The Rankings Game

by on October 2nd, 2009

Rankings. They’re everywhere. Whether you’re applying to law school, business, school, college, or even high school, chances are there’s someone out there who’s come up with a rankings system. Their sheer ubiquity means that rankings are the one aspect nearly every applicant consults when making application decisions—and business school applicants are no different.

The most popular are the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which can be most readily found online. U.S. News has been raking schools since 1987, and is considered by many to be the gold standard. Business Week also has a set of business school rankings, as does the Economist Intelligence Unit (a division of The Economist). It seems that, at one point or another, everyone has gotten into the rankings game.

These numbers certainly have their use, particularly at the start of the selection process when applicants need solid indicators to help them narrow down their choices. However, it is useful to know a few things regarding rankings and their usage:

Rankings are in no way a definitive indicator of school quality.

Although the schools in the “top 20” of the U.S. News rankings are certainly good schools with great reputations, this does not mean that schools ranked below 20 are deficient or in any way less worthy of consideration. Rankings do not take into account the specific and unique attributes of the MBA programs they rank, nor do they take into account how these unique qualities may fit for a particular MBA applicant. MBA.com puts it best: “Rankings tell you that certain schools are ‘best’ [but] do not take into account ‘best fit.’”

In addition, rankings don’t really rank specialties within a school, just the overall “perception” of the specialties (which doesn’t really boil down to the same thing). The U.S. News explanation of specialty rankings? “These rankings…are based solely on ratings by business schools deans and directors of accredited master’s programs from the list of schools surveyed.” In other words, it’s a peer evaluation, which can be incredibly subjective, and has no real basis in measurable indicators of quality of instruction or future career worth. This lack of objective analysis can be particularly detrimental to students looking to go into a particular field of business.

The U.S. News rankings, while the most popular, are not the only rankings out there.

There are various other “methods” out there, including the rankings put out by Business Week, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Financial Times, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal. Many people and companies have gotten into the business school ranking game, which means that there a number of rankings out there for your use. Use as many of them as you can in order to get as broad a picture of each school’s “rank” as possible.

Rankings are a business.

Taking rankings to heart when making school decisions can be a risky move. It is important to remember a few things: (1) Schools know that students use rankings to determine where to apply, (2) Ranking companies know that students use rankings to determine where to apply, and (3) The methodology used to rank—particularly in the case of the U.S. News rankings—is widely known. In business, the main goal is always to end up on top. This is no different with rankings. Schools can, for example, inflate their rankings by only accepting students with UGPAs and GMAT scores above a certain number. Schools know how to affect their ranking; students should be aware that these scores do not happen in a vacuum, and can be manipulated, even slightly, by the schools. Although this can certainly end up with positive results for the applicants (after all, the higher the mean UGPA and GMAT score of an incoming class is, the more engaging and stimulating it will likely be), it is worthwhile to note that rankings can be affected, sometimes significantly, by the schools themselves—and that makes them subjective in the extreme.

Rankings are not an exact science (and, as the Brooklyn Law School debacle proved, mistakes or inaccuracies can definitely happen). What U.S. News considers unimportant, or less important, might be something that the applicant considers extremely important. Take a look, for example, at the methodology used by U.S. News to rank business schools. While they count a “Peer Assessment Score” (i.e., how people in the ‘business school business’ see a particular business school) as a whopping 25% of the overall ranking, they only count employment recruiter assessment scores as 15% and employment rates at graduation at 7%. Ask yourself: Which would you consider more important—how the Dean or professors of other business schools view a school, or what recruiters (i.e., those people that will find you a job) think about a school? Most student are probably much more interested (and count more highly) in what recruiters will think of their school and whether they’ll have a job upon graduation—however, those numbers do not figure anywhere near as high as academic perception of the school in the rankings formula.

Slight minutia can have a large impact on the ranking of a school (which is why rankings can change often—and sometimes dramatically—over the course of a single year). Because the most widely-used rankings take into account “public perception” as the most significant percentage of their formula (U.S. News has the peer assessment score and the recruiter assessment score counting as almost half—40%—of  the overall ranking), this means that a shift in public perception can alter the ranking of a school significantly.

This breakdown is certainly not meant to discount the importance and usefulness of rankings. However, it is meant as a cautionary tale—be careful of taking rankings at face value, and take them with a grain of salt. If you will use them, use them carefully, sparingly, and at the start of your search—and certainly don’t use them as the deciding factor in your decisions. Make sure to:

1. Use multiple sources.

As mentioned above, there are a number of different rankings available to the public. U.S. News, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Financial Times, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal are at your disposal. Use them all, and combine the knowledge of all of them into a comprehensive picture of the schools you are interested in.

2. Use public perception to your benefit.

Before choosing a business school, consider where you want to work post-graduation, and then investigate which schools those companies consider best. Tailoring your education and approach to fit in with that of your desired future employer’s makes much more sense than going by impersonal rankings.

3. Use your knowledge of the schools.

Don’t make decisions solely based on numbers. Choose schools based on what you know they can offer you above and beyond those numbers. A school’s rank doesn’t necessarily indicate its fit with your goals, ambitions, and aspirations. While taking rankings into consideration as a part of your school selection process is not discouraged, choosing a school simply because of the rankings pedigree it will bring is not the best approach.

4. Use your location.

Oftentimes, if you plan on working in a particular city, choosing a school in that vicinity makes sense, not just financially (in-state tuition can save you thousands of dollars), but also because companies historically employ a higher percentage of graduates of local schools. To use a popular law school example, consider the following: although law firms in Boston certainly have their share of Harvard Law graduates, they also have a many, many Boston College and Boston University law graduates—and both of those programs are ranked lower than Harvard’s. Rankings aren’t everything, and location can trump the rankings card. Particularly for MBAs, knowledge of the lay of the land is important, and the local advantage can go far.

Rankings definitely have their place in the admissions and application process—just be wary of turning them into the lynchpin of your decisions.

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