General Education

The Princeton Review: Rating the Rankings

The Princeton Review: Rating the Rankings
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Noodle Staff February 8, 2019

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Each fall, a variety of publications release their lists of the best schools, the most ubiquitous of which comes from U.S. News & World Report. So why is Harvard University #1 according to U.S. News, while Forbes thinks it’s Williams College and Washington Monthly claims U.C. San Diego is the best in the land?

School size and type aside, publications use different measures of quality when assigning rankings. Furthermore, two publications may use the same measure (for example, retention rates) but value them in different ways (e.g. 15% at U.S. News but 6% at Forbes) when assigning ratings.

The most common measures used for school rankings in 2012 were test scores, retention/graduation rates, student surveys and the student/faculty ratio. And the similarities pretty much end there. Publications use all kinds of measures and many of them don’t overlap. So who does what? We decided to take a look behind the rankings….

Today’s School Rankings: The Princeton Review

Who It’s For: Anyone who wants to know more about a school than their SAT scores

What They Look At: Responses to student surveys. No more, no less.

Who They Asked:

As many students as they could find at every school across the country. This year they got responses from approximately 122,000.

How They Do It:

Current college students fill out an 80-question survey about their school online. Students answer questions about everything from the library to the school’s relationship with the surrounding area, the amount of beer students drink, to political leanings to dorm life. Students can answer on a 5 point scale and add narrative responses.

Then they take the student responses and formulate a series of 62 top 20 lists based on different categories. This means that every ranking indicates a school’s position on one or another top 20 list.


Their rankings are candid and you don’t have to worry about the administration misreporting SAT scores. They also give prospective students a good insight into the less tangible, academic qualities of a school, like how smoothly a school’s administration runs or how open-minded the students are.


Because their rankings are just a series of top 20 lists, they only feature schools on one or the other end of the spectrum (for example, the schools where students party A LOT or where they never party) which left us thinking, “what about all the schools in the middle?” I also found myself wondering whether a school’s ranking was based on the responses of 3 students or 300. Furthermore, with ranking categories like “Got Milk?” (based on how widely beer is used) or “Election? What Election?” (based on the popularity of political/activist groups) the quality being described by the ranking isn’t always intuitive.

The Top 5 Schools Where “Dorms are like palaces”:

Bryn Mawr College

Smith College

Bennington College

Washington University in St. Louis

Christopher Newport University

Choosing a college is about much more than rankings. Find out which schools are a good match for you with our College Wizard!

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Get the scoop behind other rankings:

U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges

Forbes Top Colleges

Washington Monthly

Kiplinger’s Best Value Colleges

Times Higher Education