This may sound like an unnecessary topic to cover – but making effective use of university rankings is perhaps not as simple as you might think. Millions of students (and parents) consult university rankings each year as part of their search for the right institution. But how do they apply this information to their own circumstances, and what types of problem are rankings best-placed to help with?
In March this year, I joined forces with a colleague from the QS Intelligence Unit to run a survey and a series of focus groups with students in five European cities, most of them preparing to study abroad. We asked them to share their motivations for using university rankings, to explain when and why they consult the tables, and to discuss how rankings could help them find and compare universities that match their ambitions and requirements.
You can read the full results of the project in this short report – but first, here’s a quick user guide to university rankings, based on students’ own experiences.
1. Find leading universities in your chosen subject/country
One of the most common ways to use rankings is as an initial shortlisting tool – a quick way to identifying leading universities in your chosen subject and/or country. For particularly ambitious students, global university rankings make it possible to quickly identify institutions which are well-known across the world, meaning strong employment prospects wherever you choose to seek work. Once you’ve started compiling a shortlist, you can then target your research effectively, finding out more about specific programs, tuition fees and so on.
2. Check an unfamiliar university’s reputation
During your university search, it’s likely that you’ll come across institutions that you’re not very familiar with, or perhaps hadn’t heard of before at all – especially if you’re looking to study internationally. You might find a university offering a program which closely matches your interests, but want to make sure it also has a strong international reputation. In this case, you can go back to the rankings tables to check whether it appears.
However, do remember that the global rankings only able to feature a relatively small percentage of all universities in the world – so just because an institution is missing, this doesn’t mean it’s not good or well-known. Certain types of the university (such as specialized institutions and smaller colleges) are also likely to be excluded from the main global rankings. So seek as many sources of information as you can before dismissing any option!
3. Compare universities overall and by indicator
As well as providing a top-level list, university rankings can also be sorted to show results for each of the performance indicators assessed. The QS World University Rankings®, for example, uses six measures, reflecting academic reputation, employer reputation, research citations, faculty/student ratio, and proportion of international faculty and international students. So rankings can be a useful way to compare universities in greater depth, revealing some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of institutions you’re interested in.
4. Make a final decision between two or more universities
For many of the students we spoke with, rankings were a tool to be consulted throughout the university search – right through to the final decision. While it’s certainly not advisable to choose a university based purely on a ranking, they could be one potential “tie-breaker” if you’re really struggling to make that final choice. Here, rankings are most likely to be useful if you’re choosing between two or more universities which hold very different ranking positions; if it’s a matter of just a few positions, you’ll need to seek differentiation elsewhere – such as in the course content, local area, or by speaking to some current students.
5. Impress your friends – and potential employers
Finally, rankings are of course a great way to impress people! You might want to tone down the boasting during social interactions… but if your university has a strong overall rank or particular strength, this could certainly be used to your advantage when applying for jobs. If a university is at the top of international or national rankings, its reputation should need the little extra explanation from you. But if you’ve chosen to study at a less widely known institution, you might want to highlight any relevant accolades, such as a strong ranking for your own subject area.
For more detailed insights on each of these points – in students’ own words – read the full report. And keep an eye out for next week’s three big rankings releases – the new QS University Rankings for Asia, Latin America, and the Arab region will all be released on 10 June 2015. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates and future rankings releases (#QSWUR).