During the last two years I was in undergrad, I remember scowering through websites, books, mentors’ brains…anything that would help me to select the BEST graduate schools for me to apply to. It did not take long for me to figure out which schools were appropriate for me: they were listed among the top schools in the rankings, they were the alma maters for my mentors, and/or they were the institutions where well-published research was generated. During those last two years of undergrad, I made a list of potential graduate schools almost every week. Then, I took a year off. I am smiling right now as I reflect over that year. All of the research that I conducted during those last two years still relied heavily on published rankings from several sources. In retrospect, the rankings were not a horrible resource; rather they limited my thought process.
During the summer and fall after undergrad, I hopped in my car and drove to some of the campuses I had considered for graduate school. I am grateful for those trips. I remember pulling into a parking lot of one institution, after being lost for two hours in traffic, exhausted, frazzled, and irritable. I missed my campus tour, got a parking ticket, and suddenly, my number one lost its appeal. Yes, that was a wretched experience, but I learned that I wanted to go to an institution that was not located in a large metropolitan area, that had plenty of grass, and had a lesser number of one way streets. These were the aspects of my future “home” that the rankings were not able to illustrate.
The point I am trying to make is this: rankings help you to figure out what a majority of people may consider is best in a graduate school, but it will not make the decision about what you consider is best in a graduate school. I still applied to some of the top (and currently attend one) institutions in the rankings, but half of them never made my list until I started visiting campuses. Rankings are a great way to start the graduate school application process, but campus visits, discussions with alumni and current students, and a grasp on where the best research/researchers are will solidify your decision.