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College-bound high school seniors may be confused by the guide books published this year that evaluate academic institutions nationwide. The U.S. News & World Report ranked the University 11th overall this September. But Penn did not even make the list of the top 20 schools with the highest academic quality in The Princeton Review Student Access Guide to the Best 309 Colleges. And Washington and Lee University, which didn't make U.S. News' list of top 20 universities, placed first in the academic quality section of the Princeton Review guide. But such discrepancies do not lessen the value of either source, said Ed Custard, co-author of the Princeton Review. "It's like comparing apples and oranges," Custard said. "They use totally different methods." Published every year, the Princeton bases its evaluations of each school solely on students' opinions, according to Custard. U.S. News, on the other hand, uses more factual information than the Princeton Review -- such as faculty resources, the size of an institution's endowment and the student-faculty ratio. Every three years, Princeton Review sends representatives to each institution who station themselves at a popular area of campus. The representatives approach students and ask them to fill out a survey. Last year, 238 Penn students participated. Students must answer questions in four categories -- personal information, academics and administration, students and social life as well as an optional free response section. Based on the survey results, Princeton Review compiles a write-up of each institution and lists the schools that scored the highest in each category. Regarding academics, the Princeton Review quoted one Penn student who said, "Research is the primary concern of professors and administrators; as a result, graduate departments are strong, but the ability to teach undergrads is minimal." A high school senior reading the Insider's Guide to the Colleges, written by the Yale Daily News staff, would discover a completely different perspective on the University. The Insider's Guide -- which includes both student opinion and factual information in its write-ups -- quoted one undergraduate who found that "there is really great student-faculty interaction. The professors go out of their way to make themselves available to us." Authors of the Fiske Guide to Colleges send questionnaires to schools' admissions offices for information about programs the universities offer, according to editor Edward Fiske. Admissions officers choose which students should answer the survey, he added. Letting the admissions officers determine who responds eliminates the possibility that a troubled or disgruntled student would use the questionnaire to vent frustration, Fiske said. It also ensures that students with varying interests will be represented. "We've found that college kids tell it like it is," Fiske said. "In addition to asking students about their general experiences, we ask them about the school's biggest weaknesses, too." Students can dispute the opinions highlighted in each write-up, but some of the facts appear to be just plain wrong. Princeton Review, for example, reported that 30 percent of Penn students hail from Pennsylvania, but Admissions Dean Lee Stetson said only 20 percent do. Princeton Review also reported that the University "is reluctant to discuss the inner workings of the admissions process in any specific way." But according to Stetson, admissions officers openly discuss the criteria used when evaluating students. The officers, however, cannot be too explicit when explaining procedures because the process does not follow strict rules. "It's that notion of uncertainty and selectivity that makes a school attractive to a student," Stetson said. "If students knew they would get in, then they wouldn't be as eager to apply." Stetson also suggested that prospective students read several guidebooks and keep in mind the shortcomings of each method of evaluation.

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