Look Beyond the Top-Ranked Schools

Remember, what you do at college is the most important thing.

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The schools that attract the most attention on the day that U.S.News & World Report unveils its much-anticipated rankings are the ones that command the top spots.

[See the new Best Colleges 2011 rankings.]

Today, however, I'd like to focus on the schools that never get to bask in the bright lights of the college rankings hoopla. I'm talking about the colleges and universities that are at or near the bottom of the rankings.

I started my college career at one of those schools. I attended the University of Missouri—St. Louis, which is a commuter school that isn't particularly selective and its graduation rates could definitely use improvement. According to U.S. News's latest stats, 30.5 percent of its freshmen don't return for a second year. Only 41 percent graduate in six years.

UMSL happened to be 1.5 blocks from my home. The deal that my parents cut with my four siblings and me was that they would pick up the entire tab if we went to UMSL, which offered an affordable education. If UMSL didn't have our intended major, mom and dad would pay for us to attend another University of Missouri campus.

[See tips on Paying for College.]

I had a wonderful experience at UMSL as a history major and it was at this school that I discovered my passion for journalism. As a junior, I transferred to the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where I was equally happy. If I hadn't attended UMSL, I might never have stumbled into a career that I've enjoyed for more than 30 years.

If you end up attending a poorly ranked school, I wouldn't stress about it. It's important to go to a college that's a good fit for you, even if it's not at the top of a rankings list. Besides, it's what you do in college that matters, not where you go.

So for all of you out there heading to schools with rankings in the basement, here are 4 tips: 

1. Get involved. The reason why I am a journalist today is because I vowed that I wasn't going to be "just a number" at UMSL. I was particularly worried about that because I had attended a small girls' high school. I ran for student government (and won) and signed up to write for the student newspaper and discovered that I really liked writing.

2. Seek out professors. At big universities it's going to be more difficult, but it's certainly doable to reach out to professors. At UMSL, I connected with a professor there, who believed in me and convinced me that I had a writing talent.

3. Keep your eye on the clock. One of the knocks against the lower-tier schools is their low graduation rates. These schools often don't enjoy the resources that the top schools enjoy. That's why it's even more important that you consult an adviser every semester to make sure that you are taking the right classes and are on track to graduate on time.

4. Check out tutors. You will reduce your chances of receiving poor grades if you take advantage of the free tutors that universities routinely provide. And if your school has a writing center, use it. Even "A" students in high school can often use some extra help at the college level.

Here's the bottom line: Don't forget that where you end up going to college isn't nearly as important as earning a college degree.