Candidates often refer to business school rankings as an objective criterion to select their schools. This approach is fraught with risk. For one, there are various reputable rankings – BusinessWeek, Financial Times, The Economist/Which MBA, U.S. News, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, QS Top MBA, etc – that rank programs differently, and therefore come up with different results. To further complicate matters, programs move upwards or downwards within the same publication’s rankings from year to year.
This is not to say that rankings are useless. Rankings can be helpful when used judiciously as just one of the criteria to select the schools that are best for you.
it’s a good idea to dig into the numbers, rather than rely on the overall rankings.
Firstly, it’s a good idea to dig into the numbers, rather than rely on the overall rankings. You should find out more about the school’s reputation in your intended function, industry, and even company. e.g. while Chicago, Harvard, Wharton, Stanford and Kellogg reign supreme in BusinessWeek’s overall full-time MBA rankings, it’s top 5 in the McKinsey List are UNC Chapel Hill, INSEAD, Michigan Ann Arbor, Goizueta and Kellogg. Similarly, the top 5 in the Goldman List are Amherst, Duke, Tobin, Goizueta and Pace.
A good way of looking at rankings is to think of them as league tables. While individual programs may climb or fall from year to year or publication to publication, leagues are remarkably stable. Consider the league of the top 5 full-time US MBA programs. While the deck might shuffle fairly often, the occupants of the top-5 list remain the same: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago and Kellogg. The same is true for the 2nd league, i.e. programs ranked #6 to #20, and the 3rd league, i.e. programs ranked #21 to #40. Very rarely does a new program break into the elite group, and very rarely does a program fall out. So, the leagues or groups are rather more informative than exact ranks of the schools.
Another good way to cull information out of rankings is to look at trends over time.
A big reason for low mobility across “leagues” is that schools within a league are largely comparable, but schools across leagues differ significantly. e.g. The average GMAT scores for BusinessWeek top 5 range from 715 to 732 and the average salary range from $116k to $125k. The corresponding ranges for #15-20 programs are from 654 to 692 and from $100k to $112k respectively, and for #21-40 are from 620 to 687 and from $87k to $110k respectively.
Another good way to cull information out of rankings is to look at trends over time. While programs do not generally change “leagues”, that does happen on occasion. And looking at trends over time can help us understand and predict such changes.
A rise in rankings is likely to attract better students and faculty to the school. It is also likely to enliven the alumni base and help the fundraising. All of these factors in turn contribute to improving the school’s ranking further, creating a virtuous cycle. Conversely, a significant fall in major rankings can have the opposite effect, leading to a vicious cycle.
So if within a particular’s publication’s ranking, a school has risen from #30 to #27 to #24 in consecutive years, then there is a pretty good chance of that school breaking into the top 20 by the time you graduate.
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