Best Business Schools: Why a Focus on Rankings Maybe Misleading

It is in human nature to want the best of all options, including those that others consider out of reach. Such desire, as shown by history, is a fertile ground for creative imagination. While others stop there, allowing the perception of those they respect strongly shape what they consider best and feasible, successful minds – the geniuses – take it a step further. Acknowledging other people’s views, they redefine the concept of what is best by focusing on the intrinsic quality of such option and how its synthesis with their unique needs creates a third entity. How you approach and define the best business schools is no different.

While there is some level of consensus in the MBA world about which schools fall into the “Best Business Schools” pool, the most successful people are those who force these definitions into new boundaries, taking into consideration the intrinsic value of an MBA, their own unique needs, and ultimate life’s goal.

And this is why you must put the rankings – the source of best business schools – into perspective. But before we explain why a focus on ranking may be misleading, let’s acknowledge the popular consensus on what schools constitute the 20 best business schools around the world.

The 20 Best Business Schools Around the world

It’s really difficult to reach a consensus on the top 20 business schools in the world as different ranking methodologies measure different things. That said, over the last 10 years, these schools have constantly remained top 20 in most recognized ranking systems. To adjust for the constant fluctuation and minute point difference accrued to each school within the same range, we have selected 25 schools that have ranked the top 20 the most in the last 10 years.

1. Stanford Graduate School of Business, USA
2. Harvard Business School, USA
3. INSEAD, France/Singapore
4. University of Pennsylvania: Wharton, US
5. CEIBS, China
6. London Business School, UK
7. University of Chicago: Booth, USA
8. MIT: Sloan, USA
9. Columbia Business School, USA
10. University of California at Berkeley: Haas, USA
11. Yale School of Management, UK
12. IESE Business School, Spain
13. University of Oxford: Saïd, UK
14. Northwestern University: Kellogg, US
15. Dartmouth College: Tuck, US
16. University of Cambridge: Judge, UK
17. National University of Singapore Business School, Singapore
18. HKUST Business School, China
19. HEC Paris, France
20. Duke University: Fuqua, US
21. Esade Business School, Spain
22. IMD Business School, Switzerland
23. University of Virginia: Darden, US
24. Indian School of Business, India
25. New York University: Stern

Popular Business Schools Ranking Systems

Having presented 20 best business schools in the world, it is important to also know what ranking systems are considered reliable. The following constitute the best ranking systems available for business schools. They have been in existence for a while, highly respected by the business school community globally, and crunch data extensively.

1. Bloomberg Businessweek
2. US News & World Report
3. The Financial Times
4. The Economist
5. Forbes

You can find all these rankings and the rest in the ZSR Library. I find it useful to be able to pull the information I need from different ranking systems in one place.

The Intrinsic Flaws in any ranking system

By its very nature, any ranking system is flawed. More often than not, the flaw lies in how the data crunched is interpreted. No ranking system can genuinely be optimized for all pointers for the following reasons:

1. Author’s motive: In case you haven’t noticed, best business schools rankings are created by the media. And depending on who you ask, the media are motivated by different reasons. That said, in a capitalist world, viewership and general consensus, even if it may be different from what the data presents, strongly influences how these rankings are conducted yearly. Perhaps, this is the one reason why many continue to use a methodology that skews data in favour of some schools over the others. Who would listen to a ranking that puts Harvard at number 10, even if the data crunched says so?

2. How different factors are weighted: This is perhaps, the fundamental reason why any ranking system is flawed: it is optimized for factors that may be irrelevant to you. Take for instance the financial times ranking is one ranking system that weights post-MBA salary significantly higher. If you are a student who cares more about entrepreneurship or working in the social sector, using the FT ranking will most definitely mislead you, if you pay no close attention to the data behind a school’s position.

3. The law of averages: Here is the paradox with rankings: for any ranking to be useful to everyone, it has to be less useful to an individual. A ranking optimized for your needs alone cannot be used by anyone and is therefore not a ranking. Do you see my point? When you examine a ranking that says the average salary for X business school is $210,000, is that to say, if you attend the school, you will earn that figure? Nope! Such a figure is the average. You could still attend and earn half of that and someone else who attended a school ranked 30 could end up earning about $200,000. Perhaps, modal salary data points should be included in rankings for a better representation.

4. How data is collated: Who, when, and how you ask people for data creates an inherent bias that tilts their response in one direction. This is the headache every statistician has: how best do I ask for this data such that any response I get is not influenced by how and when I ask? I once reached out to a business school asking why they had dropped significantly in a ranking system. I was told that …This flaw is further exacerbated by the closeness of the final points awarded to each school, in some cases, coming down to a difference of only 0.5%

Poets & Quants Composite Best Business Schools Ranking

The Poets & Quants composite ranking system tries to minimize the flaws in the above listed ranking system by taking into consideration the difference in methodology and accounting for them. This ranking system is created by Poets &Quants Founder and Editor, John A. Bryne. John created the first regularly published MBA rankings at Businesweek 30 years ago.
“Instead of merely reporting on the outcomes of each ranking and averaging the five, each ranking is separately weighted to account for our views of the soundness of the methodology and credibility of the list. (US News is given a weight of 35%, Forbes, 25%, while both the Financial Times and Businessweek is given a 15% weight and the Economist, 10%)”.

Multiple ways to look at it

The above list is not the only way to look at business school ranking. In identifying the best business schools, one could rank schools regionally, nationally, or globally. Another way to look at it is to rank schools based on either its undergraduate or graduate business degrees or both. You could also rank schools based on the strength of specific concentrations/track and industry performance. And you could equally rank it based on its acceptance rate.

The point here is there are different ways to look at it and depending on your unique needs, any one of these should work fine for you, provided you look at the data and not the position. Positions truly mean little without a clear understanding of the data.

Your Unique Needs

Your unique needs refers to life’s backgrounds and the gaps in it that you need to address; your strength/value proposition, and your understanding of where it would be effectively deployed; your post-MBA goal, both short and long term; your financial reality and what constitute success for you. Because these things are never about “one size fits all”, a shallow examination of ranking systems is misleading.

This is not to say that best business schoolls rankings are useless. No, the point being made here is that you must look beyond the positions and examine the raw data behind it. Take for instance an international students whose post-MBA goal involves returning back to his/her home country, it may be advisable to consider the universality of a business school brand over other things. Such an individual’s ranking should be different from another candidate who is looking to leverage his/her MBA experience to migrate. In order to account for your unique needs and post-MBA goal, it is important that you create your own ranking list. Involve a mentor or an MBA admission adviser if you can. This will allow you remain objective and grounded in reality.

Creating your own Best Business Schools Ranking System

By now, you should understand that the most valuable part of a ranking system that is not created (interpreted by you) is the data behind it. You will do well to identify what factors considered when applying to business school are important to you, crunch them from different ranking systems, weight it accordingly and create your own ranking system. You don’t have to do it for 100 schools. Selected a few schools from different categories, split them into reach, match and safe schools, rank them with each bucket, select the ones you are applying to. It is not about what is best for everyone, it is about what is best for you.

This article was contributed by a valued member of the FIRMSconsulting community and FC Ambassador.


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Cheers, Kris

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