University rankings are a popular choice among students trying to decide at which university to apply. But you need to understand how to interpret rankings if you want them to be helpful. Otherwise, they can be a deceiving list that won’t help at all.
The three most popular university rankings are Times Higher Education (THE), Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and Quacquarelli Symonds Top Universities (QS). Each ranking system follows its methodology and scores universities based on different metrics.
For this reason, the same university, let’s say Stockholm University, can occupy different positions in each ranking: =176 in THE, 74 in ARWU, and 153 in QS. To form an accurate impression of an institution, you should check all three systems, understand their differences, and make an interpretation from the perspective of what you are personally interested in.
We will learn how to interpret the rankings as we go through this article, but the main thing to keep in mind is that the subject you want to study, the region of your studies, and what you wish to do with that degree afterward determine how you read the rankings. These systems are not universal pills everyone can take to answer their questions.
The most important things to know about rankings
First, remember that the exact place in the rankings doesn’t matter!
Whether a university is 5th or 7th, 120th or 150th doesn’t mean there is a big difference between them. Many factors are at play, some unrelated to teaching quality. So, If you try to decide between two universities with close ranking positions, let’s say 25th and 40th, simply ignore this fact. It doesn’t reflect which one is better. It’s more useful to think of them in terms of Top 10, Top 50, Top 100, and Top 500.Do the extra research.
Apart from checking the rankings and taking the time to understand how they work, make sure also to read articles about the university or country where you want to study and find out what students from that university say about it. Their opinion is likely to be very helpful.
In fact, on our website, you can check student-written reviews and ratings for all our listed universities. To learn more about how to use student reviews, read this article: How Student Reviews Can Help You Find The Best University for You in 2022
More than that, we also select a number of universities for the Global Student Satisfaction Awards (GSSA) based on student reviews, and you can find out more about them by reading What Are the Global Student Satisfaction Awards (GSSA) and Why They Matter.
Another thing to keep in mind is diploma mills. You may be surprised but there are plenty of education scams out there and fake diplomas. Learn How to Avoid Education Scams When You Want to Study Abroad with this Studyportals guide.Remember the strengths and differences of each ranking system.
QS focuses a lot on an institution’s reputation among academics and employers, ARWU on world-renowned research, and THE tries to balance the two, taking more variables into account.
Are you looking for an international university? Check QS and THE
If you’re looking for a university with a vibrant international community, you should check the QS and THE rankings because both take into consideration the international outlook of universities.
QS measures the International student ratio & International faculty ratio, two metrics that account for 10% of the final score. They look at how many international students compared to domestic students are enrolled with the university, as well as the number of international staff compared to the number of domestic staff.
Access the latest QS World Rankings, select Ranking Indicators, and find the ones you’re interested in the options to the right. You can click on it to show results ordered based on the highest score (100 is the maximum).
How to see International Ranking Indicators in QS
If you want to see how QS evolved over the past decade, including what stayed the same and the main changes, read our latest QS Top 50 Universities in the World: 2013 vs 2023, What Changed in the Last 10 Years?
>> Read more about the QS Ranking system: The Ins and Outs of QS World University Rankings. How It Works and How It Helps You
THE has a metric called International Outlook which includes the proportion of international students, the proportion of international staff, and international collaboration, together accounting for 7.5% of the final score.
Similarly, access THE latest rankings, and you’ll see the Metric straight away. If you want, you can sort universities to appear based on the highest score in International Outlook.
How to filter results based on the International Metric in THE
Do you think employability after graduation is important?
If finding a good job quickly after graduation is your main concern, again QS and THE can give you an answer. Both have metrics to measure how good universities are as far as employability is concerned, but they have different approaches.
QS considers the working industry and potential employers for future graduates. It has a metric called Employer Reputation which measures how likely it is for employers to hire graduates from different universities. It is based on how appreciated an institution is by employers, and they use large-scale surveys to calculate their scores.
THE, on the other hand, considers Industry Income, which means how much money a university receives from the working industry in exchange for its academic expertise. This shows whether there is a strong relationship between a university department and the respective industry. A high score here means your studies will have hands-on experience and will be kept up to date with the latest changes in the industry.
If Europe is on your radar, have a look at this article about the 10 Top European Universities with the Best Job Prospects in 2022.
If you want an academic career, check ARWU
When you want to have a career in academia, the quality of academic research produced by your future university is very important. Studying in a university with a strong research tradition is ideal in this case.
ARWU is unique in that it doesn’t take reputation into account at all. Both QS and THE base a good part of their final score on results coming from reputation surveys. In other words, academics’ and employers’ opinions of a certain institution greatly affect its position in QS and THE Rankings.
ARWU, however, weighs greatly on the quality of research produced by academics, measuring citations and the number of Nobel Prizes won by staff and alumni. If a university scores high in ARWU, you can be sure they produce world-class research.
Read rankings based on your subject of interest
Rankings are particularly relevant for students who plan to study Bio-Sciences because they give a lot of credit to scientific articles published on this subject. In all three systems, citations count a lot, but the only citations that are taken into consideration are from Speciality Journals published in English. Bio-sciences excel in this.
Moreover, Science subjects, in general, are better represented by Rankings. Especially by ARWU. When it comes to science, rigorous research is paramount, and ARWU’s methodology considers almost exclusively scientific papers, awards, and citations. This is the most relevant ranking system for science students.
On the other hand, rankings don't matter as much for students of Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences because research in these areas is published mostly in books and not journals. Also, professional disciplines, like Engineering, Education, or Business, don’t have a great focus on publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, so if this is what you want to study, you shouldn’t be discouraged if a university doesn’t score high on citations.
For these subjects, it’s better to check how your university fares on QS or THE and look at the other indicators, not Citations. In this case, it is also a great help to check the QS Rankings by Subject and the Subject Rankings by THE.
When are regional rankings important?
There are approximately 17,500 universities in the world, but the ranking systems cover just about 1-3% of that. As you can imagine, most universities in the list are renowned, well-established institutions from developed countries. But the fact that younger institutions or those in developing countries don’t feature there does not mean they don’t offer good quality education.
If you’re not interested to see what are the best universities in the world but rather the best in your particular region or country, you should ignore World Ranking and look only at QS Rankings by Region. The methodology is different so it can reflect the unique context and conditions of that region. This is especially true for universities in developing countries.
Can rankings affect your future opportunities?
Rankings can affect the opportunities a university receives. And that, in turn, affects your opportunities as a student. Sometimes, governments and donors choose which university to invest in based on its ranking position, and universities can decide on partnerships with other universities based on their ranking positions.
Moreover, some countries like Denmark and the Netherlands have immigration laws that favour international students from high-ranking universities, while others like India or Russia have laws that only recognize foreign degrees from top universities.
This is something to keep in mind.
>> To form an even more informed opinion about rankings, read this article about Why Studying a Bachelor's Degree at a Top-Ranked University Is Not for Everyone.