletic teams/sports programs are there?
  • Are there intramural or club teams? If so, in what sports?
  • Is there an active and effective student government?
  • What happens on campus on weekends?
  • Do most students leave on weekends?
  • How politically active are the students?

Miscellaneous

  • How are the athletic facilities? Music? Theater? Etc.?
  • Is housing guaranteed for four years?
  • What types of housing are available?
  • What housing would be best for a freshman?
  • Can I change dormitories?
  • What’s the food like? What are the dining options?
  • How convenient are laundry facilities?
  • Is it possible to study in your dorm room?
  • Does this school have a safe campus?
  • How active are the alumni?
  • What kinds of student support services are available?
  • Do I need a computer? What is the computer situation on campus?
  • How do I apply for financial aid?
  • Does this school offer athletic, scholastic, merit, or performance scholarships?

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com