Ask almost anyone to name top universities and chances are the response will be: Harvard, Yale, Princeton. These schools are widely regarded as the top of the top -- The Ivy League, as it is known -- which also includes five other schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania. Outside of the United States, these are often the only schools anyone can name at all.
Yet we all know that many “top universities" do not belong to the Ivy League, which actually originated an athletic conference. Did you know that other schools are grouped for the purposes sports competition as the Patriot, Horizon and Summit Leagues? It’s true.
While it's also true that the Ivy League is famous for academic excellence, selectivity and high social status, it certainly does not have a monopoly on these qualities. Stanford University, in the minds of many, has eclipsed the Ivies in some respects. Well-known schools such as Duke, Vanderbilt and Georgetown are sometimes mistaken for Ivies. Other top schools are far less famous, such as Carlton, Harvey Mudd and Grinnell.
None of this should matter as you consider colleges. Sure, it may be important for you to attend a “name-brand” school, which is fine. The bottom line is that a “top university” for you are those that best match your needs, interests, and that you find exciting.
Some of these schools may be at the very top tier -- either Ivy in name or in spirit. Others may suit you just as well, but perhaps are not quite as selective. Still others could be a match and be even less selective. It all comes down to what you consider to be important, and this could be any number of things. It has less to do with how a school is “ranked” than how well it aligns with your preferences.
Your list may be driven by your academic interests: liberal arts, engineering, business, communications, or research, for example. Maybe you are interested in going to a top Christian school, or one that’s known for a particular political orientation. Your choice may be driven by regional college preferences: Northeast, South, Midwest, or West.
In short, a “top university” is not determined by name recognition or an ostensibly objective evaluation from a well-regarded source. When you are applying to college, a “top university” is whatever you decide it is.