University Rankings: What They Are and How to Use Them

By Logan Bright Modified on June 19, 2020

School rankings can be a valuable tool when you're deciding the next steps for your education.

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Five stars for university rankings in Canada and around the world with Maclean's, QS, and more!

For many people, university rankings are an important part of choosing a program and school. We can all name a half dozen or more highly prestigious institutions around the world — but it's harder to say exactly why these schools have the reputations they do. Here, we'll look at who does the ranking, how they do it, and what it all means for you and your education.


Ranking bodies

Maclean's

Here in Canada, the best-known university rankings come from Maclean's magazine as part of a yearly special issue. Maclean's has published Canadian university rankings since 1991.

Maclean's ranks schools in several categories, including medical and doctoral schools, comprehensive schools (that do a bit of everything), and primarily undergraduate schools. Maclean's also ranks particular program areas like computer science and education.

As of 2020, Maclean's has introduced a new feature: Build Your Own Ranking. Students and parents can filter a range of criteria based on their importance and region, and Maclean's offers a custom list of schools for you to check out.

Because Maclean's focuses only on Canadian schools, it can be difficult to compare their rankings to other cross-border schools. Still, the yearly Maclean's rankings are a valuable tool for students across the country. If you're considering a Canadian university, be sure to check out Maclean's rankings.


QS World University Rankings

QS Top Universities started ranking universities around the world in 2004, partnering with Times Higher Education magazine (see below), before breaking away in 2010 to go solo.

QS has become one of the world's biggest ranking bodies, ranking universities around the world in many categories, including overall top universities, MBA program rankings and even graduate employability rankings — perfect if you're considering graduate school.

If you're more interested in specific subject areas, QS ranks schools across a whopping 48 fields in five categories.

Once you've found a few interesting schools, you can compare them on a number of metrics, including academic staff, student population, and even ranking history! It's no surprise QS is a popular name in university rankings.


Times Higher Education (THE) Magazine

Times Higher Education is a weekly magazine based out of the United Kingdom. Every year, they release their rankings of universities around the world. From 2004-2009, THE worked with QS (above) but has since developed its own ranking system.

THE is unique in that they rank universities on how well they meet the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an effort to explore schools' environmental impacts. The SDG indicators include poverty levels, hunger, and inequality, so if equity and justice are important to you, you should check out the Times Higher Education Impact rankings.

Of course, THE ranks schools on other criteria as well, including by subject across 11 categories. If you're looking at studying abroad, THE ranks schools in underserved regions, too, including Asia, Latin America, and other emerging economies.


US News and World Report

US News and World Report is the newst ranking body on our list: they've ranked the best global universities since 2014. US News has been more focused on the United States, and has ranked the best US universities for over three decades.

The world rankings include over 1,500 schools from 82 countries, and can be sorted by region, country, and two dozen subject areas. You can even filter the lists based on enrolment, in case you're looking for a school where you're almost the only student.

Schools ranked by US News and World Report each have a profile where you can check out every bit of data collected, from number of master's degrees awarded to the number of clinical medicine publications.


Typical indicators

Many ranking bodies use similar criteria to determine schools' scores. Though the categories may overlap, different weightings — the importance of each indicator — can mean different rankings.

Reputation

Taken from surveys of academic reputation, this is an indication of a school's perception. The more impressive or intimidating the school's reputation — think Harvard or M.I.T. — the higher it will rank.

Bibliography

Ranking bodies look at the number of unique publications come out of an institution. This means not only articles and books, but conferences, patents, and citations in other work. More publications = higher ranking.

International collaboration

Some ranking bodies also consider international collaboration: how well a school works with others around the world. More trade of people and ideas is likely to net a university a higher ranking.


Limitations of rankings

Some schools take issue with the very notion of annual rankings, saying their criteria is insufficient to measure schools, and that doing so in the first place is irresponsible. There's merit to this argument: it's difficult to gather and synthesize the right data to offer a reasonable ranking. With so many variables, a truly scientific ranking system is practically impossible to construct.

Still, students, parents, and even school administrators see value in these rankings — or else they wouldn't be so popular! Getting a sense of a school's strengths and weaknesses from a third party can be a helpful tool when you're looking for the right university. They can also be handy benchmarks for institutions to judge what they're doing right and where they can improve.


How to use university rankings when deciding on a school

When you're trying to find the right school for you, checking out university rankings is a good step. You can quickly get a sense of what institutions are highly ranked, and in what areas.

You should check out a few different ranking sites, if you can. Getting one review is helpful, sure, but comparing a few different ones will give you much more context and improve your decision making. You may even encounter a school you'd never heard of but which fits you like a glove.

You may also want to consider specific criteria when considering a school. Maybe you'd like to study abroad at some point and want a school with strong international involvement, or perhaps you really want to publish your work, and are looking for a school with many publications under its belt.

Certain parts of campus life might be more relevant to you than others. Think about what matters to you in your ideal university experience, and compare your own criteria to the rankings to see how well they match up.

Whichever way you go, the most important thing is to consider what you want. What interests you? Where do you want to go to school? What are your goals and dreams for the future? Only you, together with your loved ones and your teachers, can make these decisions. But university rankings sure can help!


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