Find best college, not best college ranking

Amanda Musolf, Editor in chief

The last time anyone in my household applied to college was 1986. This said, I had no idea where to apply to college.
Enter the often-referenced US News & World Report’s “Annual Best Colleges” web page. But what criteria actually made these colleges the “best?”
Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker has dubbed this predicament the “suicide problem.” Just as there’s no way to accurately rank countries based on suicide rates, there are too many factors involved to directly measure the “goodness” of a school. Large or small? Public or private? Liberal arts or research-oriented?
Rankings systems’ algorithms depend on “proxies for quality,” as Gladwell calls them, which hinder the reliability of the rankings themselves. To calculate a school’s “student engagement” score, for example, US News takes into account class size and faculty salary.
But, are these the most accurate predictors of overall student happiness? How much—if at all—should underclassmen rely on such rankings? After having been through this whole process, I’ve boiled down my experience to four basic steps.
One: Visit schools. It’s difficult to fully experience a school without seeing it in person. After touring American University, George Washington University and Georgetown University, I realized the importance of a school’s layout. American was too new, GWU too spread out. Then I stepped foot on Georgetown’s 300-year-old residential campus and fell in love.
Two: Establish essentials. I opened my laptop that same night to my over-complicated Excel spreadsheet of prospective colleges and deleted it all. Eight months of carefully-articulated work gone. I was forced to find my four absolutes: excellent international relations and study abroad programs, out-of-state location and financial aid.
Three: Reflect. I needed to take a step back and ask myself perhaps the biggest question of the whole process: What did I need from a school in order to graduate happy, and what would I sacrifice to reach that blissful state? It took months to even begin answering this question. An arbitrary number from a college ranking site held no easy answer.
Four: Be flexible. After being rejected from Georgetown, which seemed my top choice school, I broadened my horizons and applied to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After all, an international relations major should be up for travel.
I could go on about its global ranking (among the top 250 on U.S. News’s list), but what sold me? Quality and four years of studying abroad.