Graduate school rankings are one of the most controversial topics in U.S. higher education. Some people like them. They think rankings help students navigate the bewildering number of programs they have to choose from (and, of course, from a college or university’s point of view, they attract candidates). Some people hate them. They think rankings magnify the importance of anything that can be measured by quantity (like standardized test scores) at the expense of what can only be measured by quality (how good classroom instruction is).

The 800-lb. gorilla in the college and graduate school rankings game is, without question, U.S. News & World Report. The company’s annual directories to top professional and graduate programs are perennial bestsellers. Business, law, and medical schools are all reviewed annually, based on peer reviews and specific factors (for example, the percentage of a law school’s graduates who pass the local bar exam). Other programs – dentistry, public affairs, journalism, education – are ranked and described in much less detail. Some categories are only ranked every two or more years; some are ranked for a while, and then dropped.

Some professional organizations offer their own lists of top graduate programs in their field. These can be a useful as a starting point for researching schools and programs. However, you should look carefully at what the list is. It may reflect the opinion of a small group of people within the organization, or simply amount to a list of member organizations. You may even find you’re looking at paid advertising. You should also look carefully at the way ‘top ranked’ is used to describe graduate programs. In some cases it is simply a measure of size, not of prestige or quality.

What do rankings mean for prospective graduate students?