I hear this question from students and parents all the time, and my answer is always the same: NONE.
The Princeton Review has been ranking colleges and universities for over 25 years -- but we've never made an overall ranking and proclaimed a school number one in all the land. We don't believe that college is one-size-fits-all, so our rankings are categorical, to help students find schools that fit their personal criteria. This is an important point that will help put your whole college admission journey into perspective.
I understand why folks ask: Given the awesome lifetime benefits we know a student can obtain with a college degree, it's common to make a correlative leap: The more prestigious the alma mater, the greater the rewards for the graduate. Planning, applying and paying for college can be an arduous and anxiety-inducing process, and students and their supporters want to be sure their hard work will pay off with a degree and experience that pave the way to a successful career. The data point that often demonstrates prestige or reputation — that is often a major factor in college ranking methodologies — is a college or university's selectivity.
Selectivity Does Not Equate to "Best"
According to our annual College Hopes and Worries survey, Stanford University has been the number one dream school for college-bound students and their parents for several years running. Stanford enjoys an excellent reputation, provides world-class resources and features an impressive roster of alumni. We don't need to rely on our survey results to know it's a highly desirable school — last year, nearly 44,000 students applied for admission. Stanford accepted just five percent of the applicant pool. Are the roughly 41,800 students who applied to Stanford and did not get in doomed to failure?
Of course not! And therein lies the fatal flaw in the myth of "the best college:" There may not be a single best overall college, but there are absolutely schools that are the best for each and every one of those applicants, and a best school for you.
First, this assumption fuels an enormous amount of anxiety for college-bound students and their parents by creating the impression that the choices they make in high school determine, or limit, their future opportunities. You do not have to attend a highly selective school in order to pursue a meaningful and lucrative career, as this chart indicates:
After twenty years in this business, I can assure you that college and career prep are not one-size-fits-all — there are close to 4,000 four-year colleges in the United States. Thoughtful research and reflection will help you find the schools that fit you best. Applying to schools that line up with your goals and interests also helps your chances of gaining acceptance. You will likely be asked why you want to attend a particular school in a supplemental essay or interview, and “Because you're the best!" won't cut it. If you identify the specific opportunities on campus that are exciting to you, that enthusiasm will come through on your application.
Adapted from College Admissions 101 by Rob Franek ©2018 The Princeton Review/Penguin Random House.