The university choices of the most ambitious applicants are increasingly influenced by unofficial newspaper league tables, say researchers.
League tables are increasingly part of the hunt for university places
A study by David Roberts, an expert in "reputation analysis", shows that getting into a league table top 10 pushes up the quality of applicants.
These league tables can vary widely in their rankings.
But the research shows that they are more influential than the official research assessment findings.
A record number of people are seeking to enter university this year - and this study from the Knowledge Partnership, found that almost two-thirds of students are now looking at league tables before applying.
And using the experiences of 13,000 students, it suggests that the biggest impact is on the highest-flying, most competitive students, chasing places at the most prestigious universities.
These highly-motivated, well-informed applicants, often from affluent backgrounds, are the most likely to use league tables as a factor in where they apply.
The research also identifies the importance of league tables within individual subjects - with a top 10 placing giving departments "greater visibility and credibility" among applicants.
"As students have so many universities to choose from in the UK, it's likely that they will create their own 'ladders in their mind' - for example, they work out which are the best in their region," said Mr Roberts.
"And it's not simply a matter of whether your university has gone up or down in a league table, but how its position has changed compared with its closest rivals."
But the study also suggests that the reputation of a university is very difficult to change.
Mr Roberts says they it could take around a decade to alter the public reputation of a university.
"This is both good and bad news for universities - it means it's quite hard to develop a reputation but also that having created one, the market will forgive a poor ranking in any one cycle," he said.
Unlike school league tables, university tables are not based on direct comparisons of exam results - but use a variety of factors, including research, teaching quality and student satisfaction.