Rankings are everywhere. Whether it’s law school, business school, college, or even high school, chances are there’s someone out there who’s come up with a ranking system. Their sheer ubiquity means that rankings are the one aspect nearly every applicant consults when making application decisions. These numbers certainly have their use, particularly at the start of the selection process when you need solid indicators to help you narrow down your choices. However, it’s useful to know a few things regarding rankings and their usage.
Rank Does Not Equal Quality
Although the schools in the “top” of the U.S. News & World Report rankings are good schools with great reputations, this doesn’t mean schools in the lower rankings are deficient or less worthy of consideration. Rankings don’t take into account specific and unique attributes of the law school programs they rank. They also don’t take into account how these unique qualities may fit for a particular applicant. Concern yourself with which schools are the best for you, not just those with the best ranking.
Also keep in mind that the U.S. News rankings base a large chunk (40%) of each school’s rankings on “assessments” by peers, lawyers, and judges. What does this mean? Almost half the weight of a school’s placement within the ranking comes from a completely subjective score people in the industry give it. Tangible items such as job placement, return on investment, or ability to pack back education loans post-graduation aren’t in that score. Remember that program popularity plays a large role.
Multiple Ranking Systems
The U.S. News rankings, while the most popular, are not the only rankings to explore. There are various other “methods” out there including Brian Leiter, TopLawSchools and even other law schools. Many people and companies get into the law school rankings game, which means that there are many at your disposal. Use as many of them as you can in order to get a broad picture of each “rank” as possible.
They Are a Business
Taking these numbers to heart when making school decisions can be a risky move. It is important to remember a few things.
- Schools know that students use rankings to determine where to apply.
- Ranking companies know that students use rankings to determine where to apply.
- The methodology used to rank—particularly in the case of the U.S. News rankings—is widely known.
Schools can, for example, inflate their rankings by only accepting students with UGPAs and LSAT scores above a certain number. Schools know how to affect their ranking. Students should be aware that these scores do not happen in a vacuum and that schools can manipulate them, even slightly. Although this can end up with positive results for the applicants, it is worthwhile to note that schools can significantly affect these numbers. This means they are widely subjective, so keep that in mind!
It’s Not an Exact Science
The 2009/2010 U.S. News/Brooklyn Law School debacle proves mistakes or inaccuracies can definitely happen. In addition, what U.S. News considers unimportant or less important, might be something that you consider extremely important. For example, let’s look at the methodology U.S. News uses to rank law schools. They count “Assesment Scores,” or how people in the law school business sees a particular law school, as 40% of the overall ranking! They only count “Placement Success,” or the number of graduates that secure a legal job post-graduation at 20%. Ask yourself: Which is more important? How the Dean or professors of other law schools view a school or the likelihood of you getting a legal job after you graduate? Most students are likely going to weigh the latter more highly.
The Ranking Systems are Sensitive
Rankings can change often, and sometimes dramatically, over the course of a single year. Slight minutia can have a large impact! The most widely-used systems take into account “public perception” as the most significant percentage of their formula. This means that a shift in public opinion can alter the ranking significantly. This breakdown is not meant to discount the importance and usefulness of rankings, however it is a cautionary tale. Be careful of taking rankings at face value. Instead, take them with a grain of salt. If you use them, use them carefully, sparingly, and at the start of your research. Don’t use them as a deciding factor in your decisions!
Not sure how to come up with a decision? Here are some guidelines.
- Use multiple sources. There are so many available to the public. Use them all and combine the knowledge into a comprehensive picture of the schools you want to apply to.
- Use public perception to your benefit. Before choosing a law school, consider where you want to work post-graduation. Investigate which schools those firms/companies consider the best! Tailoring your education and approach to fit in with your future employer makes more sense than going by impersonal rankings.
- Use your knowledge of the schools. Don’t make decisions solely on numbers. You’re looking for the best fit. Choose schools on what you know they can offer you above and beyond numbers! A schools rank doesn’t necessarily indicate it fits with your goals, ambitions, and aspirations.
- Use your location. If you plan to work in a specific city, choosing a school in that vicinity makes sense. Not just financially, but also because companies and firms have historically employed a higher percentage of graduates of local schools. Rankings aren’t everything, location can sometimes trump the rankings card. Knowledge of the lay of the land is important and the local advantage can often go far.
Rankings definitely have their place in the admissions and application process, just be wary of turning them into the linchpin of your application decisions.