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Princeton Review's Best 368 Colleges–A User's Guide

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Princeton Review’s Guide to the Best 368 Colleges is a best seller. For good reason. It can be very helpful in elucidating some of the key features of the colleges lucky enough to appear between its covers.
But it can also be something of a tease: check out my post yesterday for titillating tidbits from its “Top 20” list.
But here are some things to consider before you buy–and definitely before you start to read.
1. Know What You’re Looking For Before You Search
In order for a book like this to be useful, you need to know what sort of college you seek. Majors? Minors? Large? Small? Liberal Arts? Carnegie I research institution? Geography? Type of student body? Without a clear sense of your priorities, these 368 colleges will all run together in your mind. Don’t even open the book until you know the criteria against which you plan to make comparisons.
2. Don’t Forget the Other 2,332 Colleges
Princeton Review’s Book only scratches the surface of American higher education. There are scads of quality colleges that do not appear in this particular book. Here again, knowing what you’re seeking is paramount. You might find one or two colleges in this book that fill your bill; but rest assured they may well be dozens more that did not make Princeton Review’s cut.
3. Look Beyond the Name Brands
Think about toothpaste: is Crest really better than Aquafresh? Just because a college has a recognizable brand name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to educate you any better than the next college. Keep in mind that the name of the college may or may not have anything do with the selectivity of that college’s admissions process. Furthermore, depending on the criteria you are using to choose the best college for yourself, the brand names may not even come close to providing the sort of education that is most appropriate for you. Once again, developing your set of criteria before you start the search is crucial.
4. Take the Rankings With a Grain (A Ton?) of Salt
No matter which guide is doing the rankings, there is always a degree of subjectivity. The polls are not scientific, sometimes the samples are too small to be statistically significant, and the questions posed are too random to yield good information to make useful comparisons among colleges. The fluffy “Top 20” lists in the beginning of the book are humorous, but don’t use them as a guide for choosing the right college for you. Also be careful of some of the statistics presented: take a look at my previous posts about class size and student-to-faculty ratios to learn why these are unhelpful in comparing colleges. Some of the data presented in the book are useful, but these same, useful stats can be had for free (send me a note to learn how to get this information).
5. Remember That Your Ideal is Exactly That: An Ideal
As you go through the college search process, you’ll find yourself comparing apples and oranges. Even if you start with a good set of search criteria, it is unlikely that a single institution will have everything on your wish list. You will have to make some difficult choices about unlike things. Sometimes books like this one published by Princeton Review (which may have you comparing pomegranates and brussel sprouts if you’re not careful about crafting your criteria) can lead to information overload, frustration, and confusion. Further, the college search process can be an extremely emotional one for some families, and those feelings (and the occasional family tiff) can distract you from the hard-headed analysis you must do if you are to find the college that fits you well.
You will find the colleges that will best enable you to pursue your dreams. And books like this can be useful, as long as you take them for what they are: snapshots. This book ain’t bad, but you can’t stop with this single resource.
Mark Montgomery
College Counselor and Book Critic

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