How Should You Use MBA Rankings?

We take a look at the best ways to use MBA rankings when working out your perfect business school match

Rankings sometimes get a bad rep. As a number of  business schools have argued, the statistics used to determine rankings can’t possibly tell the entire story of a program and its offerings. But rankings can be very useful to applicants, especially in the early stages of the application process. The key is knowing how to properly assess and use the findings.


“The data in rankings is valuable,” says Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted in Los Angeles, California. “They are convenient places to compare programs and do basic research about different schools. The data collection is their biggest value, not the ranking number per se.”

At the beginning of the application process, many have no idea where to start. After all, there are numerous graduate business schools with different specializations and services. What admissions consultants find is that new applicants can use the rankings to narrow down the list of places to which they’d like to apply.

“You can use the rankings to get a lay of the land and get a feel for things, such as how difficult it is to get into a school, plus basic statistics, such as class size, starting salary for graduates, etc.,” says Scott Shrum, president and COO of Veritas Prep in Malibu, California.

The first step is deciding which rankings to consult. This requires determining your priorities. What are the top three characteristics you need in a school? Then, compare your needs with what is covered in each ranking. For example, the QS Global MBA Rankings 2018 gives greater weight to employability than other factors. And each ranking has its own methodology and purpose, says Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting in Los Angeles, California.

“Make sure that you actually care about a particular rankings’ criteria before you decide that its No. 1 is your No. 1,” adds Blackman.

Certainly, applicants should have a long-term vision for their success and how a particular business school factors into that plan. “You will be disappointed as the rankings shift but the name on your resume is imprinted forever,” warns Blackman.

What really matters, above all else, is fit with a school. You need to find a school that is a good match for you.

“I respect and understand wanting to go to top-tier schools. There’s more value and better ROI,” says Ryan Barba of Ryan Barba Consulting in Boston, Massachusetts. “But quality is better driven by which programs are a good fit within that list.”

For starters, you should consider the academic offerings. For example, you must know whether you will learn well with the case study method before deciding to go to Harvard Business School, says Barba.

Next, you have to consider specializations, he adds. Someone interested in social enterprise may be more inclined to choose Yale School of Management over Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, Barba says. In other words, it doesn’t really matter if the No. 1 ranked school teaches the case study method and specializes in finance if you are looking for something else entirely.

Finally, think about your lifestyle. What type of program grabs your attention? What is your ideal class? Why type of location do you prefer? Barba suggests asking yourself these questions about what he calls “soft” factors, too. Although he’s a self-described city guy, Barba chose to attend Cornell University Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management to earn his MBA, because he thought the more out-of-the-way setting would be less distracting.

In any event, business school applicants are ultimately making this move, so they can improve their careers. They want a better job and better pay. So, they must learn as much as they can about the career services of a program. Rankings can be a good starting point for this research, too.

“It’s irresponsible to tell someone, ‘Just ignore the rankings,’ when the reality is that big name firms, such as McKinsey or Google, only recruit at a small minority of MBA programs around the country,” says Shrum.

Indeed, employers who could potentially hire those applying to business schools use the rankings to decide where to recruit. The rankings offer a picture of who is coming to campus, and what services the school provides to help with career planning.

“Among many aspects, rankings serve as a proxy for three important considerations when comparing various MBA programs – selectivity, prestige, and post-MBA compensation,” says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange.

Still, admissions experts warn that obsessing over rankings or making them the cornerstone of your search is detrimental. U.S. News and World Report Best Business Schools 2018 ranks University of Southern California Marshall School of Business 24th for example. But, if you want a job in the entertainment industry, in Los Angeles, it probably should be in the top five, says Betsy Massar, founder and CEO of Master Admissions in the San Francisco Bay area in California.

“The business school experience is different for everyone and it’s very hard for a rank to represent just how good a school is for any individual student,” adds Massar. “Rankings can never fully reflect the rich complexity of the business school experience, and they are no substitute for what matters most: finding schools that best fit you.”

In fact, Massar suggests keeping perspective and digging deeper than the rankings to find your best match.


“I cannot deny rankings matter, but they really should come with a caveat similar to those belonging to vices like red velvet cupcakes or home brewed beer,” she says. “Overreliance on rankings can be dangerous for your health.” 

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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