How Recruiters Rank Business Schools

True greatness is measured in consistency. By that benchmark, it would be hard to top the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Long regaled as the top business research program, Wharton has crafted a sweeping experience, one unified by a devotion to curiosity and a bias for action. In the process, the school has become a darling of employers: the arbiters of whether MBA graduates possess the analytical brawn, creative spirit, and relentless stamina to meet their pressure-packed demands

Each year, top recruiters complete U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey, which ranks business schools on a simple 1 (Marginal) to 5 (Outstanding) scale. Here, Wharton is a model for consistency. For the past decade, Wharton has achieved either the top or second-best average conferred by employers. Even more, Wharton has been the only program, besides Harvard Business School, to average a 4.5  or better during that same period.

This trend continued to play out in U.S. News’ March rankings, where Wharton tied Harvard and Chicago Booth as the highest-rated MBA programs by recruiters. Boasting 4.5 scores, these schools edged out MIT Sloan, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, and Stanford Graduate School of Business, which averaged a 4.4.


Among U.S. News’ 50 highest-ranked MBA programs, 28 programs earned lower marks with recruiters than 2017, with another 15 schools holding onto the same average. In other words, just 14% of the full-time MBA program scores improved over the previous year. Among Top 10 programs, four programs fell by 0.1 of a point, including such Top 5 stalwarts as Harvard, Stanford, MIT Sloan, and Northwestern Kellogg. In fact, not one top ten program improved its score over the previous year, perhaps a signal that recruiters are expecting leading programs to up their game.

The news wasn’t as grim at the University of North Carolina, which has been surging over the past two years. Kenan-Flagler’s score rose by 0.2 of a point, best among Top 20 programs (where Michigan Ross and UCLA Anderson gained 0.1 of a point). Such stories were few-and-far between, however. The University of Washington Foster, Ohio State Fisher, and Georgia Tech Scheller each dropped by 0.2 of a point in recruiters’ estimation. Such numbers would’ve been a relief for Minnesota Carlson and Illinois, which plunged by 0.4 of a point. Then again, those numbers were only half the score loss experienced by Alabama (-0.9) and Georgia (-0.8). The one bright spot? Try CUNY Zicklin, which soared by 0.7 of a point, putting it in the company of the aforementioned Foster and Carlson.

Looking at the Top 20 programs, the lowest average was a 3.7. While higher rankings generally correlate with higher recruiter scores, there are exceptions — and this year’s ranking was no different. As always, there is the University of Texas-Dallas, whose 4.3 average places it in the same company as Yale and Berkeley. The University of Buffalo continued its tradition of punching above its weight. Ranked 73rd overall, Buffalo averaged a 4.0 this year, the same average as perennial Top 20 schools like NYU Stern, Virginia Darden, UCLA Anderson, and Cornell Johnson. With an average score of 3.7, William & Mary and Fordham are operating at the same level as Emory Goizueta — among this sample of recruiters at least.

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – Ethan Baron photo


What sets the favorites apart? For recruiters, brand name goes only as far, as performance ultimately dictates prestige. Wharton is a case in point. In 2016 Wharton grads pulled down the highest starting pay and sign-on bonus packages at $155,058, according to U.S. News. The program carries serious credibility with the recruiting community thanks to a track record in rigorous vetting, academic rigor, cultural support, and intensive recruiter outreach. The latter is the domain of Michelle Hopping, Wharton’s director of MBA career management. In an interview with Poets&Quants, Hopping notes that employers cite Wharton’s combination of “substance and style” as key factors in their hiring decisions.

What do those terms exactly mean? With substance, says Hopping, employers use terms like “analytical rigor” and “strategic ability” to describe Wharton grads. At the same time, employers also laud the school’s students for their softer skills (aka style). Beyond the usual tropes about “teamwork” and the ability to “lead and inspire a team,” employers also specify intangibles such as being skilled in “persuading people who don’t report to [them,” and using “influence and the interpersonal skills to really move things forward even in large and complex organizations.”  During post-internship and post-hire debriefs, employers have also pointed out that Wharton students have a tendency to “raise their hand.” Translation: They are often the ones who take on responsibilities beyond the scope of their job descriptions.

Beyond this hybrid of hard and soft skills, employers have also labeled Wharton graduates as “well-rounded,” says Hopping. This innate ability to easily transfer skills between roles and industries, coupled with a dogged determination, is particularly valuable to Wharton career switchers. For example, Hopping recalls one student making the jump from private equity to data and analytics. Aside from “hustling” to ease his transition, he also focused on becoming more versatile so he could hit the ground running early on.

“He took on a leadership role in the Wharton Data & Analytics Club, registered for MOOCs on coding languages, and leveraged course electives from Wharton and Penn such as regression analysis for business, modern data mining and predictive analytics,” Hopping recalls. “As a result, he landed at a major tech company for the summer in a data scientist role.”

Michelle Hopping


Wharton’s educational product may be stellar, but Wharton doesn’t rank as a top marketing program for nothing. For Hopping, marketing is another way for Wharton to stand out with recruiters. Hopping has adopted a service model, a philosophy centered around “partnership,” with the school taking a custom-tailored approach to each potential employer. In particular, Hopping is constantly looking for ways to listen and give back…often without asking for something in return.

This is illustrated by Wharton’s approach to startups, an area that has risen to prominence during her tenure. For starters, her career team is increasingly timing conversations with smaller companies outside the academic cycle to better adapt to their realities. Even more, Wharton is reaching out to companies that may lack the budget or hiring volume to make a trip out to Philadelphia (or even its San Francisco campus). Along with holding nearby events, Wharton has grown increasingly resourceful in targeting such companies by including them on student treks and on-site visits. “We leverage those other structures to bring companies into the fold who otherwise wouldn’t be on campus,” Hopping says.

Considering Wharton’s dedication to data, it is natural that the career management team would gravitate towards analyzing data to help employers hone their pitch. Along with collecting the standard survey data, Hopping’s team takes the extra step of providing qualitative information such as focus group observations and anecdotal feedback from students. For Hopping, this is another value add designed to deepen partnerships with employers. “We want them to experience the best that they can from recruiting at Wharton, so this idea of transparency and giving data and collecting and playing that back gives us a unique advantage. They definitely tell us that they love that.”

Make no mistake: the Wharton name — and what it represents — doesn’t hurt either. “One of the themes we hear a lot is that getting into Wharton is the first screen for companies,” Hopping adds. “They trust the system of admissions and the core coursework and electives, knowing that having the Wharton degree sets you up for success right off the bat. Based on the track record and the alumni in the company, they already know that to be a true foundation for what they want in their company.”


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