Maybe it appeals to a fundamental human desire for order; maybe it’s just a useful way of aggregating data, but rankings tables are one of the major tools that MBA applicants use when making their application decisions.
Yet rankings experts themselves have expressed reservations over how far applicants should rely on rankings when choosing their schools.
Laurent Ortmans, who works compiling the Global MBA Rankings at The Financial Times (FT), warns that rankings are better-used as a guide, and should never be the sole basis of application choices.
Even high-ranking schools have an ambivalent relationship with the MBA rankings. Yossi Feinberg, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford Graduate School of Business (number one in the world on the FT’s list) admits that Stanford participate in the data collection process for rankings out of a respect for transparency, but they don’t think the process is without its limitations.
“We feel it is impossible to boil down a two-year transformational MBA experience into one ordinal number,” he says.
Andrea Masini, associate dean and head of the MBA program at HEC Paris, cautions candidates to remember that rankings are not the final word on the quality of a business school.
“Rankings reflect different aspects of a program, and when looking at a program they all have different methodologies,” he says.
“[Applicants] have to look at the features of the program that are the most important for them, and they have to look at the rankings that would reflect those features more appropriately—there is not a one-size-fits-all type of ranking.”
So, which ranking is the most relevant to me? The answer to this question is unique to every applicant. Answering it usually involves combing through the methodology pages on each rankings website to find out how reflective they are of your individual priorities.
By looking at MBA rankings systems by QS, The Economist, and The Financial Times, BusinessBecause has broken down how best to use the rankings when it comes to your MBA application:
1. QS Global MBA Rankings
QS’s MBA rankings are published every September. QS’s 2018 list included a total of 232 business schools, but QS analyzed over 250—far more than The Economist and The Financial Times, both of which analyze around 150 schools each.
To qualify, QS requires that business schools’ MBA programs are taught mainly on-campus—either full time or with a full-time option—and have at least 10 students on the course.
QS data is compiled using three surveys: an employer survey to businesses (which garnered over 40,000 responses in 2018), an academic survey, and finally a business school survey, which covers quantitative data about the staff and student bodies.
There are a number of unique aspects to the QS rankings. For one, QS does not include alumni feedback in its rankings data at all.
“We’re trying to look at more objective measures,” explains head of business school analytics at QS, Alex Chisholm. “The actual outcomes that students are getting in terms of employment rates or salary increases [etc.]”
Indeed, QS’s massive employer surveys make up the majority of data for their most heavily-weighted factor: employability.
“We actively solicit feedback on employers’ hiring intentions for business school graduates,” Alex says, “and their perceptions and awareness of specific schools around the world.”
QS has also responded directly to MBA students’ increasing interest in entrepreneurship by focusing 5% of its ranking on entrepreneurial endeavors.
This is an area which Gareth Howells, executive director of MBA, Master’s in Finance, and early career programs at London Business School (LBS), notes is frequently left out of other lists.
“While rankings will measure some aspects of careers, there tends to be more of an emphasis on how much you earn after business school,” Gareth says. “For us at LBS, we think that career impact is the most important thing, and we don’t think that how much you earn is the only measure of that.
“If a student wants to set up their own business, that might be precisely the thing that is most important to them, but it may not be that they’re earning lots of money straightaway. Sometimes rankings can miss the broader [picture] of career impact and career enjoyment.”
2. The Economist—Which MBA?
Published each October, The Economist ranks accredited schools with MBA programs comprising at least 25 students.
The Economist collects its data using two surveys, one of quantitative data from schools themselves, which makes up 80% of the ranking weight, and one a qualitative survey carried out by students.
The Economist is distinguished from the Financial Times and QS by being the most qualitative of the three, placing a relatively high priority on students’ feedback. The Economist’s weightings themselves are reportedly determined by the priorities students place on each factor when applying to business school.
On the one hand, this means that The Economist is a good place to go if your concern is student satisfaction. However, as Alex at QS points out, rankings which place a high priority on alumni feedback leave themselves open to student bias.
“I’m a business school graduate myself and I know very well that as an alumnus I’m very tied to my school,” he explains.
In addition to the influence of graduate loyalty, alumni know that rankings will affect their schools’ reputations, and therefore the continuing value of their MBA. Responding positively to a rankings survey is one way that grads might, intentionally or unintentionally, attempt to safeguard their investment.
3. The Financial Times
The Financial Times’ (FT) Global MBA Ranking is published each January, and features EQUIS- or AACSB-accredited schools whose MBA programs are at least four years old.
Alumni responses account for 59% of the Financial Times’ ranking weight. Despite the heavy reliance on alumni feedback, The Financial Times collects mainly quantitative data from grads.
Overall, the Financial Times’ priorities largely seem to be monetary: the salary increase post-MBA and the value for money of programs are two of the most important components.
One strong advantage of the Financial Times ranking is the ease with which prospective MBAs can sift through their data to pick out what’s most important to them.
The FT provides the option to reorganize the rankings table according to different aspects of the data, such as return on investment or the international diversity of the program. This can help applicants to pick out the information that is most important to them.
How should I use the MBA rankings when applying to business school?
Experts direct students to consider their own priorities before looking at rankings tables.
“I would start with getting to know the schools first,” recommends Gareth at LBS. “Go to the websites, but then find ways to engage with the schools.
“London Business School would be very happy to connect a candidate with our current students and alumni, [and] we’ll happily place them in one of our classes for a class visit—try and find as many ways as possible to engage with each institution.”
Alex also advises candidates to use rankings as a shortlisting tool once they’ve identified their own individual priorities.
“Candidates should turn to rankings in the directional sense,” he says. “A famous statistician once said that all models are wrong, but some are useful. All we’re trying to do is put together as much information as possible to go with this list of options for candidates.
“Candidates should make decisions based on what matters to them, as opposed to what a specific ranking says.”