We can’t tell you how many times kids tell us they want to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc… but when we ask them why, they have no specific reason. Colleges want to know WHY you are applying—are you impressed by their world-famous chemistry program? The well-known English department? The art history department with a specialty in Renaissance art? Oftentimes students with particular interests do themselves a disservice by not bothering to check if the schools on their list match their academic interests. For example, if you like ancient languages, you’d want to apply to a school that at least offered classes in Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Sanskrit and the like. You may find that schools that you’d barely considered before end up being top in the country in particular areas.
Choosing a college solely based on its overall US News and World Report ranking is often misleading. Sure, US News has spent a lot of time devising a precise formula for what they believe are the most important factors on which to evaluate a school. You can read an extended version of their methodology here, but essentially, they use a formula that “uses quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it’s based on [their] researched view of what matters in education.” They separate colleges by their mission and their region, then evaluate them on sixteen indicators of academic excellence, including assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, and alumni giving. We’re sure you can agree that, while a school may rank highly based on high scores in each category, whether or not alumni give to the school is likely not going to tell you whether that school has a fabulous planetary science program, with the most distinguished professor in the country in the area of Martian cratering studies. Going with our planetary science example, a student might originally be gung-ho, dead set on attending this year’s number one ranked schools, Harvard or Princeton. If that same student is passionate about planetary and earth sciences, they may not realize that the number one ranked school in that academic discipline including graduate studies is actually the California Institute of Technology; Harvard is ranked #8 in that discipline, and Princeton #9. (http://www.usnewsuniversitydirectory.com/graduate-schools/sciences/earth-sciences.aspx).
How can you check? First, it’s often helpful to consult the graduate rankings in a publication like US News and World Report, although keep in mind that sometimes graduate programs and faculty are separate from the undergraduate, sometimes shared. Once you have that list, comb the web sites, course guides and published info from colleges to see if they are strong in your area(s) of interest. Finally, call the school or visit and speak to professors, visit the library, check out the holdings—in short, make an INFORMED decision about where you are applying and why.