In the world of college counselors, college rankings are a hot topic, or more accurately, helping students find the right college for them without consideration of rank. We know that a high rank does not promise a perfect match. Rankings are created to serve the college, not the student.

There are so many colleges and so many factors to consider that it is easy to simply look at the school ranked “the best” and go from there. But “the best” school according to a list isn’t the best school for every student. College admissions officers and college counselors all over the nation, including myself, encourage families to look beyond the rankings. There is a wonderful world beyond 12 or 50 or 100 schools that are deemed “the best."

Understandably, the first question I get when I share this with students and families is “If not rankings then what should we look to when helping our child apply to and attend a 'top' school?” Look to other tangibles like college exit results, student retention, first-year experience, research opportunities, alumni satisfaction, and the availability to readily work with and access professors. The story beyond the rankings is what inspires me in my work. What matters to me is finding the right college for the right student, and that is why I don't just provide each student with a list of colleges that solely relies on rank.

So, the big question for all of us is, how do we look beyond the numbers and still narrow down the search? Through finding other deep analyses of colleges and how successful they are with their students. I know, I know, the definition of success is relative, but it is because of that that there is more than one pathway to it.

What other data can you look at to make an informed decision about what college is right for you? There are too many to list them all, but here are a few favorites.

  • The Gallop-Purdue Index, which examines the relationship between student debt, experiences, and perceptions of college worth, is a good initial step towards measuring a college. And Purdue University's president, Mitch Daniels, states, "Our survey clearly indicated that it wasn't so much where you go to college as much as it is how you go to college — what you extract from the campus experience. Students and their families are making a significant investment in the college, and it should be done with eyes wide open."

  • Another resource you can use if you are really into data is the Common Data Set (CDS). The Common Data Set is a collaborative effort among data providers in the higher education community to gather relevant admissions data for the public. All colleges are asked to fill out and submit the CDS survey to uniformly showcase institutional results and preferences. If you are curious, just enter "CDS" followed by the college name into a search engine and you can learn more about any college and their institutional goals.

  • Choosing a school is personal and cannot be just be found in data. In my one-on-one meetings, we can talk about interests, deal breakers, climate needs, and personal academic preferences. I can suggest some great colleges to look into and a student can evolve their college list over time, only narrowing it to 8-12 schools in senior year. It is also advisable to attend a variety of school visits and take virtual or in-person tours of campuses. This will all go a long way to expanding your college knowledge and adding mindfulness to the process. Entering your interests into college search platforms, like the one on Scoir (which our students use), will also begin to introduce you to what is out there.

Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Admissions (2005-2013) at Yale University shares a better approach to the college search: Your high school academic record, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, test scores, and personal objectives will determine the range of colleges where you stand a good chance of admission. If your school has a good counseling office, you should certainly work with your college counselor to develop a reasonable sense of the different kinds of schools that lie within that range.

My goal is to help every senior find the right college for them. For some students, the “top” schools are the right fit, but other students will be happier and more productive at other schools that are great for other less arbitrary reasons. I love helping a student narrow down their list of colleges and seeing the passion in their eyes when they find their own top colleges. It is that excitement that they will take onto their college campus as freshmen. They are in control of their college experience and there is no one college that will make or break their chances at a successful life.

Students, your job is to think about why you want to go to college and what you hope to get out of it, and then we can all work together to find some great places to help you take the next step. As a college counselor, I can’t wait to dive in!