When Do MBA Rankings Matter?

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Ranking high

Graham Richmond has worked in MBA admissions for 25 years. Early in his career, Graham joined the admissions team at Wharton, where he vetted thousands of applications. Graham then founded Clear Admit, a leading MBA applicant community site known for innovative tools like LiveWire. An expert in MBA admissions, Graham is frequently called upon by major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times to discuss trends in the field. Graham holds a BA from Swarthmore College and an MBA from the Wharton School.

When do rankings matter in building an application strategy for MBA admission?

Rankings can be a useful tool at two key stages in the admissions process. The first is when a candidate is just beginning their research phase. Looking at rankings can provide information about the general perceptions of programmes and their level of admissions difficulty. The second use for rankings occurs later in the process, when a candidate might be weighing offers from multiple institutions and using rankings to understand the relative strengths of one programme over another. In all cases, it’s important to use multiple rankings when conducting your research so as to be sure that there is consistency. If a school is consistently appearing in the top 20 across 3 or 4 major rankings, it’s probably safe to say that’s where they belong.

Which ranking(s) to choose and how to interpret them? What is it that rankings don’t tell us?

The rankings that Clear Admit recommends are U.S. News & World Report, the Financial Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes. U.S. News has built a reputation as the definitive ranking of American MBA programmes. The FT offers more of a global ranking, mixing in programmes from all markets. BusinessWeek holds the claim of being the first-ever MBA ranking and Forbes features an ROI-driven methodology that can provide insights. Using all four of these rankings in aggregate helps to surface trends and should help prospective students to better understand the reputation and track record of each programme. Of course, rankings don’t tell us much about a student’s “fit” with a programme – teaching methods, class size, setting, and so forth. This is why it’s important to remember that rankings are just one part of the process of conducting research.

Should we consider just the latest ranking or review them over the last several years?

It’s a great idea to not only look at multiple rankings, but to watch out for trends over time. If your target schools are consistently well-ranked across several rankings and multiple years, then you can more confidently draw conclusions about the calibre of the programmes.

What are the potential problems with today’s MBA rankings?

As we dig into admissions outcomes data at Clear Admit, we find increasing evidence to support the grouping of schools into tiers rather than in a more traditional, ordinal ranking. The rationale for the tiered system is that for schools that are very similar in terms of quality, it makes sense to group them together, rather than to try to rank them. Candidates can then make better choices in terms of the right schools to target by determining which tier best fits their competitiveness and then examining the schools within that tier in terms of cultural fit, geography and career opportunities.

A great example of this would be programmes like Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan and Columbia Business School. These are all consistently ranked in the top-10 by ordinal rankings, and yet their exact ordering is seemingly in a constant state of flux. In a tiered-ranking system, we suggest that these programmes are equally good and, for different candidates, on the basis of their preferences, one may well be preferred over the other three.

How high should candidates aim among ranked schools to have realistic chances of admission?

At Clear Admit, we believe that it makes sense to apply to MBA programmes across a range of admissions difficulty. A sound strategy usually results in some acceptance letters – but also a rejection or two! If you run the table with your applications and gain admission everywhere, but didn’t apply to some of the very best schools, you will always be left wondering whether you aimed high enough.

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