Which MBA programs are really the best? Harvard Business School, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School? Or maybe UPenn Wharton, Columbia Business School, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College? What about Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and the MIT Sloan School of Management? Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business? The Yale School of Management? The Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley?
With respect to business school rankings, we understand the confusion many candidates feel. When people talk about the “top ten” programs, the list is invariably made up of some combination of the same 15 schools—all worth considering and generally worth applying to. Sure, they might be hard to get into, but if you do not apply at all, your chances of acceptance are zero, so go ahead and submit an application.
But then what? Do you stop your search there? Do you apply to other schools? Do only the programs that top the rankings matter?
If you are focused on a very specific set of schools, then maybe you do not need to consult any of the rankings at all. But if your goal is simply to attend any business school—not a particular one—then the rankings could simply inform your search. As you consider which programs to target, here are a few ways of thinking about your choices that might or might not align with the rankings.
What do you want to do?
If you have a clear sense of what you want to do in your post-graduate career, then start by looking for programs whose graduates actually do those things. In this case, doing your research really counts and can be very revealing. Which school do you think sends the most graduates into marketing? Northwestern Kellogg, of course, right? Actually, not only is that not the case, it is not the case by a long shot: of Kellogg’s 2022 graduating class, only 11% entered marketing. Instead, to find the true top school for marketing, you need to look north by about 150 miles (and south in the rankings) to the University of Wisconsin School of Business. Over one-third of MBA graduates coming out of Madison, WI (a lovely little city), go into marketing, and with their average starting salary totaling more than $100,000, you have to figure most of them are pretty happy.
Similar examples exist across a myriad of functions. If you want to be a product manager at Amazon, you cannot do better than the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. Hoping to become a consultant at McKinsey & Company? Look into the University of Virginia’s Darden School. Have dreams of being an entrepreneur? Babson College could be your actual number one.
What industry do you want to join?
Some MBA programs are known to be feeders into certain industries, and discovering exactly which schools can land you where can be surprising. One great example is media and entertainment. Although some notable media companies do recruit on campus (such as Disney and Viacom), no one recruiting event can land you a job in this hot field. Instead, you need to concentrate on schools that have deep, established relationships with firms in a particular industry, based on their location and a long history of connections. If media is your focus, you want to be in New York City or Los Angeles, so for business school, that means the UCLA Anderson School of Management, New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Columbia Business School should be your front-runners. But digging a little deeper reveals other strong contenders, such as Chapman University’s Argyros School of Business and Economics and the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. These schools might not be top of mind for most candidates, but their graduates find themselves at the top of the media industry.
This same reality exists for other industries. A big portion of the class from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management will accept positions in health care, many in the robust health care community in Nashville, TN, while the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston, TX, offers a straight shot to oil and gas. Thinking about a career in international business? You would have a difficult time finding a better place than Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, DC. And for a long time, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School has been a leading program in real estate, sending its graduates into roles with elite real estate firms across the country.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
A big part of business school is building connections and developing a network for yourself, so you want to make sure from the start that that network is in your desired location. If you want to live in St. Louis, MO, for the long term, then the Olin Business School at Washington University makes a lot more sense than Dartmouth Tuck, no matter what the rankings say. This factor is particularly important for international students, who will need a local network of alumni to support them throughout the rest of their careers. Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business are known for having deeply committed alumni who have created an outstanding graduate network, but if no Ross or Mendoza graduates live where you expect to be, this does not particularly matter. So, use Google to learn where different schools have alumni clubs. If you plan to be in India, Duke Fuqua might be a good option; in China, you might want to become part of the network for the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business instead.
Would you consider a one-year program?
While most European MBA programs are only one year in duration, the United States has been much slower in developing these shorter programs. However, over the past few years, some top-ranked U.S. business schools have unveiled programs that not only demand less of a time commitment but are also much more focused. Both NYU Stern and the Johnson College of Business at Cornell University have a one-year Tech MBA, perfect for those looking to join a tech industry giant. Similarly, Northwestern Kellogg has partnered with the McCormick School of Engineering to offer a one-year MBAi program that is geared toward individuals who want to become leaders in tech, with a specific focus on data analytics. Such one-year programs are not limited to just tech. For example, NYU Stern has a one-year Fashion & Luxury MBA intended to help students break into an industry that is notoriously difficult to enter.
Some other one-year MBA programs have a broader focus. Columbia Business School’s J-Term option begins in January and forgoes the summer internship, so that students graduate the following May. Similarly, Cornell Johnson has a one-year option for candidates who already have certain degrees or professional certifications or designations, such as the CPA. Although one-year programs do not allow for a summer internship, for the right candidates, one year might be long enough to achieve their desired outcome.
What are your personal preferences?
Choosing a business school is not a scientific process. Despite all the data available about each program, you can never underestimate the human element. You might simply like one school better than another for all sorts of reasons, including industry focus, cohort of students, and maybe even issues tied to quality of life. A lot of boxes have to be checked for business school to be a successful experience. Take time to identify what those “other” boxes might be for yourself. Maybe you have a partner who will come with you and needs to have a job while you are enrolled, in which case, more remote schools such as Dartmouth Tuck and Cornell Johnson might not work so well. If you need to be near a major airport, Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, GA, is a great choice. If you have a young family who would benefit from a family-friendly location, consider the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis. Love to surf? Your search for the perfect program could start and end with Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School in Malibu, CA.
So, how important should rankings ultimately be to you in your school search? Rankings are a tool, not much more than that. Although they will influence your thinking, of course, do not let them dominate it. Remember that the end goal here is not to attend the highest ranked school you can but to take the best first step in the pursuit of your aspirations. Many MBA programs can help you do that—you just have to figure out which ones. Only then can you determine whether a ranking carries real meaning for you.
If you wonder which schools you would be competitive at or have questions about your application essays, sign up for a free 30-minute consultation with an mbaMission consultant.