The Smart Way to Use College Reference Guides

You face many questions as you decide which college is the best fit for you. Public or private? Big school or small? Down the street or halfway around the world? Which colleges offer the best and most challenging programs in your area of interest? Which ones offer the social, athletic and cultural experiences that interest you?

Your decision is complicated by the range of options — in the U.S. alone, more than 4,000 colleges and universities are competing for the best and brightest students. No wonder you crave tools to make the process simpler. 

Enter the college guides.

These magazines, books and websites fill the demand for synthesized information by publishing a summary of each school’s characteristics and, in some cases, by ranking and comparing them. While these sources can be useful as you begin the college search process, don’t fall into the easy trap of placing too much faith in the guides as judges of your “best” college choices.

Using the Guides

The most important thing to realize about college guides is that there is no single set of criteria for evaluating the diversity of colleges and universities. You can distinguish a school from its peers by name recognition, financial strength, the quality of incoming students, the dedication of faculty, the success of graduates, physical facilities, the surrounding community and so on. It is impossible to reduce colleges’ multifaceted people, programs, activities and goals into one magic formula for determining which college is “best.” But you can still learn valuable information from college guides by following these practical steps.

1: Consult a variety of sources.

College reference guides are based upon information gathered and presented in different ways. Some guides attempt to quantify and rate colleges; others simply present data. Some mix subjective and anecdotal data into their reviews; others do not. Rather than seeking a one-stop source for everything you need, you will develop a fuller picture of your options if you explore several guides.

2: Consider the reliability of the information presented.

Take a few minutes to understand the methodology guides use in evaluating colleges. The guide’s introduction should explain how colleges were selected and which variables were considered. Here are a few tips for judging a guide’s reliability:

  • Don't take numerical rankings too literally. Sources that place colleges in precise rank order are trying to quantify the unquantifiable. That’s why you’ll see, for example, Willamette University ranked 23rd by Washington Monthly's “College Guide” but 63rd in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” — each publication considers different factors in its ranking formula. Only you can decide how to weigh criteria in determining whether a college has the characteristics you desire.
  • Note when the data is anecdotal. Sometimes guides rely upon subjective opinions that are not scientific. For example, The Princeton Review’s “Best 376 Colleges” quotes students who say Willamette offers “serious academics without the snobbery” and “knowledgeable professors [who] are dedicated to what they teach and genuinely interested in helping students learn.” While these anecdotal statements can provide a valuable glimpse into the actual student experience, remember that they are still opinions — and you should assess their value accordingly.
  • Realize that even objective data can be distorted. Statistics like enrollments, freshman academic profiles, retention and graduation rates, and financial aid ratios and amounts are often reported to the guides by the colleges themselves, and colleges may define or calculate this data differently. Nevertheless, college guides that report similar data for a number of schools give you a great starting point for comparing the qualities that matter most to you.

3: Pay attention to the overlap.

As you consult a number of guides, look for the areas of convergence, where guide after guide suggests the same attributes of a particular college. Conversely, on points where the guides seem contradictory, take it as a signal that you should probe more deeply into those areas on your own. Also consider what your high school counselor, teachers, parents and friends have to say about each campus, and try to speak with faculty and students at the schools on your short list.

Ultimately, the only ranking that matters is yours.

By summarizing information, the guides are incapable of adequately addressing all the questions you should be raising as you undertake the complex and personal process of selecting a school.

If you base your search on the criteria that you have identified as the most valuable, you are more likely to find the school that is right for you — and your college experience will be much more satisfying as a result.

Partial Listing of College Guides