MBA Rankings: Valuable Tool or a Distraction for Applicants?

The subject of rankings comes up a lot with MBA applicants. I’m always surprised by the extreme interest in rankings, which are, after all, rather fleeting. You may have your sights set on the “No. 1”³ school, but a decade from now, that same stellar program might have slipped to number 10.

For that reason, I don’t like to encourage clients to focus too heavily on rankings when they’re making their MBA program selections, since placing a heavy emphasis on rankings can actually become a distraction for some applicants. Have you ever wondered how major news websites like Bloomberg Businessweek come up with their rankings in the first place? Although the methodology is always explained for interested readers, I doubt too many applicants research the subject in detail.

Earlier this week, Conrad Chua of the Cambridge MBA Admissions Blog shared his perspective of the rankings process from the school’s point of view. I found his comments quite informative and wanted to share a few of the highlights here.

Chua points out that many surveys, like that of Businessweek mentioned above, are extremely U.S.-focused, so that the data gathered naturally skews against MBA programs located abroad. Participating in these rankings are also unbelievably  time-consuming for the admissions officers. Schools are asked to submit answers to more than 100 questions, says Chua, who notes that there are 200 cells to fill in for the salary data information alone, and that just accounts for five of the 100 questions.

The statistically-minded among you will be asking yourself what algorithm could combine so much disparate data into a score that can be used to rank different schools. And the simple answer is that none of this information matters in the final analysis because Business Week does not use any of the data that the school provides.

Forty-five percent of the Business Week ranking is determined by student survey responses, 45% from a survey of recruiters, and 10% from the number of publications, books and articles published by the school’s faculty.

At the heart of the issue, Chua says, is whether it makes sense at all to rank one school as being better than another in such a one-dimensional sense as rankings.

While rankings can inform your decision of where to apply, I think applicants would do well to focus more on a program’s culture, size, or the strength of its alumni network. When Stacy Blackman Consulting surveyed 652 business school applicants in February 2012 to find out what matters most to today’s applicants and why, fewer than 12 percent of survey respondents considered culture a top priority, and a mere handful noted that program content was the most important factor influencing the decision to attend a particular business school. I find these results troubling, because it means people aren’t paying enough attention to the program that’s truly a good fit for them.

As for Chua, he says, “I would encourage people to ask what is the objective(s) of an MBA education (and it is still an education). That’s a more enriching discussion than why alums in the East Coast from one school has a higher median salary than alums in the Pacific Northwest from another school.”

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