General Advice on Picking a College (Also: Should You Consider Academic Department Rankings?)

Disclaimer: Back when I was 17 and knew nothing, I was obsessed with College Rankings, entering SAT scores of freshman classes, school size, and departments and faculty that had a reputation. I don’t regret trying to know, I just wish I had known better. I can safely tell you that there was no one in my life – and I knew people who were professors – who could have told me what I know now.

1. Safety schools: Debt and Getting Your Money’s Worth

Generally speaking, the most important schools when applying to undergraduate study that you must consider are your safety schools. Things are absolutely crazy in terms of college admission – when I was applying, I was an incredibly serious student who could have benefited any institution I went to in numerous ways. But the talent pool was incredibly large back then, and the talent pool is even worse now. If you get into the University of Chicago or Swarthmore or Berkeley, trust me, it has nothing to do with your talent: your talent is merely the impetus for applying, what gave you the guts in most cases to even put in the application. It is sheer luck to get into those places.

So you need to take full control of the schools you can actually get into. You need to make sure they’re paying you and that debt will be minimal. Please do not think that 120 grand worth of debt is worth it to go to UPenn or Harvard. Unless you’re going to be doing research and working with Nobel Laureates and flying out to Paris for conferences from day one, there’s probably a perfectly good in-state school that you can excel at.

That having been said, going to the cheapest school possible is only a good idea if you hate school, and if you or your parents are trying to justify the cheapest school possible to you even if it is falling apart and has virtually no faculty, then y’all need to realize something. College isn’t cheap, no matter what. And the consequences of going to a crappy school and failing out there or hating it there can be joblessness and misery. If you’re going to spend money for college, make sure wherever you go is good enough.

2. So What Is Good Enough?

College Ranking guides can be really positive about big schools, but seriously, big schools are bad. Forget “getting lost” – the truth is you’ll pay tens of thousands of dollars and could be dead for a week and no one will even notice. Small schools are problematic in that students get cultish about their school and romanticize their class: at small schools, every pothead is considered, in the eyes of every other student, to be a “deep thinker,” and actual deep thinkers can be disregarded.

But make no mistake: you’re paying, at the least, to make some friends. My parents said school wasn’t about friends and then sent me to a University where I proceeded to make none for 4 years. You do need to go to a school to fit in. While I don’t like rankings guides that obsess over a school’s culture, take the more extreme cases seriously: if you’re into poetry, you’re probably not going to fit in at a polytechnic institute, and it is going to be a waste of tens of thousands of dollars potentially.

Getting taught by grad students isn’t the worst deal – when I was at Rutgers, I was taught by brilliant graduate students in a number of subjects. But small classes matter immensely. Some people like classes that have 400 students so that way they can cut regularly and take the test and be done with the course. If you’re planning on pre-med or something like that, and think you’re going to be the best student the world has ever known because of your SAT scores and AP credits and debating society honors, congrats – you’re going to be the douchebag who destroys school for those of us who care to learn and don’t look at the place as a diploma mill.

That’s right: the most important thing in choosing a school is evaluating what kind of student you are. There are two kinds of students:

1. People who go to school because they have to – This is the type of student that every school nowadays, including Harvard, caters to. This is the kind of student most parents envision their kid as being, especially if the kid is actually serious about learning: a parent will almost never be able to figure out when a child is really learning until the child has grown considerably. It is very hard to admit one’s kids might actually know more than oneself.

2. A real student – When people bring up stuff you don’t know, you look it up and try to remember it and don’t pretend you’ve mastered it already. You read things that challenge you (not just things that tell you what you want to hear, no matter how smart they are), that force you to expand your vocabulary and your view of the world. You have a variety of intellectual interests, but there’s one or two which you excel at and you can cite scholars in the field or primary sources that you wish you knew better in depth.

Regarding #2 – there is absolutely no way you are going to get into a real school. I’m sorry. All those admission people could care less that you’ve been reading Somerset Maugham and thinking carefully about Emily Dickinson throughout high school. Students that don’t care to be in school are experts at putting together the most amazing exploits during high school – perfect SAT’s, AP courses to the point they have sophomore standing, captain of this or that athletic team, community service, a million honor societies — I mean, really. You have no chance.

That having been said, if you are a real student, you really don’t need Harvard. Or any name school, for that matter. Why is this?

3. Academic Department Rankings Can Tell Very Little For Undergraduates

It is true that you want a higher ranked academic department if you know what field you want to pursue. At some departments you actually will be doing original research as an undergraduate, and good professors that actually know what they’re talking about is nothing to sneer at.

But here’s the thing: not every high ranked department cares for undergraduate learning. And some departments feature very trendy name scholars whose work you won’t understand until you’re a senior anyway. If there were just a few departments which had this problem, I would recommend aiming high. But department quality is so uneven that I think it is most prudent to aim low.

For example, knowing what I know now, if I wanted to do political theory in undergrad, there would be maybe 5 schools I could apply to which have faculty that I know would be worth working with (I’ve read their scholarship, in some cases have depended exclusively on it for arguments I make). I can safely tell you that I would probably make it into one of those schools at best, and if I got in, that would have taken me about 2,000 miles from home and I hate being homesick.

I’m not saying academic department rankings are worthless. For example, Rutgers’ 1000 lament that the latest rankings are low is more than justified – the rankings are screaming that Rutgers is falling apart.

But I am saying if you know what you want to do, you will be able to learn tons on your own and excel at a small school and be a big fish in a small pond. They’ll be thrilled to have you and you’ll find talent there – I mean, no one is getting into the top schools anymore. And if you don’t know exactly what you want to do, then you really don’t need 50 top-ranked departments to cater to you. It would be nice, yes. But given the amount of money that can cost, and the aggravation of aiming for something that is of dubious value in any case and being rejected – and trust me, rejection does hurt, even when you know what losers most people judging you are – you’re better off spending your time figuring out what you want to do.

4. How do I figure out what I want to do?

1. Go look for online syllabi for courses you think you will take in college and enjoy. See if you can get the books on the syllabi for cheap on Amazon or from your library and start reading.

2. Find webpages of faculty that care about their subject and their students, i.e. William C. Dowling. Let them make the best case for the relevance of their field, while you read and remember, weigh and consider.

3. Tell your parents to shut up. No matter what you do, the job isn’t coming, and even if it does, I can name very few capable people who don’t think this economy and the culture it stems from is hell.

4. Do not think in terms of double majors or exciting programs or interdisciplinary programs or grad courses or auditing. You are probably not as smart as you think you are, and even if you are that smart, there are plenty of smart people who never learn anything. Focus only on coursework and themes you’re reading about in-depth. Do not expect class, even with a name professor, to teach you anything. Think only in terms of what you are actually pushing yourself to learn, and what you think may aid that learning, and be humble. If you actually learn, you’ll develop a quiet confidence that will be unshakeable, as opposed to the false and flashy bravado of the class president types.

5. Before you go to college, narrow down what you want to do to about 2 or 3 things that you find yourself doing regularly. If you’re playing piano from 2-6 hours a day and reading poetry, chances are English and Music are departments you want to look into. If you think you want to be a chemist because you aced your AP test, watch out. Especially at more competitive and prestigious universities, there will be students who had parents who made them work in a lab since age 5. If you’re serious about a subject, you have to eat, sleep and breathe that subject. I think my blog betrays that my life is pretty much political philosophy, and that’s been true for a long while now.

6. Consider your career in the light of whom you want to become, what you want your values to be. The more specific, the better. “Being good with kids” does not mean you should be a teacher, not if you hate school yourself. Nor does “healing people sounds nice” mean you should try to become a doctor, given how difficult that is. Try reading books like these to start thinking about the big picture.

7. Read, read, read. Pretend you’re going to major in every field you think you might want to be in, and act like you’re trying to get a grip on the primary sources and know a bit about the secondary literature. Once you start doing this, you’ll realize that you’re doing what you’ll have to do in college, and you’ll have a much better mindset with which to evaluate schools and programs. This is really the most important step in the process.

5. A few other considerations

  • If the campus is falling apart, as Rutgers was when I went there, you should stay away. Far away. If they’re not taking care of the campus, they’re probably not going to care for you. Since no matter what you’re paying money, take a look at a dorm and ask the residents if it gets noisy or if they turn the heat/air on at proper times. Make sure it’s comfortable enough – you’re gonna be living there for a while.
  • Make sure the library is for real: if a school has a gym that stinks, fine. But a library is everything. Make sure there’s a good coffee place where you can study and snack. Too many bars and frathouses = bad. Coffeehouses = good. You want people around who actually want to study.
  • Cafeteria must be good. I can’t stress this enough. I lost weight each year I was at school in undergrad.


  1. i went to the university of colorado and have been to many other schools of lesser rank or whatever and also have been to schools of greater rank and i generally observed the self fullfiling prophecy where the bettar the school the more socioeconomically successful a person is which really reflects networks and capital before during and after school but i felt in my personal school experience that my mind was expanded beyond my conservative upbringing and am a bettar person because of that

  2. Hey, Ashok, the past is past man – let it go. I know that Rutgers purposely screws up every student that passes through it’s decrepit halls, but that doesn’t mean ALL schools do that. Does it?

    At any rate, you do hit the nail on the head. You should write a book about it, then charge $49.95 a copy for it at Borders. What won’t be included, and will cost another $35.55, is the in depth school rankings worksheet and tallies. Then, for an additional $14.95 a month (recurring automatically), you could offer updates that they subscribe to. This way, everyone will have the opportunity to find the “right” school.

    Hope all is well!


    Then you could offer a graduate studies version for around $123.99 a copy, $59.99 for the worksheet, and $39.99 for the monthly updates.

  3. @ Josh – I think all schools do what Rutgers does when they can. I sound harsh, but I’m actually not meaning to be – this is the nature of the beast.

    But I also think learning can happen at most schools, just that what one puts into it matters a lot more than the school itself, because schools have become this problematic. One really has to know what one wants to do to make school work.

  4. @ brattknee – I have twin cousins; the _LESS_ intelligent one went to Princeton, the smarter Colorado. She received an excellent education (this was circa 1975). She also could write proper English, including far “bettar” spelling – obviously not a typo where you mis-spelled it twice. IIRC, this was one of my 3rd grade word lists back in the 1950s. It appears Colorado’s standards have slipped dramatically in the past thirty years, eh?

    @ Ashok – good one, amigo.

  5. Rutgers sounds horrible. Yes Colleges behave in their own interests but if the US is like the UK, it is really the academics and friends you make that have value. This may just be me being demob happy though- having handed in the PhD at bloody last! Good post as ever Ashok.

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