Best universities in the world: which are they and how are they defined?

It’s not so hard to say what Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, or MIT have in common.

Internationally known, they are always among the first in any list that points out universities’ references to teaching worldwide.

More than just great education models, these institutions and others that make up the ranking of the best universities in the world meet important criteria in choosing the most important ones.

The excellence of teaching, the quality and reputation of research and academic publications, and the transfer of knowledge to society are some of the requirements taken into account to define this list.

Read on to find out a little more about the top universities on the planet and find out how to apply for a place in the most desirable colleges.

How are the best universities in the world defined?

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Every list of “best” or “worst” is made by observing some indicators that help classify the quality of what is being ranked.

In universities, it works no different: some criteria are observed to classify which are the best or worst.

The Times Higher Education (THE) and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) are the two most respected publications to analyze the quality of higher education institutions in the world. Although they have their criteria, there are many common indices between them.

To define the main universities in the world, factors such as:

  • teaching quality;
  • research carried out;
  • academic citations and publications;
  • the institution’s international reputation; 
  • absorption of knowledge by the market;
  • the proportion between students and teachers;
  • the proportion of international students and teachers, among others. 

Although the criteria may be similar, the weight in the evaluation may differ between one publication and another, generating fierce “competition” for the position of the best university. 

How to study at the best colleges in the world?

Each university has its own admission rules for new students, so it is always important to be aware of the requirements made where you want to study.

However, there are some common rules between different institutions, such as proficiency in the English language and a high coefficient of academic performance.

Currently, several exchange programs make it even easier for Brazilian students to enter the best colleges. 

Whether for an undergraduate, master’s, or doctorate, these programs offer opportunities in several countries, such as the United States, Canada, and England, the most accessible route for those who wish to study abroad.

What are the most renowned courses?

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In Brazil, there is a consensus to point out the Faculty of Medicine as one of the most renowned of any university — at least, it is the most popular course in the entire country.

But did you know that this isn’t a standard among the best colleges in the world?

In American universities, for example, Medicine is seen as a specialization course, receiving students who have previously attended other courses.

When talking about the main courses abroad, the Faculty of Economics usually appears among the most prestigious. Law is another very renowned course within foreign institutions, as it also happens in Brazil.

Travel insurance for exchange: how does it work?

Researching intensively about universities, courses offered, and admission rules is an essential task that anyone wishing to study abroad should be concerned about.

However, another theme cannot go unnoticed in this planning: travel insurance for exchange.

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What are the best universities in Europe?

Universities in England take the lead when it comes to the best educational institutions in Europe.

From the tradition of Oxford and Cambridge to the contemporary Imperial College of London, English universities are always putting themselves at the forefront. But there are other places to get to know and have quality education in the Old Continent.

Oxford University, England

Founded in the late 11th century, the University of Oxford is the oldest English language teaching institution globally, a beautiful calling card for one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

More than 20 Nobel Prize winners, world leaders (former US President Bill Clinton), and 26 UK prime ministers graduated.

Excellence in several areas is one of its hallmarks. Still, Oxford has become notable in the development of works in  ​​Sciences – see the recent news about the vaccine against Covid-19, developed by the institution. 

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Imperial College London, England

Imperial College London is a young girl of “only” 113 years old, often named the third-best British university compared to the previous two.

With more than 15,000 students, the institution has gained prominence for its research and the development of interdisciplinary work.

Science, Technology, and Medicine were mainly responsible for placing the Imperial College among the best universities in Europe.

Cambridge University, England

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Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are notable students who attended Cambridge University, the second oldest in England.

Of the more than 18,000 students, nearly 4,000 are from other countries, showing the institution’s strength in countries worldwide.

In addition to hosting six schools and more than 150 courses, Cambridge has in its “curriculum” more than 100 libraries within its buildings, a veritable archive of publications available to improve the knowledge of its students.  

ETH Zurich, Switzerland

Have you ever thought about having Zurich, Switzerland, as a destination to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world? 

If you make this bet, you won’t regret it! The Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, or ETH Zurich, has achieved a prominent role among American and British institutions in the lists of the best universities.

In addition to developing cutting-edge research in the specialized area, the institution is proud to be remembered as the home of Albert Einstein, considered the father of modern physics.

University College London, England


The UCL (University College London) has been notable since its foundation to provide the chance to attend higher education to the public in a situation of inequality.

It became the first English institution to admit women on the same terms as male students in 1878.

Currently, the institution offers more than 3,000 courses in various areas to more than 22,000 students and has one of the most structured postgraduate systems in England

What are the best universities in the US?

Studying in the United States is a big dream for many young Brazilians. 

In addition to the excellence in higher education at American institutions, the country is home to several renowned companies, especially technology.

As such, admission to a top American college could be the first step towards entering the workforce in the future as part of some of the most valuable brands in the world.

Harvard University, Massachusetts

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When you hear about Harvard, it is almost certain that the subject is quality education.

The oldest university in the United States, established in 1636, is a reference in the country and has one of the most competitive admissions processes in the world.

The Harvard campus has visited more than 150 Nobel Prize winners and eight American presidents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including Barack Obama.

The Faculty of Medicine and the Harvard Library, the largest academic library on the planet, with more than 20 million volumes, are some of the feelings of pride of the institution.

Stanford University, California

The California cities are always remembered as great tourist destinations in the United States and points of excellence to study in the country.

In Stanford, near San Francisco, is Stanford University, one of the darlings of enterprising young people worldwide.

Its location in the heart of Silicon Valley has contributed to the formation of brilliant minds in the technological and business field. Nike, Google, Netflix, HP, and Instagram are just a few brands founded by Stanford alumni.

Yale University, Connecticut

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Yale University is part of the group of universities that make up the Ivy League, including the eight most renowned universities in the United States.

About 20% of Yale students are foreigners, and a good portion enters the institution with scholarships.

Yale stands out for offering a different teaching format: first, students follow a curriculum with subjects focused on the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences, and then choose which course they will attend at one of the 14 schools. 

MIT, Massachusetts

In the rankings that show the best universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is Oxford’s great rival in the dispute for the year-to-year leadership.

With more than 11,000 students, MIT is one of the most respected institutions, mainly for its scientific discoveries and technological advances.

The chemical synthesis of penicillin, the development of radars, and studies on video games are some of the works done by his students. 

Despite the emphasis on science and technology, MIT is also a reference with EngineeringArchitecture, and Administration

Princeton University, New Jersey

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Princeton closes our list of top US universities, often being listed in the top 10 in the world.

With fewer than 10,000 students, the university has a competitive admissions process. However, it stands out for offering accommodation to all undergraduate students for the duration of the courses.

The courses in Social SciencesHumanities and Engineering are considered some of the best in the country. From there, more than 40 Nobel Prize winners and well-known names in American politics have left.

What are the best universities in South America?

Want to study at a top university without traveling too far? You can do this at some of the best institutions in South America.

In Argentina, the University of Buenos Aires is in the top 100 of the main universities in the world and is number 1 in Latin America. And for Brazilians, it is possible to study there without going through the entrance exam, and for free.

Brazil also has its representative on the list: the University of São Paulo (USP), the second-best on the continent. Rounding out the top 3 “local” is the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, with almost 130 thousand students.

What are the best universities in Brazil?

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In addition to USP, it is in the state of São Paulo that the second university ranked as the best in Brazil is located: Unicamp, from Campinas, which has been in existence for a little over 50 years.

Also among the best universities in Brazil are UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), Unesp (University of the State of São Paulo), UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais), and UFRS (the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul).

Africa’s best universities

The African continent may not be your first choice of destination for student exchange, but you can also find quality universities there.

In addition, cultural exchange in a region very different from ours is among the greatest gains that the experience can provide.

The University of Cape Town, in South Africa, is one of the leaders in research production across the continent. The country also has other names on the list of the best, such as the University of Pretoria and the University of Johannesburg.

Also worthy of mention is the University of Nairobi, in Kenya, with more than 80,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and the University of Cairo, in Egypt.

What are the best universities in the world?

The best university in the world will vary from ranking to ranking, following the criteria established by each publication that prepares the lists annually.

For the Times Higher Education (THE), the ranking released in September 2020 pointed to the University of Oxford, in England, as the best in the world, followed by the American Stanford and Harvard.

The list of Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) has the first positions dominated by American institutions: MITStanford, and Harvard were, respectively, identified as the main universities in the world in the 2020 edition.

Study abroad with the best travel insurance plans!

There are plenty of excellent options for those who want to study at the best universities in the world.

Now, you can research a little more about the best educational institutions, see which one is closest to your area, and choose where to bet your future chips.

But before embarking, remember to count on Seguros Promo to guarantee more security for your exchange anywhere in the world.