Method to the Madness

5 minutes, 1 link


Updated June 8, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

Let’s peek behind the curtains of each rankings site.

Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings

This is an annual publication by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British publication. According to Alexa Internet, an American web traffic tracking company, it is the most widely viewed university ranking worldwide.* QS partners with Elsevier to provide the rankings across 48 subjects and also across regional areas such as Asia, Latin America, Europe, and more.

statsQS collects feedback from over 100,000 academicians, who are all asked to nominate the top 30 universities (and cannot vote for their own).* This subjective feedback is given a weightage of 40%. The other performance indicators include the faculty-student ratio, citations per faculty, employer review, international student ratio, and international staff ratio.

Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings

This is an annual publication by the Times Higher Education magazine. Interestingly, until 2009, THE collaborated with QS to jointly publish the annual rankings. However, they turned to Thomson Reuters for a new ranking system in 2010 and later signed another deal with Elsevier in 2014.* Their rankings are also independently audited by the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

statsTHE collects feedback on 1,400 universities worldwide across 13 performance indicators that are grouped into five categories: teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income.* Teaching, research, and citations each get a weightage of 30%. Their most recent academic reputation survey garnered over 21,000 responses and Elsevier examined over 77 million citations to arrive at the research influence.

Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU)

Also known as Shanghai Ranking, this is published by the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy, an independent organization focusing on higher education.* ARWU is regarded as one of the three most influential lists of university rankings, alongside QS and THE.

statsARWU ranks over 1,800 universities out of which the top 1000 are published. ARWU seems to take a different approach.* They give 20% weight each to the following four indicators: staff winning Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals, highly cited researchers, papers published in Nature and Science journals, and papers indexed in Science Citation Index-Expanded and Social Science Citation Index. The rest is spread across alumni reputation and per capita performance.

CategoryPerformance IndicatorsQSTHEARWU
Academic & Research ReputationSurvey of academicians40%33%-
Research InfluenceCitations received globally20%30%40%
Staff & Student RatiosVarious ratios across staff and students20%15%10%
Staff & Alumni ReputationNobel Prizes and Fields Medals won--30%
Research ProductivityPapers published in top journals-6%20%
Employer ReputationSurvey of employers10%--
International OutlookInternational students and staff10%7.5%-
Income ReceivedExternally received income for research-8.5%-

danger Do note that since we combined all the ranking methodologies into a single table, a lot of the nuance is lost. For example, although both THE and ARWU have weightage for research productivity, it means different things. THE calculates it based on papers published across all journals indexed by Elsevier’s Scopus. On the other hand, ARWU only looks at papers published in Nature and Science. Hence, we highly recommend looking at each of their methodologies to get a better understanding.

All that data and information is to highlight a few points.

  • First, when you’re looking at these ranking sites, understand that the rankings mentioned are for the entire university and are not degree specific, meaning your program’s ranking might be significantly different from the university’s ranking. Take the case of Dartmouth College. It currently ranks 207th in the world according to the QS, but is an Ivy League with one of the top Engineering Management programs.* Even for the university level, both QS and THE rely on subjective data to compute it, which has its own biases.

  • Second, all three ranking sites look at the citations received by a university on a global level. While this might be a good indicator for domains like biomedical sciences that have a publish or perish culture,* it isn’t a good representation of non-science majors that publish less by trade. Adding on to that, the ranking sites also don’t take into account the non-English institutions.

  • Finally, even if you choose to follow one of these sites, they still don’t take all your factors into consideration. Ironically, these are the factors that have a direct impact on your day-to-day experience, such as resources provided for networking, classroom amenities, quality of courses, and quality of food and housing, to name a few.*

You don’t choose whether to buy a Mac or Windows laptop just by looking at the share prices of Apple and Microsoft, do you?* Sure, it’s helpful to know they’re doing well and still at the top of their game, but your need requires a lot more granular information.

No, we are not discrediting these ranking websites completely. You would still need them to pick universities, since there is too much noise out there. Use these, but only as a starting point. Beyond that, we need to go deeper into the factors that will truly define your experience.

The Quadrant Framework

When you’re purchasing a new house, you don’t just look at the price of the house. You also look at the location, mortgage, down payment, number of bedrooms, quality of furniture, and more. All of these factors will affect your experience after you move into the house. Your graduate school follows the same analogy.

Although it is easier to choose a university solely based on its rank, that is not an indicator of your experience, good or bad, once you join.

Below is a table with all the factors that we thought you should be looking at while evaluating the universities to apply to.

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