They provide useful information if you know what you’re looking for.

College rankings can be confusing mainly because each one uses a different methodology, meaning a university can fall on top in one and closer to the bottom in another. Before you review the rankings, check out what criteria was used to create them because that will determine whether the information is relevant to you and your student. I personally don’t care how much alumni contribute to the college or how well teachers do on professor rating websites.

Rankings also can be called guides. Be aware that either way, they are often a vehicle used to sell magazines or books, or to steer you to a website. Sometimes you can only access the complete list or full rankings by purchasing access to an online site.

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Where to find college rankings Here are some I’ve found along the way: The most well-known is the U.S. News “Best Colleges,” but it’s become controversial, with some colleges choosing not to participate. Kiplinger rates colleges for their value. Princeton Review uses information from current students. Niche is a site for students by students that shares rankings on everything from best dorms to best academics. You can also search Google by putting in phrases like “top engineering schools.” Even though so much is available online, you can still find a lot of this information at your local library and in bookstores.

When to look at college rankings If you’re searching for schools in a specific category, like liberal arts colleges or public universities, or ones with music programs, college rankings are one way to find that information. Some of these guides help you find lesser known schools which are strong in the academic areas your teen is interested in. You might find a ranked list that looks at colleges the way your student does, like by diversity, off-campus life, whether it’s commuter-student friendly, etc. rather than the competitiveness of its business school. Rankings can be used to compare schools on your teen’s list of prospective colleges, too.

How to read college rankings Look for the information that is valuable to you and your student, and compare those details across schools. Make sure to read the methodology carefully to determine if the rankings are valid to your family. Also look closely to see what separates the top 10 or 25 schools. There’s probably less difference than you think.

When my kids started looking at colleges, I searched to find the best schools in the majors they were interested in. We all wondered whether it mattered if a college is number 8 or number 30 in its category. My kids decided it wasn’t. Their view was that if their college showed up on a couple of lists of the Top 50 or Top 100, that was all the validation they needed.

How colleges view the rankings A recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling reveals a majority of both high school and college counselors have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. News rankings. But sitting through college admissions sessions, I learned, not surprisingly, that colleges validate rankings favorable to their school and/or programs and ignore them otherwise. It’s up to your family to decide what criteria matters.

Rankings are a way to compare colleges. Use them as just one factor in finding the right college.

Share your thoughts on college rankings in the comments section below.