Stay on top of the latest

Advice, tips and insights from the
admissions dream team.

Table of Contents

MBA Rankings: How to Use Them Effectively

Spring is here, the next cycle of MBA Admissions is gearing up, and that means it’s also MBA and business school rankings season again. 

US News & World Report just released its annual MBA ranking for 2024, reshuffling its list of the best business schools. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Stanford GSB, previously ranked No. 3 and No. 6, are on top once again, tied at No. 1. They knocked the University of Chicago Booth School of Business out of the top spot and into a tie at No. 3 with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Harvard Business School drops a spot to sixth.

The Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business broke into the top 10, up from No. 11 and No. 14 respectively. Three other contenders — Columbia Business School, Duke University Fuqua, and University of Michigan Ross School of Business — slipped out of the top 10 again and fell into a three-way tie for 12th place.

This 2024 ranking comes just weeks behind The Financial Times’ Global MBA rankings, where Wharton, which fell out of the 2023 rankings, rocketed back into first place, Harvard Business School fell to 11th place, and Stanford GSB dropped all the way to a head-scratching 23rd. 

MBA program rankings garner high interest, clicks, and views, so they seem to be attracting some new players Many publications and organizations — including some business schools themselves, such as Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business — have jumped into this high-profile and potentially lucrative game, trying to quantify the quality of MBA programs based on type, platform, return on investment, and more. Even LinkedIn chimed in with a ranking based on potential for career growth, but with a methodology that Poets&Quants called shrewd but botched

The appeal of MBA rankings is understandable. You are investing many thousands of dollars in your career trajectory. You’re deciding where and how you will spend the next two years, immersing yourself in a life-changing journey of professional and personal growth. And you’re choosing a network of friends and colleagues, some of whom may be with you for life. It’s nice to have some quantitative and qualitative data to guide that big investment. 

But, given the sheer volume of rankings, the large swings in how schools place from year to year, and the multiple ties among closely clustered schools, how can you make sense of MBA rankings? How helpful are they in choosing your target schools — and making sure you know you’re getting your money’s worth? 

Here at Fortuna, we’ve been watching the MBA ranking game for a long time, and we have some advice on how to use rankings and the data beneath them effectively. 

Read the Fine Print

Wild swings in where schools place might raise doubts about their validity – whether it’s Wharton dropping out of the FT list last year entirely, University of Pittsburgh climbing 39 places from 86th last year to 45th in US News this year, or Brandeis University’s 27-spot drop to 107th place. Universities and business schools are large, complex, well-established institutions that aren’t going to change that dramatically in a year or two. What could possibly have changed to explain those results? 

One reason behind the dramatic swings in schools’ placements from year to year is that the publications and organizations behind the graduate school and MBA rankings are often tinkering with the inputs and relative weights from year to year, and that can lead to very different outputs. That’s why it’s crucial to read the fine print behind the numbers, to make sure you understand the methodology and data behind them. 

For example, this year US News refined how they factored in graduate salaries, weighting them by profession to control for common salary differences across industries. This makes things more equitable for schools that are not sending most of their graduates into highly compensated finance or tech jobs. This change, combined with reduced emphasis on starting salary at graduation, may have helped boost the Haas School four places into a tie for seventh place with Yale School of Management and New York University’s Stern School of Business. By this new measure, Haas ranked fifth, even though its average salary and bonus was the lowest of any top ten MBA program at $188,343.

At a glance, the FT’s salary data looks like it’s cited in dollars and Euros. Look closer and you’ll see they have adjusted the figures to reflect spending power. That’s a reasonable adjustment that can be helpful – or it can be misleading if you’re not aware.

To be fair, annual methodology changes reflect a continual effort to improve the value of ranked results. But changes in methodology also may mean that rankings are at the mercy of the business cycle. Last year, US News changed its methodology so that job placement rates accounted for a full 50% of a school’s ranking. 

That makes sense, because job placement is a factor that students really care about. However, given swings in the economy and employment markets, this factor could have a huge impact in a boom year for recruiting in the finance industry or a downturn in the tech sector. This could really affect middle-ranked schools. “Are you suffering because your school is sending people into tech careers and the tech sector is laying people off?” wonders Judith Silverman Hodara, a Fortuna co-founder and director.

Watch What They Are Ranking 

As MBA rankings multiply, they are also specializing. Some are ranking schools on specific outcomes, such as career trajectory or return on investment. It’s important to know what the rankings are measuring, what factors go into them, and what is left out. Some rankings may be based on factors that just aren’t that meaningful or relevant to you. For example, among the 21 factors blended into the Financial Times rankings are the share of faculty with PhDs and data on the composition of the institution’s board. Those may not have a big impact on your professional future.

Stanford GSB historically has notched the highest alumni satisfaction ratings and gets top honors from the FT for its alumni network and aims achieved, as well as the highest average weighted salary for its graduates. Yet in its latest MBA rankings released in February, the FT couldn’t get adequate alumni satisfaction data from Stanford GSB and zeroed out that factor. Without it, GSB ended up ranking 23rd out of the top 100 schools globally. “I think most people will decide that placement reflects badly on the ranking rather than being a true reflection on the Stanford GSB,” my Fortuna cofounder and director Caroline Diarte Edwards observes. 

In another example of paying attention to what’s missing, the Scheller College rankings rate schools based on return on investment, calculating it based on a ratio of just two data points: median graduate starting salaries and tuition. Initially, University of Florida Warrington College of Business came out on top as the school that offered the most bang for the buck. Elite M7 schools did not fare so well, because they are quite expensive, and even strong job placement and high starting salaries can’t overcome that. 

However, this measure ignores scholarships, overstating what students may actually invest. It measures ROI only in the short term and leaves out intangibles that may yield benefits over time. How can this ranking put a value on Wharton’s alumni network, or the opportunity to make contacts in New York’s finance or fashion industry if you’re at CBS or NYU Stern? 

(It’s of interest that Scheller briefly came out #1 in its own ranking — until they spotted a data issue that misstated tuition and left the University of Texas Jindal School of Management at the very bottom of the list. When the error was corrected, Jindal vaulted to the top.)

Don’t Rely on a Single Ranking

The proliferation of MBA rankings can pay off for you. Because rankings all tend to emphasize different factors measured in different ways, you benefit from looking at more than one ranking. Look at enough, and you’ll see some trends emerge, with schools clustering in the top 20, the middle 50, and so on. If you look at past years, you’ll start to notice if a school popped up to excel one year and then faded back to the middle of the pack. 

You can find rankings that rate schools based on their strength in areas that interest you. For instance, the Princeton Review ranks graduate programs in entrepreneurship; so does Poets&Quants, albeit with a more global focus. Other rankings may rate schools based on their ESG focus or on their commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

Also, look beyond the single rank number to the data that the rankers have conveniently collected for you. That’s the true value of rankings. “The premise of a ranking —the view that there is a single order in the world of business schools that we should all agree with — is false,” says Diarte Edwards. “There is no one-size-fits-all school. Everybody has a different view about what is important in the quality of a business school. It very much depends, for a candidate, on what they are looking to get out of the experience.

“What’s useful about MBA rankings is that they aggregate useful data about schools, and it’s worth digging into that on the dimensions that matter to you.” 

Often, there’s only a sliver of difference between schools numerically. “People reading the MBA rankings need to keep in mind that these are great schools; it doesn’t really matter if the school is # 1 or #10, to be honest. It’s a fantastic cohort to be part of,” says Diarte Edwards. Given the wild swings in where schools end up, “I think what matters for these schools are not the headlines; it’s about the more longer-term trends. When you’re looking at rankings, see what schools have been consistent performers.”

Take Rankings with a Grain of Salt

Rankings are hard to ignore, and they can provide some useful frame of reference if you’re new to the business school landscape or just starting your research. However, it should be just a single data point in your school research.

No ranking can adequately sum up the full MBA experience into a single number. Rankings can’t quantify many facets that matter: where you’ll live, who you will learn from and study with, what experiences will be available, how the school’s culture and community feel to you, and so much more. 

“A top ranking means little if the school is not a good fit for you and your goals,” says Patty Keegan, a Fortuna director and former associate dean at Chicago Booth. “You’re making a significant investment in your future and spending an intensive two years of your life in school, so the culture and environment matter. The fit of the school should never be overlooked, despite all the ranking noise,” Keegan stresses.

Fortuna cofounder and director Judith Silverman Hodara agrees. While the rankings change their weights to prioritize some inputs, what you value as an individual matters more. “The salary you make when you leave might not be as important as who is in your LinkedIn network in the future,” she says. “Does it matter whether it’s 1 or 6 or 10? What matters is if you feel at home. There are so many other things you should be taking into consideration on a personal level that have nothing to do with rankings.”

So, take the rankings with a grain of salt and use them carefully. Being the best business school according to US News, the FT or Bloomberg Businessweek can be very different from being the best business school for you.

Share this article on social media

Sign up now for a free 30-minute discovery session to get personalized feedback on your profile and learn how Fortuna can help you secure admission to your dream school!

Free Consultation