Ranking the US News B-School Rankings

So US News just released their rankings of the best business schools of 2012. Big news, right? And now, HBS and Stanford are TIED for first!  And last year, Stanford had BEATEN HBS in the rankings!  This is HUGE. History in the making! The biggest thing since sliced bread!

Or… is it?

Let’s give ourselves a moment to come down. And now, let’s take a giiiant step back.

Why does US News publish rankings?  TO SELL MAGAZINES.  And that’s…. it. So when they decided that Stanford would be higher-ranked than HBS in 2011, they KNEW that it would cause a big commotion.  People would rush to buy the magazine to find out why.  “What other changes have there been since last year” many would ask eagerly…and buy the magazine to get the answer.

I’ll betcha a case of Heineken that next year, HBS will have beaten Stanford.  Why? Because…IT WILL SELL MAGAZINES! “What other changes have there been since last year,” we will all ask eagerly (again)… and buy the magazine to find out.

See where I’m going with this? Nobody would buy the magazine if the schools admitted this simple fact. And that is why you need to take those rankings with a grain of salt.

That being said, the rankings (by US News, The Economist, Financial Times, etc) do provide useful information and statistics that you should use when coming up with your MBA application game plan. You just gotta approach and use this data the right way.

And here’s how you do it:

Read them Every Year: The rankings are important. 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 it is by NO means a list to swear and live by!

Now that you’ve read the rankings, talk to people in your field.  Why? I’ll get there… but first, an example:

Have a look at this year’s college rankings: CalTech, Duke, University of Chicago, Washington University, Johns Hopkins.  This year, ALL of these schools are ranked higher than Brown University. But take a deeper look: Brown has much  higher admissions standards, higher SAT scores, and it is MUCH harder to get into Brown than all those other schools.

Why am I telling you this? What does this mean? It means that there is a blind spot at US News. And that happens, folks. The only way to know for sure whether rankings are effective is to check in with people in your FIELD.  What do you wanna do when you grow up? Ask some experts in that area. See what they think are the best and most impressive programs. If you want to go into the humanities, or liberal arts, and you choose to go to “CalTech” because it is ranked in the top ten, and you do not go to Cornell because it barely made the top 20, you are doing it wrong.

Look at 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 jumping off 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.

The Tuesday Q&A: Master’s Before an MBA?