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The basics
THE USA: Applying to University

University rankings in the USA

Learn about the most revered and respected university rankings in America when choosing where a university to study at...

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There’s no getting around it; choosing a university is a big decision - but that doesn't mean it has to be a big drama too. The important thing to remember is that this is a positive choice – wherever you end up, you will soon find yourself speaking about the place like it’s the only university in the world! Secondly, there are plenty of resources out there to help you make the decision that is best for you. One of the most popular and authoritative ways of separating the best from the rest is via university rankings and league tables.


With a wide variety of academic options available and all institutions claiming they are worth your time and money, how can you make up your mind?

First of all, it is important you define what you think is the most important factor that influences your decision. Many factors such as finding the right course, choosing the study destination or how to fund your studies can come into account.

The United States, for instance, offers a great variety of study options, so making up your mind can be both exciting and confusing! If studying in the US appeals to you, getting to grips with the American academic system and the different universities and colleges is of great importance. This is where specific rankings published in the US as well as globally come in.


U.S. News & World Report College and University rankings

Compiled since 1983 by U.S. News & World Report, this ranking report is widely regarded as the most influential of all college ranking. Some of the assessment criteria are:

  • Peer assessment: a survey of the institution's reputation among presidents, provosts, and admissions deans of other institutions
  • Guidance Counsellor Assessment: a survey of the institution's reputation among approximately 1,800 high school guidance counsellors
  • Retention: six–year graduation rate and first–year student retention rate
  • Faculty resources: average class size, faculty salary, faculty degree level, student-faculty ratio, and proportion of full–time faculty
  • Student selectivity: standardized test scores of admitted students, proportion of admitted students with high scores from their high school class.
  • Financial resources: per-student spending


Washington Monthly

Founded in 1969, this magazine began a research report on the national universities and colleges performance in 2005 and publishes its results every year. Academic institutions are rated based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories:

  • Social Mobility: recruiting and graduating low-income students
  • Research: producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs
  • Service: encouraging students to give something back to their country


The Top American Research Universities

The Centre for Measuring University Performance has ranked American research universities in the Top American Research Universities since 2000. The methodology is based on publicly accessible data and includes:

  • Research publications
  • Citations
  • Recognitions and funding
  • Undergraduate academic quality (SAT scores).


American Council of Trustees and Alumni Report

The American Council of Trustees is a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to support liberal arts education and philosophical thinking. Therefore, their assessment criteria define seven subject areas on the arts and liberal thinking in order to determine the success of a particular institution’s curriculum. These seven areas are:

  • Composition: A college writing class focusing on grammar, style, clarity, and argument.
  • Literature:  survey course or introductions to broad subfields.
  • Foreign Language: Competency at the intermediate level.
  • U.S. Government or History.
  • Economics: Basic economic principles, preferably an introductory micro- or macroeconomics course.
  • Mathematics:  college-level course.
  • Natural or Physical Science.


The Princeton Review

The Princeton Review is an American-based standardized test preparation and admissions consulting company. It is not affiliated with Princeton University. Annually, it publishes a book on the Best Colleges of USA and has recently launched a report called the Best Value Colleges 2010. Some of their Assessment criteria are:

  • Academic factors such as the quality of students the schools attract as measured by admissions credentials as well as how students rated their academic experiences.
  • Cost of attendance: factors included tuition, room and board, and required fees.   For public colleges, in-state tuition was used. 
  • Financial aid factors included the average gift aid (grants and scholarships, or free money) awarded to students, the percentage of graduating students who took out loans to pay for school, and the average debt of those students. Also included was survey data on how satisfied students were with the financial aid packages they received.

For full coverage on the report by USA today and Interactive aid for comparison according to the Princeton’s Review results, please follow the link.


Shanghai University World Ranking

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), first published in 2003 by Shanghai University has become, according to The Economist, the “most widely used annual ranking of the world's research universities.” More than 1000 universities are actually ranked by ARWU every year and the best 500 are published on the web.

It uses six objective indicators to rank world universities:

  • Number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals
  • Number of highly cited researchers selected by Thomson Scientific
  • Number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science
  • Number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index
  • Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index  
  • Performance per capita with respect to the size of an institution.


Although rankings are a useful way to evaluate different areas of university performance, they should not be your only port of call. Remember that your choice should ultimately come down to what it is you want to do – it should not be based solely on statistical information.

There are many other resources available to you besides rankings. Try reading reviews or testimonials from existing students in the US to see what they have to say about their experience in your chosen university. This is a great way to look beyond the facts & figures and get an understanding of what it’s like to actually study at a university.


In case you really want to see the world of academia boiled down into facts and figures, we have also collected together all the major rankings for you in one place – including the overall results from our student reviews. A comprehensive collection of university rankings can be found below:


Are you a current or former international student? Leave a review for a university you've studied at.


Read more:

Choosing a course to study: The basics

Choosing a country to study abroad in: The basics


Study in the USA


'Study in the USA' eBook

Enjoy what you’ve read? We’ve condensed the above popular topics about studying in the USA into one handy digital book.

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