College app protip #2: Rank is not everything

Repeat after me:

Rank is not everything. 

Rank is not everything. 

Great, now that we’ve established that…let’s talk about rank as it rank(le)s us & colleges.

Rank is not everything: yeah, because I don’t have one

If you’re attending a high school that didn’t do ranks, you might be worried that it’s going to drag you down or bar you from getting into a good school. You’re not getting penalized for going somewhere unranked, really. That would be unfair. Rank is simply “one of many indicators of academic rigor” or whatever fancy language that college officials love to use to confound the applicant population. If you’re already someone who’s got solid grades and are taking hard classes, you shouldn’t have an issue being at an unranked school.

For example, here’s some stats from the matriculating class of 2019 at MIT from the Common Data Set (a nice resource with a bunch of stats about a school & its admitted freshman class that they always try to hide in some backpage of the college site):

mit cds rank
sorry it’s tiny, just zoom in.

40% of kids who were freshman at MIT this year submitted rank. 60% didn’t.

I’m too lazy to paste pictures in (I’d have to upload them all and it’s a hassle), but just to throw out some more examples, 50% of Harvard‘s matriculating class of 2018 and 35% of Stanford‘s class of 2019 submitted class ranks. Doing basic math, that means that half of Harvard’s class and more than half of Stanford’s didn’t submit ranks. Go poke around at your top choice schools’ CDS and see what it’s like. Stop worrying.


Rank is not everything: yeah, but mine is trash

If your rank is average or bad, being completely realistic: there’s nothing much you can do about it now. Do your best to make sure your senior year grades are top notch. Since most of it is in the past, don’t stress about it; rather, use it as a reminder for yourself to work harder at what you can change now (like your essays)

As I said before, ranks are “one of many indicators of academic rigor”. Some schools care more than others…

Here’s Stanford’s CDS info on how they consider rank + other stuff in freshman admission decision:

stanford cds admission weight

As you can see, they care a lot about your academic rigor and rank, but they also care about your extracurriculars and your character and recommendation. So if your rank is terrible but it’s because you’re taking hard classes and you’re really persevering through the eyes of your teacher recs and a great character etc etc. you’ll be fine.

If your school marks suffered because of some external circumstances (your teacher was gone on maternal leave and never came back, someone died, you moved schools 5 times in high school, things of that nature) make sure you take the designated space in your application(s) to explain that.

And here’s Harvard’s.

harvard cds admission weight

Welp. I didn’t know that Harvard didn’t consider your class rank in freshman decisions before I looked it up just now. Regardless, I feel like there’s something fishy with how they x’d up the entirety of the ‘considered’ column…

Schools don’t admit plenty of valedictorians. I have a valedictorian friend who got into a ton of good schools, including Ivies, and then she got waitlisted for Rice (+she never got off the waitlist). I sat through an address given by the Duke president where he offhandedly mentioned about the thousand or something valedictorians they rejected. You’re not guaranteed to get into a school just because you’ve got a good rank, and you’re not screwed if you’re not ranked.

tl;dr: rank is one factor in a sea of factors.  It’s a “holistic admissions process” for a reason, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

Rank is not everything: treat it as a tool.

You know how parents and the people around us (and eventually us) get caught up in the idea of college rankings? Yeah, don’t. It’s a guideline. SOMEBODY, SOMEWHERE at USNews or CollegeBoard or Princeton Review (which by now I hope you’ve realized has zero relation to Princeton) or Barron’s or whomever the heck does these things decided to make a ranking showing how colleges stacked up against each other based on some factors. And if you don’t know what those factors are, you can’t decided whether the ranking is arbitrary or useful or not.

A lot of times, we just accept “research” and rankings for what they are. Remember that context is everything. Say I want to be an engineer and I searched up “best engineering schools” on google; something like this would pop up:

best engineering schools google
.University of Virginia creeping its way up the engineering ranking?

Ignoring the first boxed result and moving onto the others, notice that in the descriptions some of them mention graduate schools. You don’t want to accidentally select best graduate rankings instead of undergraduate rankings. Additionally, within undergraduate rankings, some rankings are based on whether there is graduate school offerings in the subject, or if the school is undergraduate only (I’m looking at USNews in this case). Do take a look at how the rankings were decided.

Polls and rankings of any sort for the “best college”, at their heart, is still based on opinion. It might be a school’s staff, students, or faculty, and if it’s the faculty (for the sake’s of their department’s funding, reputation, whatever) they would probably want to say their schools are good regardless of if they are or not.

For schools that are categorized differently, how do you match them up against different categories? For example in the USNews ranking, where do the non-doctorate schools even rank against the doctorate-offering schools? Anyone can see that what you’re going to get out of West Point engineering as versus to UC Berkeley engineering is incredibly, incredibly different, and they’re both ranked #4 in their respective lists. Same with the #1s: Harvey Mudd vs MIT and Stanford. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. The schools do things differently, have different core ideologies, and different approaches to teaching. You might be the sort of person who might do better at private school rather than a state school. Or, you might want to be at a school that’s completely undergraduate focused. Look at what’s best for you and what sort of education you want.

A lot of us unnecessarily cling to the idea of rank. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are certain things we should give more weight to than others. Rather than using ranking as rulers, I’d encourage you to realize that the rankings are sort of useless when it comes to high-caliber, high-quality schools. As one of my seniors told me: it’s honestly all about the same when you’re looking at schools up there.

I beg you: don’t write schools off just because one is ranked directly under another. Had I done that, I would not be attending the school I am now–which I’ve come to acknowledge as being the best fit for me. One of my friends regretted settling and not applying to other schools because UT Austin had a good enough ranking for him. Take the time to do your research and really find out what’s unique about a school’s core values and whether its academic program is what you’re looking for. You won’t regret it. You also certainly won’t regret having more information. I certainly was glad I took the time to research when I was choosing between schools.


That’s it for now. I’m undecided about what my next post will be about, but it should hopefully be sooner than the last one. This was supposed to be a weekly thing, but life interfered and college started (rip me). I’m trying my best, so bear with me. Thanks for reading!

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