Interpreting the 2017 US News Business School Rankings

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It’s that time again… the 2017 US News business school rankings are out! But brace yourselves, folks; they’re about as controversial as Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed.

The Sparknotes version of this year’s free-for-all is:

Don’t take it from us though, Jon Byrne, over at Poets and Quants, wrote a killer recap that you can read right here. And as for the official rankings, you can find them right here.

These rankings are big news, which is probably why we continuously field the same type of question from prospective business school applicants each and every year…

  • “Does MBA program ranking REALLY make a difference?”
  • “Why is it better to go to a higher ranked business school?”
  • “How are these rankings calculated… and do they really matter?”

These are all VERY good questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them for you here.

How Business School Rankings Are Calculated (the Basics)

How do MBA programs get ranked? Or, to put it in another way, what makes for a “good investment” when it comes to getting one’s MBA? Well, a few things are taken into account.

  • Salary and Employment Rates After Graduating
  • Acceptance Rates and GPA
  • Graduation Rates and Application Standards (GMAT and GRE)
  • Alumni Involvement And Funding
  • Overall Reputation

For the finer details check out the ranking methodologies from US News.

Interpreting the Weight of MBA Program Rankings

There’s been a TON of trust and power invested in the ranking systems out there as a way of deciding which are “the best schools.”

It’s not that the rankings MAKE the school better, but that the rankings TRY to reflect the “success” of the school. Each of the famous ranking groups (US. News, Financial Times, The Economist, Princeton Review) has its own criteria (for the most part transparent, which you can read about on the ranking site), in which they give a certain weight to things like GMAT score, exclusivity, outgoing salaries, percent employment, etc. etc. These weighted values add up to some nominal “value” of a school… think the star rating guides that movie reviewers use. Or the way people rank a slice of pizza on Yelp. The higher the value, the better the school (or the pizza, yum).

But, of course, rankings aren’t EVERYTHING and – like a bland piece of pizza – you have to take them with a grain of salt.

Like Most Things, MBA Rankings Are A Business

Remember that business school rankings are first and foremost a BUSINESS unto themselves, and a very lucrative business at that. So annually we will see certain schools go up (like Yale SOM this year) and down (like Stanford GSB this year) on the list. Does this mean that a school’s overall quality changes every year, and exactly on the year? Of course not! It just means that if the rankings didn’t change, the ranking sites would have nothing to write about, and lose their customers. Sure, in some years a program may open a successful new school or department; or hire a great new dean; or pick up a world-renowned professor; but for the most part, there’s not a TON of variation year to year at individual schools.

So, when considering schools, of course prestige is important. If you can get into a program ranked 1-5, then you should go. Don’t choose an MBA program ranked 20- 25 simply because it happens to have a better “real estate” program. The people who will be hiring you in the future are looking to the rankings, so going to the best school you can get into (which just so happens to be our mantra here) is genuinely in your best interest. That being said, the difference between rankings (University of California—​Berkeley [Haas] being 7 and Dartmouth College [Tuck] being 8, for example) is not really THAT important. In a case like that, when the ranking is so similar, it’s OK to put fit before rank. After all, you’re the one shelling out the big bucks for the MBA. You’ve got to be sure that you’re going to not just succeed in that program, but THRIVE in it.

Incorporating Rankings Into Your MBA Application Gameplan

At Admissionado, our general rule of thumb is that you should look at the rankings and not depend on them. Here are a few tips for interpreting the data in MBA rankings and using it to your advantage in your application gameplan.

Read them Every Year: If you didn’t look at ‘em last year, if you’re new to the process, if you have no idea what to do or where to go, check the rankings. Folks in industry (any business) will always have a good sense for what the rankings are anyway: top three, top ten, top twenty. If you are new to the MBA Application game, then this is a great place to start. It is the best crash course into how each school stands. But again it is by NO means a list to swear and live by!

Look at the rankings them over TIME: The b-school ranking for a school for one year is meaningless. But if over the course of ten years, certain schools have moved UP or down in the rankings, THAT is worth paying attention to.

Do some research and have a look at Yale’s rankings over time. Then have a look at Booth’s. As you can see, there can be a great deal of movement throughout the years. THAT is what matters. The “dethroning of number one” doesn’t mean anything; HBS and Stanford will always battle for the top ranking. Rankings start to matter more over time, so keep that in mind as you rush out to grab the latest and greatest issue. Steady, consistent movement up or down in the rankings is FAR more important than any one-year snapshot. There will be NOTHING groundbreaking in one year alone, I assure you.

So don’t fall for the hype, or base your MBA application plans solely on what US News has to say this year or next year. Sure, use the rankings as a starting point, but be smart, figure out what matters to YOU and YOUR post-MBA goals, and do your research. That’s the only way to find the best program for you.

[Image courtesy of Will Hart, Flickr]

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