August is upon us, and a new school year is once again on the horizon. In college admissions offices, and for many college-bound students and their parents across America, the onset of August also means that the annual spate of college rankings is about to begin.

In recent years, it seems as if a list of colleges that are the “best” or “most” has been compiled (i.e., marketed) for virtually every consideration imaginable: e.g., party schools, “greenest” campuses, happiest students, college food, etc.

Arguably the best-known of these compendiums, U.S. News & World Report’s annual college issue, goes beyond the single-dimension rankings each year with what it calls definitively “America’s Best Colleges.”

It is widely acknowledged that the formula used to determine the U.S. News rankings is subjective and has been modified repeatedly over the years – preserving a degree of annual uncertainty and controversy by design.

Parents rush to buy the college issue each year, believing it is intended to somehow help students with the college search, rather than simply to sell magazines. The truth is that the college experience is a complex and intensely personal one.

One person’s “top” college might be another’s nightmare, and vice versa. Quantifying colleges as “better” or “worse” than others in an objective pecking order is just not possible. Neither U.S. News nor any other publication will ever be able to determine what is the best college for individual students.

As one who has worked with thousands of students and families over a 33-year career in college admissions, and having seen the adverse consequences when searches are driven by rankings, media hype and misinformation, I offer a few tips for students and their parents who are currently engaged, or who are about to be engaged, in the search for their own right-fit college:

n 1. Keep all rankings in their proper perspective. While numeric rankings add no value to your college search, statistics such as retention and graduation rates can help you understand aspects of each college’s environment. Use and compare the data provided for individual colleges, but do not put stock in the rankings themselves.

n 2. Harder to get into does not equal “better.” Students and parents too often make the mistake of assuming a direct correlation between a college’s acceptance rate and its quality.

The reality is that many outstanding colleges admit fairly high percentages of their applicants. Conversely, many highly selective (i.e., top-ranked) colleges might be a very poor fit for you. Don’t dismiss colleges simply because they are likely to admit you.

n 3. Be authentic. Do a thorough review of your academic and extracurricular record in high school and decide what is truly important to you in terms of program offerings, student activities and overall campus environment.

Seek out colleges that offer what you are looking for and that will nurture your strengths, interests and goals. Once you have done the soul-searching, have confidence in your choices and try not to get pushed toward other colleges by well-meaning friends who think they know what is best for you.

n 4. Be open to colleges you have never heard of. There are over 2,500 four-year colleges in the U.S. As such, it is probable that some of the colleges offering the best potential fit for you – in terms of academic programs, social environment, campus characteristics and affordability – will be unfamiliar to you at this point in your search.

Don’t assume that any college isn’t “good” simply because you haven’t heard of it. Whether you are doing research on your own or working with a college counselor, when a college you have not heard of is suggested as a possible fit or shows up on a search list, take the time to explore it further. You just might find a college that is right for you and that believes you are right for it as well.

n 5. Take advantage of college admissions officers. The admissions staffs at your chosen colleges can be important resources for you throughout the application process.

As you explore each college, find out which admissions officer is responsible for your application if you apply, and reach out to establish communication. In addition to answering your well-formed questions, they will use the interactions to learn more about you as well.

Shifting focus from annual rankings to those things that truly matter most in the search for a right fit will help make the coming year’s college search less stressful and more enjoyable for students and their parents.

— Special to the Telegram