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Do MBA Rankings Really Matter?

How much weight should you give business school rankings in deciding where to go for your MBA?

Like most things in life, there is no simple answer. Surveys show that the number one factor in choosing a business school is reputation and image. There is no single more influential measurement of reputation and image than a ranking.

Still, it’s important to remember that there are no perfect measurement systems to determine the best schools. The methodology behind every ranking—whether BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, or The Economist–has inherent flaws built into them. So you need to know what a ranking is actually measuring and whether those measured attributes even matter to you. (See our detailed examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the key MBA rankings.)

You also should know that many of the media brands that rank business schools have tweaked their methodologies over the years, making year-to-year comparisons even on the same ranking tricky business.

Under no circumstances should you choose a school solely on the basis of its ranking in any of these surveys. It is merely one factor among many to weigh. Far more important than a school’s rank is its culture and how that environment matches up with your personality, your study habits, and your ultimate professional goals.

If you’re interested in a smaller, more intimate setting to study for your MBA but still have the advantage of a supportive alumni network, you would choose Dartmouth’s Tuck School or Stanford over Harvard or Wharton. If you’re keenly interested in going to Wall Street, you might favor Columbia or Wharton, arguably the best business schools in finance. If you want a school based on the first-year compensation it will likely get you, then Harvard or Stanford is where you want to go.

Of course, very few people can get into these elite schools. And that’s where rankings become far more valuable because their primary benefit applies to schools that are not universally among the top 10 or 20 institutions. Why? Because that’s where there generally is less information available to make the best decision. Long before there were rankings, for example, there were at least 50 schools that contended they were among the top 25, and 100 schools that claimed they were in the top 50. Rankings, however imperfect, have helped to put more accountability into what business schools claim.

Even so, rankings perpetuate elitist thinking. The prestige and value of an MBA experience shouldn’t only go to the brand name schools that end up on these lists. There are hundreds of other business schools that can offer you a first-rate education and an invaluable experience. A business school, whether it’s in the top 50 schools or not, is a marketplace of ideas. It is filled with smart people who want more out of their lives and are willing to invest their time, their intellect and their money to get it.

So while an MBA from a brand name school high in the rankings does have more cache, will open more doors and impress far more people, the actual educational experience may only be slightly better than what you could get from a program that fails to make a list of the top 50. As Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told us recently, “Just because it’s Kleenex doesn’t mean it’s the best place to blow your nose.” Just because it’s Harvard doesn’t mean it’s the best place to get your MBA.