New Report: How Do Students Use Rankings?

New Report: How Do Students Use Rankings?

Laura Bridgestock

Updated February 2, 2024 Updated February 02

A new report from QS, published online today, explores the motivations behind prospective students’ use of university rankings, and the evolving role of rankings in the student decision-making journey.

In a 2014 survey of prospective students around the world, almost 70% classed university rankings as either “essential” or “very important”, while fewer than 2% said they wouldn’t consult rankings at all. Similarly, a recent study from the World 100 Reputation Network found rankings to be the leading source of information for prospective PhD students, even ahead of official university websites.

But why and how do students use university rankings? At what stage do they consult the tables, and what impact do rankings have on their final decisions?

These are some of the questions addressed in the report, “How Do Students Use Rankings?”, based on a survey about rankings preferences and a series of focus groups with prospective students. Key findings include:

Rankings are used to gauge future employment prospects 

One of the most consistent trends in the study is the perception that university rankings correlate with graduate employment prospects. When discussing motivations for consulting rankings, students frequently reference the belief that a higher-ranked university will lead to better career prospects, due to the institution’s stronger reputation among recruiters. Among prospective international students, this is combined with the belief that studying abroad will further enhance their career prospects.

Preference for global & subject-specific rankings

In the survey on rankings preferences, 77% of students said they preferred global rankings over national or regional university rankings. An even larger majority (78%) agreed that subject-specific rankings are more useful than overall rankings. Focus group discussions revealed high demand for even more specialized rankings, comparing universities’ performance not only for individual subjects, but also specific courses.

Students’ ideal ranking would prioritize employability & teaching quality

The report includes a visualization of what the ideal student-created ranking would look like – assuming access to unlimited data and resources. Here employability is again a dominant theme, with students placing greatest weight on measures such as employer reputation and employment rates. Teaching quality is the second priority area, followed by indicators relating to the wider student experience, such as student satisfaction and international diversity.

This article was originally published in June 2015 . It was last updated in January 2020

Written by

The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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