Ranking Methodology

Everyone asks, how did you make the list? Post-It notes, Excel sheets and hours upon hours of research. This might sound like your less-than-ideal approach to an article, but your lovely CM writers actually go through this process whenever we decide that a school is the top 10 at something. We can’t just willy-nilly decide which school has the best music program or the nicest professors. So how do we determine if a school makes the cut? Through blood, sweat and tears (and loads of Excel spreadsheets).

1. Create criteria


What makes an aspiring ghostbuster school? Ominous weather, haunting tales, grim histories and ghoulish clubs of course. Once we pick the hard-hitting topic of our ranking, like the schools with the best parties or the most attractive people, next we have to pick the criteria that will set the best schools apart from the “eh” schools. Whether it’s how many hours the gym is open that determines the buffest guys out there or the number of history classes that determines the best schools for history majors, these decide which areas the schools have to keep it #awesome in to make the cut.

2. Cast a wide net

Before we can narrow the list down to 10 or even 2o schools, we cast a wide net to take into consideration every school–big or small–that matches our criteria. We look at data (IPEDS from the National Center for Education Satatistics), read news articles, scour university websites, review course catalogues and speak directly to students. For example, for our Top 10 Schools for Journalism, we took note of universities who had won Hearst Awards and Pacemakers. We also looked into scholarship opportunities and note-worthy initiatives. Then we took a deep dive into the actual courses and opportunities offered on campus. Then we select 20 schools that completely fit our criteria. We create a beautiful Excel or Google Sheet with those schools plastered down the left-hand side and our criteria lined up along the top. Ah, nothing says opportunity like an empty Google sheet.

3. Research, research, research

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Let me tell you, doing these rankings will take you to websites of universities you forgot about since getting all those mailings junior year. When we write rankings, we become very familiar with that search bar function to find the bits of info on the website that will tell us everything we need to know about the hours of the gym at one school or the number of fraternities at another. We keep in contact with our editors, editor-in-chief and publisher to review our research along the way and provide feedback.

4. Narrow down to 10 schools

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I call this step the hardest of them all, because each ranking, depending on its criteria, often requires its own unique system to figure out exactly which of the top 20 schools will make it to the top 10. This ain’t no singing competition; you don’t get America’s vote. We’ll often rank each school for each criterion 1-5. 1 would signal that a school was #rockinit in a certain area, and 5 would mean they didn’t really measure up. So the schools with the 10 lowest scores come out on top. Don’t even get me started on how to deal with tiebreakers. Those require our next step.

5. Chat it up!

Along the way and once we finally figure out the top 10 schools we reach out to students who attend the chosen schools and gain more insight about why their school has the best English program or the best tailgates. Time to go into creeper mode and message some randos on Facebook. That’s right, I’m talking to you 96% of people that don’t reply to our floating message requests. “I’ve literally messaged over 50 people on Facebook only to hear back from less than 10. Gathering quotes is by far one of the most underestimated steps in the ranking process,” CM editor Skye Haynes said.

Last but not least, we write a stellar intro:

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Once we have our beautiful ranking written together, the article that’s taken us 10 times longer than any other, we have to make sure that people like you will actually want to read it. So, in true ranking spirit, we spend about 10 times as much time perfecting the intro from the very first sentence, making sure that nobody in their right mind would dare click away from the article before reaching the end.


Check out some of our most popular rankings:

Top 10 Schools for Dance

ballet feet dance colleges

Top 10 Universities for Pre-Med Students

The 10 Most Hipster Colleges

Written by Meghan Gresk

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