06/04/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

College Lists and Rankings: Take Them Lightly

You caught me. I'm one of those people who aimlessly navigate Huffington Post for all those entertaining lists: Top things to do this summer? The sexiest cities in the U.S.? Or -- my guilty pleasure -- the cutest kittens of all time? I'm embarrassed to admit it, but a busy schedule -- and my relatively short attention span -- contributes to a love of such lists.

These popular online lists are usually playful, fun, and fast (why read an entire article when you can flip through a slideshow in the quick tap of a touch screen?). There's relevant research backing some of these lists, but for the most part, they're just a medium of entertainment or a conversation starter. Sure, when Boston was found to lead the U.S. in education levels for young adults, I gloated a bit. But that doesn't mean I'm going to prance down to New York City and call the residents uneducated. These lists and rankings are all about what you make of them, whether it's about cities, celebrities, or schools.

Yes, schools. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You can find an abundance right here on the Huffington Post College vertical: The world's best universities. The 10 best colleges for writers. Or perhaps colleges that help grads earn top salaries. They're not just found here, either; websites are posting similar lists left and right, whether they're aggregating information from other sources or creating their own. So as you start researching schools or applying this fall, take these college lists and rankings lightly.

Sure, U.S. News & World Report has a reputable ranking system. These schools aren't categorized willy nilly, either. U.S. News has an in-depth methodology to their rankings, and the experts to back it up. Nonetheless, if your first-choice school isn't on any of their rankings, does that change the fact that the school may be your perfect fit? Of course not. What about those lesser-known, unranked schools that have strong programs? Don't count those out, either. These rankings act as a point of reference, not a tyrannical decider of a school's status.

I work with the college search website CollegeXpress, and we recently integrated the popular InsideCollege lists into the website to make it more of a one-stop shop for college-bound students. As one of the editorial staff members working with the website, I'm quite acquainted with the college rankings and various lists on CollegeXpress. But in my work, I've noticed a few discrepancies that exist between all the lists and rankings out there. I was ecstatic to find out that the Wall Street Journal ranked my alma mater, Penn State, to be No. 1 among job recruiters. On the contrary, Penn State was also No. 1 on CollegeHumor's list of slacker schools. Unless recruiters are on the lookout for lethargic, unmotivated graduates, then something here doesn't make sense. Also on this list were such heavy hitters as Clemson, Virginia Tech, The University of Florida, and Louisiana State.

We featured that list with permission from CollegeHumor, but not long after receiving some publicity for it, I received an e-mail from one parent whose daughter was working hard at Clemson. He was utterly heartbroken, and I expressed my own understanding, sympathy, and sorrow, being a graduate from the supposed leader in slacking. Clemson is a campus full of incredibly intelligent students. Penn Staters are a proud, educationally motivated body of young scholars. My own cousins graduated from Virginia Tech after four grueling years of studying engineering. If these institutions are full of lazy students, then I'm the Queen of England.

You may also encounter "Experts' Choice" lists -- both on our website, and on others -- and that's exactly how you need to take them: as the experts' choices, not as your own. They have their own procedures for selecting these schools, and their opinions are certainly relevant if they're educated on the topic at hand. But if you're searching for an affordable pre-med program in a suburban location with less than 1,000 students in states starting with the letter "M," then you need to develop your own methodology and stick to what you want in your prospective institution.

Schools should be proud of themselves for making it into the top spots of these lists, especially the significant, well-established rankings. But to all the future college students out there, it's your responsibility to drive your own education and make the most out of whatever school you attend, ranked or unranked. So use these lists as a fun, added bonus -- and perhaps a jumping-off point -- to your college search. Each and every institution is capable of imparting students with boundless opportunity. No ranking in the world could ever calculate that kind of value.