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University rankings by subject: are they more helpful for postgraduate students than overall university rankings?

University of Exeter University rankings and league tables usually come in two formats: they are either organised by subject or overall university rankings. While both formats have their uses, they tend to bring up some confusing questions. For example, a university might be ranked first for English but then ranked 20th overall. So what factor is more important and how should this affect your university choice?

This guide will tell you why both types of league tables are important, and how you can use both to make the right choice about your postgraduate university.

Why do overall rankings matter?

Most people want to make sure that the university they attend is renowned, at least to the extent that employers can see the name of the institution and get a positive impression. This is why overall rankings do matter as they give you some idea of how well a university is perceived.

Overall rankings also serve to give you as a student an impression of a school. If a school that you’re interested in is in the top 10 of universities nationwide probably means that they’re academic rigorous and you’re going to need to have your thinking cap permanently fused to your head! Similarly overall rankings are often swayed a lot by the outcome of the National Student Survey , so you can get a feel about how much undergraduates at a university enjoyed their experience.

Why do subject rankings matter?

At the end of the day, you are not studying an average of every degree a university offers, you are studying for one degree. That is why it is important to make sure that the department that you choose to study at is a good one and well known for being so in the academic community.

The quality of your learning often depends on the quality of your academic department. A university might rank highly in overall rankings on the strength of departments that aren’t yours – for example you don’t want to go to a university that has a famed English department and a mediocre History department if you want to study History.

So which one is more important?

In general you should pay slightly more attention to subject rankings than overall rankings, as these actually assess how good the education that you will receive is going to. However, it’s a good idea to at least casually compare the two, as drastic differences may be a cause for concern. It’s uncommon, but if a university is ranked in the top five for your subject, but then barely makes the top 50 overall, perhaps you should do a little digging into why the university fared so badly overall. While a university might have a brilliant department for your course, their low scores could indicate that they did badly on the National Student Survey. This often means that undergraduates had a poor experience, which should worry even postgraduates.

At the end of the day, there is information that can be garnered from both types of rankings, meaning that only by checking both out can you get peace of mind when it comes to choosing your place of postgraduate study.

Useful rankings links:

UK postgraduate rankings: a brief overview

The Guardian postgraduate league tables

Do university league tables provide a complete picture of a university?

Do league tables matter for research master's students?

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