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  • Writer's pictureCortney Dowdle

University Rankings in the USA - How Important Are They?

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Rankings are the most important part of selecting a university, right?

If you’ve read any blog I’ve written on this site in the past year, you’ll know that’s not what I believe at all. Not even a little bit.

If you are just starting the university search, here are a few blogs to help catch up:

Working with students one on one always gives me the opportunity to see gaps in the process. I always try to trace information back for international students. Why don’t they understand the process? What pieces of information were not available to them along the way? I talk with students on nearly a daily basis about why rankings aren’t the most important thing in the university search process, but nevertheless, it’s almost always the first thing I hear when students start talking about universities in the USA.

Laptop, notebook, and ipad
What are the most important aspects to look for in a university in the USA?

I talk a lot in my webinar series about misconceptions, or things that international students sweepingly think; generalizations and exaggerations alike. For example, “I’ll just get a scholarship to pay for school,” or, “I’m going to go to MIT because it has a great technology program,” or even, “My test scores are great, so I can go anywhere I want for university.”

But where do these misconceptions start? Usually from wrong information or a lack of understanding.

For example, I think about finding resources for students who are already studying in the USA for secondary school - doesn’t sound so hard, right? Shockingly, so many students still have TONS of questions about studying in the USA even if they spend one or two or three years in secondary school here.

Then I think about the students who graduate from international schools in their home countries - sure maybe a counselor can tell them the basics, but ultimately they don’t really have access to experts on study USA processes. Even those counselors are likely only familiar with the most famous universities in the USA.

Lastly, we have the students who go to national schools in their home country, and they most likely never learn a single thing about studying in the USA until they start doing their own research. Think about how hard the processes are for these students and parents! I try to always prepare resources that would make sense, even to the student who has never received any information about studying in the USA.

One of the most popular statements, maybe THE most popular statement, from international parents and students when I ask what type of school they are searching for is, “It doesn’t matter as long as it’s highly ranked.”

There is nothing out right wrong with this statement, as most of the time, these students have never stepped foot on a university campus in the USA, so it’s hard to tell them how to have a firm idea of what they want. But it is something I can help students understand if I get to them soon enough.


I’m here to share 10 things that are more important than rankings, and these 10 things could make or break your university experience! Read on for all the details...

1. Location

Location is important in a country as large and geographically diverse as the USA. Even though you might like to visit northern states in the winter for a long weekend or family vacation, you may not want to spend four years sloshing through icy snow to get to and from classes. Some students love smaller cities where the university makes up most of the city population.

2. Size

The size of the university is also really important. Many students don’t realize the implications of size on their university experience.

For example, small universities offer:

Small class sizes, usually 20-30 students per class, even in general courses

Personalized support

Familiar faces - at small universities, students can have the same professor for multiple classes during undergraduate studies. Similarly, students often get to know most of the students in their programs or majors and it can feel more accessible to join things on campus

Leadership Opportunities - small universities make it easier for students to stand out as leaders on campus by taking on more service work, becoming the president of a student run organization, or having a more active voice in student government

On the other hand, large universities offer:

Variety of programs - large universities will often offer hundreds of degree programs

Global notoriety - giant universities are often well known around the world simply for their numbers

School spirit - most large universities participate in more prominent athletic associations, so they have crazy sports fans and a culture of school spirit that you don’t always find at small universities

3. Climate

This one is easy enough, but sometimes hard to determine. It’s worth researching the different climates in the USA to see what sounds appealing to you. There is everything from mountains to beaches to desserts!

4. Programs

It’s more important to search for a university that offers the programs you’re interested in rather than a university that is highly ranked. For example, George Mason University is not in the top 100 national rankings, but they have a top 10 national cybersecurity program.

5. Program Rankings

This may seem like a contradiction, but there is no harm in considering programs that are highly ranked. So a university may not be ranked in the top 100 nationally, but they may have a top 100 computer science program or creative writing program.

6. Scholarships or Scholarship Programs for International Students

I always recommend using the search bar on the university website to type “international scholarships” or “international admissions”. Universities that place emphasis on supporting international students typically have specific staff that work with their international students. I am always aware if I get referred to a general admissions person that doesn’t have any in depth knowledge to help international students. My thoughts are, if they aren’t helping you through the admissions and aid process, what hope should you have that they’re going to help support you during your four or more years while you earn your degree?

7. Diversity

Schools that have lots of diversity typically understand the challenges that international students face and how to support them more fully!

8. International Support Services

Do they have an international center on campus? Someone or somewhere you can go to feel supported? This is so important!

9. Alumni Network

Students and parents of international students often think about the importance of the degree and the four years spent on a university campus. I really want students to understand that your university experience is only a stepping stone to what comes after, and finding a job is one of the most important steps after university. Alumni who are engaged, who give back, and who support international students after they graduate are key!

10. Internship Opportunities

Many universities require internship opportunities as part of the degree seeking program. Even if it’s not required, universities will have internship offices where students can access support to find internships. A good international support office combined with a good internship office can help you be employed before you ever leave university.

All of these add up to equal FIT - what makes the university uniquely adapted to your preferences, including all of the above and so much more. Nearly all universities have all or most of these things listed above, but how much emphasis you place in each area can help determine which university is the best FIT for you.

Until next time!

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