Navigating US University Rankings

Guides / USA


Each year in the US, about 2 million people apply to university. That’s a significant number which needs to stick in the mind of anyone who wants to apply to a US university, because there are other numbers which interact with it which should guide how you approach your college choice.


Often when starting to think about applying to US colleges, students and parents will start with places that they’ve heard of. HYPS – Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford – come up a lot.


Particularly if you come from a country which has a much smaller university sector than the USA (the UK, for example, has 130 or so), it’s usual to focus on there only being so many ‘good’ universities that students might consider applying to. Taking the UK again as an example, if you only applied to the top 3% of universities, that would be 3 or 4 universities: Oxford or Cambridge and then a couple of others.


Yet, in the US, there are over 4,000 universities. So, the equivalent top 3% is 120 universities: many, many more than HYPS.


Then you hit those 2 million applicants figure. Imagine if you will that you think you are in the top 1% of all those 2 million applicants: perfect grades, perfect test scores, amazing extra-curriculars, wonderful essays. Well done you! You are now in the top 20,000 people applying to US colleges that year. Bear in mind that Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford are each trying to fill only 1,500 places each year, and the issue comes into stark relief.


Put simply, if you are looking to apply to US colleges, you need to expand your net much, much more widely than perhaps some initial conceptions of what a ‘top’ university is. College rankings can be useful, but they can also create an unhealthy fixation on a very, very small number of institutions. Going to a university in the top 50, or top 100 in the United States is still a hugely impressive achievement, and beyond that list are still literally hundreds of amazing institutions. A specialist college counselor can help you to navigate this process and ensure that the universities you apply to are right for you.