Choosing a university is a difficult process. Aside from the short-term factors that you need to take into account, such as the reputation of the faculty, the quality of the course and the location of the campus, there is also the long game to consider. After all, where you decide to study after leaving school can end up having a significant impact on your career prospects.
Therefore, it’s important to do your research. Uni and college tables can often give you a clear indication of which institutions are the best (although, of course, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the only indication of suitability). To help you out, we’ve compiled averages from the three most reputable ranking lists (Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education and the Academic Rankings of World Universities) in order to give you a definitive idea of the top 10.
So, if you’re looking to kick off your education – and your career – in the best possible way, why not think big and aim high? These are the best universities in the world.
10. ETH Zurich
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Location: Zurich, Switzerland
Average ranking position: 12.3
The only top 10 entry outside of Britain or the US, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich – otherwise known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich or, more simply, ETH Zurich – is a STEM-focused institution noted particularly for its contributions to physics and chemistry. Indeed, since its founding in 1855, 32 Nobel laureates – including none other than Albert Einstein himself – have spent time at ETH.
Undergraduate courses are taught in German (although English-taught postgraduate opportunities are available), while a second more rural campus – Science City – was constructed to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary in 2005. The school is also known for the prestigious Polyball event, a traditional ball dating back to the 1880s in which over 10,000 people annually take part.
9. Yale University
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Location: New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Average ranking position: 11.7
Founded way back in 1701, Yale University – an Ivy League member and one of only nine academic institutions in the US to precede the country’s formation – is a predominantly liberal arts college with a reputation for producing graduates into powerful positions. For instance, no less than five former US Presidents have studied at Yale, while numerous state officials, politicians and Supreme Court Justices are also among its alumni.
Organised into several residential colleges, the admissions process for Yale is notoriously difficult, while the school’s reputation for elitism is also not entirely unjustified; the infamous and secretive Skull and Bones society is based at Yale.
8. University of Chicago
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Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Average ranking position: 9.7
A private research university founded in 1890, the University of Chicago has long maintained a reputation for academic excellence across a variety of disciplines, with 98 Nobel laureates (including 32 in economics – currently a world record), 24 Pulitzer Prize winners and countless domestic and international state officials among its alumni.
The Booth School of Business – one of the top business schools in the world – is part of the University of Chicago, while the University’s internal publishing house is the largest university press in the US. The Barack Obama Presidential Center, which will house several libraries, will also become a part of the college upon its completion in 2021.
7. Princeton University
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Location: Princeton, New Jersey, USA
Average ranking position: 8.7
Similar to Yale, Princeton University is a small-town, pre-US Constitution college with a reputation for elitism; it is, however, also responsible for producing 65 Nobel laureates, 13 Turing Award winners and numerous entrepreneurs and politicians.
Since its founding in 1746, successive generations of students have developed a large and somewhat bizarre array of traditions (including organised minute-long screaming sessions and the Nude Olympics), while Firestone Library – one of the world’s largest university libraries – contains the original autographed manuscript of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
6. California Institute of Technology
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Location: Pasadena, California, USA
Average ranking position: 6.0
Founded in 1891, the California Institute of Technology – or Caltech, as it is often known – is a small but hugely influential research university, particularly within the fields of engineering and natural science. Indeed, the school currently boasts 73 Nobel laureates, while alumni have also contributed heavily to NASA missions and defence research projects. An unusually large amount of Caltech graduates also go on to earn PhDs.
The school shares a famous rivalry with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while in recent years has enjoyed a boost in profile through the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where many of the show’s main characters are fictionally employed.
5. University of Oxford
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Location: Oxford, UK
Average ranking position: 4.3
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world (there is evidence of teaching as far back as the 11th Century), the University of Oxford boasts a history and influence in the UK that is quite remarkable. This includes 69 Nobel Prizes, 160 Olympic medals and 6 Turing Awards, while 27 British Prime Ministers (as well as numerous international heads of state) have received their education there.
Split into 38 member-colleges, each of which maintains its own unique traditions and culture, Oxford is known for its small teaching groups and tutorial-style of learning. It also features several prominent clubs and societies, including the Oxford Union (which regularly features world-famous speakers) and the notorious Bullingdon Club, a society similar in structure and influence to the Skull and Bones at Yale. In addition, the university also boasts the world’s largest university press, as well as the world’s oldest university museum.
4. University of Cambridge
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Location: Cambridge, UK
Average ranking position: 3.7
Just about pipping Oxford in the rankings, however, is its great rival: the University of Cambridge. Although it doesn’t boast as much influence politically as Oxford (just the 15 Prime Ministers, in comparison), Cambridge graduates have been responsible for an incredible 118 Nobel Prizes, while its scientific alumni include such important figures as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking.
There are several other parallels to Oxford (indeed, the university was founded by Oxford academics in the early 13th Century). Teaching methods are very similar, for instance, while Cambridge also hosts a number of separate colleges (31 in all). The university’s Footlights group is also well known, too, having launched the careers of many British comedy actors such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and John Cleese.
3. Harvard University
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Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Average ranking position: 3.3
The oldest educational institution in the US (the college was founded in 1636), Harvard is a byword for academic excellence and remains one of the most influential universities in the world. Alongside 8 former US Presidents, Harvard has also graduated a world-record 158 Nobel laureates, 14 Turing Award winners and 48 Pulitzer Prize recipients, as well as collectively amassing 10 Academy Awards and 108 Olympic medals. It’s also helped make a lot of people rich, too, with 62 living billionaires among its alumni.
It’s not just its students that set Harvard apart, either. While the school has pioneered numerous educational methods and processes that have been adopted or imitated by thousands of universities across the globe, its wider cultural influence has also been felt elsewhere. Many of the fundamental rule changes in American Football were made at Harvard, for instance, while Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – two former attendees – have revolutionised the technological world.
2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Average ranking position: 3.0
Founded in 1861 and located just across town from Harvard, MIT is a hugely important research university that has contributed heavily to some of the most important scientific achievements of the last 100 years. Its alumni contain 93 Nobel laureates, 25 Turing Award winners and 34 astronauts, while the University’s strong entrepreneurial culture has also resulted in the formation of some of the world’s best companies.
Unlike many other institutions, MIT does not award honorary degrees or athletic scholarships, while students are renowned for their elaborate pranks and ‘hacks’, many of which are the result of the aforementioned rivalry with Caltech. There are also numerous clubs, societies and traditions within the university, some of which host high-profile programming and robotics competitions.
1. Stanford University
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Location: Palo Alto, California, USA
Average ranking position: 2.3
Established in 1891, Leland Stanford Junior University – or simply Stanford, as it is much more commonly known – is one of the wealthiest research universities in the world and, given its close proximity to and links with Silicon Valley, one of the most influential. To date, its alumni has amassed 83 Nobel Prizes, 27 Turing Awards (a record) and 270 Olympic medals, as well as producing 17 astronauts and 30 living billionaires.
Companies that have close links with Stanford include Google (which started life as a research project for PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin), Cisco (whose founders Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner were employed by Stanford while developing the company’s hardware), and Hewlett-Packard (whose founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, met while at the university). The school has also been responsible for some of the most ground-breaking discoveries in computer science history, as well as producing important research in the natural sciences.
Of course, as mentioned previously, just because a particular school has a good reputation, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best option; there are countless things to consider when applying to university, after all.
But it’s also undeniable that attaining a degree from the universities on this list can be absolutely life-changing, for both your career prospects and your potential network. If you can get the grades – and afford the tuition – then you should certainly consider them as potential study destinations.
What do you think of the list? Do you disagree with the order? Let us know in the comments section below!
This article is an updated version of a previous article originally published on 13 September 2017.