Forget Rankings: Choose the School that’s Right for YOU

Forget Rankings: Choose the School that’s Right for YOU

I can’t stress this enough: choosing a college that’s right for you is extremely important. As an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, one of my favorite responsibilities was connecting with students at school visits, college fairs and on-campus events. During my time in the admissions office at the College, I met students who thought deeply about what they wanted in a college experience, and through research, realized that Dartmouth was a perfect fit. Conversely, I met several students who weren’t considering Dartmouth for the right reasons. Here are a few examples that frequently emerged:

1. Major Not Available

Student: “I am really excited to study nursing at Dartmouth! It’s my passion.”

Surprisingly, many students made the mistake of mentioning a major not available at Dartmouth. If you know what you want to study, you should check the school’s website to see if it will be possible for you to specialize in your preferred area.

2. Family Legacy

Student: “I want to go to go Dartmouth because my dad, granddad and uncle went there.  My parents expect me to continue the legacy.”

While family expectations often drive many of our decisions, it’s important to chart your own path. Choosing a college that your parents or grandparents attended may have changed dramatically in the past 40, 20 and even 10 years. The only way to know if a college is going to be a good fit for your needs and interests is through a thorough understanding of your goals and the ways a college will help you.

3. Peer Pressure

Student: “I’m applying to Dartmouth because all of my friends are!”

College is one of the first important decisions you’ll make regarding your future. This is your chance to make a personalized and individualized decision that will best help you meet your goals. Accordingly, be willing to walk away from the pack.   

4. Prestige/US Rankings

Student: “Dartmouth is a great school. It always scores highly in the US News and World Report rankings.”

Many students will choose a school because of its prestige. While a school’s reputation can indicate a school’s strength in an area, it doesn’t always consider a school’s performance relative to how the student will learn over the course of four years, and shouldn’t dictate your decision. A highly ranked college or university may not provide your ideal learning environment. Another consideration is whether a school will provide you with opportunities that will help you excel as an undergraduate student and beyond. For instance, maybe the school doesn’t have a strong record for placing students in a particular field or publishing research. These are all things you should consider when picking schools to which to apply. Although a school may be listed as “the best” in school rankings, it may not be the best school for you.

What factors are driving your school selection process?

With over 400 colleges and universities in the United States alone, how do you know you’re choosing a college that is a good fit for you?

Choosing a College that’s Right for You

Here are a few steps I encourage all students to take as they prepare to decisions. Ideally, you should take these steps before you build your schoollist.  

Step 1: Decide why you are going to college

This question may seem silly; however, very few students can answer this question confidently.

When I begin working with students, they often have a vague understanding of why they’re pursuing post-secondary education. Some will say that their parents have always wanted them to go to college; whereas others will state that it’s something they need to get a good job. In this case, both answers mean that the student still needs to fine-tune exactly what they plan to get out of a college education. Whether it’s to cultivate critical thinking skills that will prepare them to become global leaders or to explore a specific interest, attending college should be directly connected to an overarching goal that will guide the student through the next four years of personal and professional exploration. The most convincing applications come from students who have cultivated a sense of purpose for their lives.

And as you make your decisions, you need to take into account your long-term goals. Will a specific university help you meet them? Or are there better opportunities elsewhere?

Step 2: Visualize and visit 

After you know why you want to attend college, an important step is to visualize exactly what your experience will be like. Think carefully about every detail. What is your dorm life like? Are you rooming with someone interested in the same major as you? Do you share a home state? What classes are you taking your first year? Are you starting directly with your major or do you need to complete general requirements?  Do you recognize most people on campus or are you only familiar with a few people on your floor? What do you do on weekends? Answering questions like this will help you understand the type of college environment in which you’ll thrive.

If you have the opportunity, you should make sure to visit the schools on your list. For a comprehensive guide to taking advantage of school visits, look through this article: 21 Tips to Capitalize on a College Visit.

Step 3: Ask your network

Once you’ve figured out why you‘re going to college, have visualized what your ideal college experience looks like, have seen campus, it’s a good time to solicit feedback from those who know you best. Your parents will have helpful feedback about your ideal learning environment and even amenities that may help you feel comfortable in your new home. Your teachers, who have watched you grow as a scholar, can offer their insights on how you learn and possibly skills that will further nurture your intellectual growth.

It’s important to remember that you should have a solid idea of your wants and needs before soliciting feedback, as it’s easy for your voice to get lost in the expectations, hopes or dreams of your family and school mentors. Their observations are important, but should only be one factor out of many for which you base your decision.

Bottom line: Whether you’re building a school list your junior year or making decisions your senior spring, choosing a college to attend should be your decision.

About the Author


I am a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, my alma mater. As an Admissions Officer at Dartmouth, I traveled and read over 1000 applications of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and was the Admissions office contact for states in New England, the Mid West, and the Mid Atlantic.

I have diverse experience advising students and families throughout all stages of the admissions process. For instance, I have hosted workshops for US high school guidance counselors and youth development organizations to deepen their understanding of the Admissions process.