How to use rankings for selecting an MBA

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MBA rankings may be an important source of information about business schools and their MBA programs. Really? My answer is: It depends. The trick is to know when and how to use them. 

Which MBA rankings play a role internationally?

Historically, the rankings from Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, U.S. News, and Forbes received global recognition. Particularly, the business schools themselves closely monitor their positions and changes from one year to the next. And, depending on the result, include this information in their promotion campaigns to attract MBA students. After The Economist stopped publishing its MBA ranking in fall 2022, however, only Financial Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, U.S. News and Forbes were left. 

Differences among the rankings

MBA rankings differ not only by the business schools and programs included, their ranking positions, and filter options (for creating sub-rankings) but also by their methodologies. In the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking, for instance, MBA alumni have the greatest impact on the final ranking position of business schools, while the opinion of employers is not included. In the Bloomberg Businessweek MBA and the U.S. News rankings, employers do have an impact of 35% and 15% respectively. Forbes, finally, is not interested at all in the typical information business schools and alumni are asked for (e.g., how satisfied were you with the program? How international was the class? etc.). Instead, Forbes builds its MBA rankings purely based on one number: the total return of investment five years after graduation.

The problem with rankings

Imagine that you have paid a lot of money for an MBA and you are satisfied with most of the services provided by your business school but not with everything.  Maybe, some things really annoyed you – maybe you were disappointed with the career service, a study trip was not organized very well or the teaching style of some professors was low quality.

Now, imagine that three years after graduation you receive an e-mail from one of the ranking publications asking you to fill out a long questionnaire about your experiences with your MBA. How would you rate your school, particularly with respect to the areas that annoyed you? Would you answer the question honestly and give the school a bad rating in that dimension? Or would you give the school a better ranking knowing that a worse ranking position for your MBA would affect its reputation and indirectly hurt your own reputation?

At the end of the day, no one knows how credible the answers of MBA alumni are. The conflict of interest in the system, however, raises doubts as to whether rankings can be taken as a complete and realistic picture of the MBA landscape. Hence, they should not be taken too seriously when choosing an MBA.

My advice on how to read and use rankings

First, check if your favorite MBA programs are ranked somewhere in the international MBA rankings. If not, it may not mean anything negative. If rankings, for instance, expect MBA programs to run a minimum of three years to become eligible for the ranking, a newer program may be the perfect program for you, but still not be in the ranking. My recommendation, however, is to use this observation (that your favorite MBA is not ranked) and address it with the business school – in a polite, friendly, and curious way expressing motivation. Contact the school representative of your target MBA at an MBA fair, for example, and say: “Your MBA is my favorite program and I am really considering applying for it. However, I noticed that it was not in the ranking and I wondered why not. Could you give me more information here, please?” I consider it interesting to see if the representative has an answer and what the answer is – do you find it convincing or does it increase your doubts about the program?

Second, if your favorite MBA is in the ranking, check the position and, even more importantly, the changes in position in the last three years. Typically, rankings publish the previous rankings for a given school. Did the position stay stable, worsen or improve over the past years? If it worsened, it may not necessarily mean that the program is bad for you. Maybe the business school only lost in one or two dimensions that may not be relevant for you, such as the research ranking of the faculty, for instance. But maybe the lower ranking positions could, in fact, turn out to be a red flag and you should stay away from that program. Again: My advice is to ask the school representatives at MBA fairs or the admission managers via email, campus visit or phone call. Do they have an answer for the fall in ranking positions? And if so, do they have a good answer that convinces you – or does their answer add to your doubts?

A final way to use rankings may be to sub-filter them. The Financial Times MBA ranking, for example, allows you to re-build the ranking yourself along specific dimensions such as the “salary percentage increase” or “environmental, social, and governance rank”. Maybe the ranking position of your favorite MBA is only medium in the global ranking but top in your most important dimension? 

At the end of the day, it is a personal decision on how much emphasis you place on rankings when you decide for or against an MBA. And of course, constantly achieving top-10 or top-20 positions in a ranking over many years is respectable. The key question, however, cannot be answered by rankings: Does an MBA match your specific career goals and resources?

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