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Whenever business school rankings are released by any publication, readers flock to the Bloomberg Businessweek Business Schools Forum to analyze the lists.At the moment, forum participants are debating the order of business schools in U.S. News and World Report's latest ranking. So far, 44 messages populate the discussion thread, and many suggest different ways to rank the programs, each participant bringing his own preferences to the discussion.
Admissions directors at top schools and consultants who advise B-school applicants agree that many B-school hopefuls rely too much on the rankings and get caught up in the lists instead of the more valuable data that come with them. They warn that this can ruin a business school application, because admissions committees are unimpressed when applicants have chosen them simply because their school is No. 5 on a certain publication's annual list.
"Stop thinking of them as rankings of anything," says Linda Abraham, president of Accepted.com, an admissions consulting firm in Los Angeles. "They are collections of data and surveys. They are opinions."
Still, rankings serve a purpose in the application process and can be valuable to MBA candidates who know how to use them properly while keeping the lists themselves in perspective, say admissions experts.
Business school rankings are available free online, which can help people save money on admissions consultants, says Sara Neher, assistant dean for MBA admissions at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile). "Use rankings to figure out where to apply," she says. "Don't use them to decide where to go."
Indeed, rankings are of the most service to applicants near the start of their business school search, says Patrick Noonan, associate professor of decision and information analysis at Emory University's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile). Applicants, say experts, should use the rankings to narrow down the list of schools to which they'll apply. But first they must understand what each ranking measures, says Noonan.
For instance, the Bloomberg Businessweek rankings focus on recruiter and student evaluations, whereas U.S. News measures reputation, placement success, and selectivity. Graham Richmond, chief executive of Clear Admit, an admissions consultancy in Philadelphia, says he recommends that his clients consider the Bloomberg Businessweek, U.S. News, and Financial Times rankings, which he thinks are the most respected in the industry.
Consumers of the rankings must realize that small, often insignificant, differences separate the top schools, and they are better off looking at the tier the school falls in—among the top 20, say—instead of the school's numerical placement on the list, says Douglas Bowman, professor of marketing at Goizueta. His colleague, Noonan, suggests applicants look at the rankings over time to get a sense of each school's consistency. Bloomberg Businessweek, for example, provides an online ranking history going back to 1988.
Although Noonan says the general message of the rankings is more important than specifics, he adds that applicants should understand each measurement within a ranking to determine what is important to them. For example, he says most students will tell you the number of professors with research published in academic journals doesn't influence their decision about whether to apply to a school. But when he explains that published research serves as a proxy for how engaged and innovative the faculty members are at a particular business school, students realize this might be of more importance to them than they thought, he says. Both the Financial Times and Bloomberg Businessweek include a faculty research component in their ranking methodology for full-time MBA programs.
Part of understanding any data point is to know where the data come from, says Julie Strong, senior associate director of admissions at the MIT Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile).Ask questions, she adds, such as, "Did the school provide the information the publication uses to determine the rankings? If not, who did? How often are the rankings done? Is the information you're looking at two or three years old?" Most of the well-known rankings provide full explanations of their methodology, where one can find answers to these kinds of questions.
Ideally, those who are thinking about business school will use the data from the rankings to create a personalized list of programs to which they will apply, says Richmond. Applicants can input the data from the rankings in a spreadsheet and include the items from each that are most important to them, he adds. Several ranking organizations, including Bloomberg Businessweek, offer online comparison tools that can facilitate the process.
Next, applicants should turn to the specialty rankings that many media outlets publish to see which schools rank best in finance, marketing, and other academic subjects to get an idea which schools offer programs that match their career goals, says Richmond. They can weight each of these characteristics according to their own preferences and compare the various programs.
Most publications, including Bloomberg Businessweek, publish profiles of business schools that contain in-depth information about each program, including GMAT scores, corporate recruiters who come to campus, and the percentage of women in the incoming class. Applicants can use these profiles to determine how competitive the schools are and where they might fit best, says Abraham. Still, she suggests using this information only in a preliminary manner and in tandem with additional research, such as visits to the schools' websites and discussions with students and alumni.
While the rankings are viewed by most admissions experts as the entryway to a person's search for the right business school, some experts say there are other ways to use the rankings in the application process. Bowman, for instance, suggests applicants reflect on what they want from a program, start to check out schools that might interest them, and turn to the rankings to validate their choices or insure they didn't miss any programs.
Rarely, the rankings can be a factor at the end of the application journey. Abraham says that if someone has been accepted to multiple programs and finds it difficult to choose between two, employing the rankings to help make the final decision is a legitimate use of the data. This should be a last-ditch mode of deciding, however, used only after all other research has been exhausted, she adds.
Numbers are the biggest feature of most ranking reports, but they are not the only one. "Go for the data and stay for the art," says Noonan, who reminds applicants to read the narratives that publications provide to get a sense of what business school is all about.
Ryan Hamilton, assistant professor of marketing at Goizueta, turns to a quote by Albert Einstein when talking about the rankings: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Essentially, Hamilton says, data will be meaningless, as Einstein suggests, if the numbers are not representing something important and meaningful to the applicant.
For a two-year investment in a full-time MBA program, which can easily top $300,000, including two years of forgone salary, applicants owe it to themselves to conduct a wide range of research, says Judy D. Olian, dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management (Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile). "The rankings should be a factor but a small factor," she says.
After all, it is through campus visits and talks with students and alumni that applicants will best come to understand the culture of an MBA program and where they might be able to see themselves enrolled, she says. One thing applicants never want to do, says Richmond, is discuss the rankings in their applications. Schools want to know that applicants see a future there and not that the program is appealing because a magazine says it is No. 1.
"The rankings are an initial step, but you have to go further," says Richmond. "The ranking doesn't tell you the full story of what life is like on that campus or what a school is actually doing to place students in a particular industry."