How NOT to use the rankings
Don’t give them too much importance. Don’t replace research and self-reflection with school ranking to determine where you apply or attend. Using them mindlessly could contribute to an expensive, time-consuming mistake.
Blinding yourself to the rankings’ flaws leads to poor decisions. Consider this partial list of limitations:
- They don’t measure exactly what’s important to you.
- Overall rankings hide strengths (and weaknesses) in particular areas. Gem programs thrive outside “the top ten” or “top twenty.” Graduate students accomplish their goals and gain acceptance or have a better chance of obtaining financial aid when they recognize those gems.
- Averages are exactly that. Average. They aren’t a cut-off and don’t reflect extenuating circumstances or the interplay between myriad factors in an admissions decision. Applicants are accepted with below average stats and are rejected with above average stats.
- Surveys, especially surveys of students and alumni (BusinessWeek, Financial Times, The Economist) can be gamed. Students and alumni know that higher rankings increase the value of their degrees and have an incentive to think kindly of their schools.
- Survey respondents are not always well informed. They don’t necessarily know about recent developments and new programs at the schools they are ranking. They are opining based on what they experienced years ago or “heard.”
- For those rankings that survey recruiters (BusinessWeek), realize that recruiters may value factors that you couldn’t care less about (Good service for recruiters, excellent MBAs willing to work for low pay, comfortable interview rooms).
- The raw rankings don’t reveal the degree of difference between the different schools. While there could be a real difference in international or even national opportunity in a program ranked 25th as opposed to 5th. There is probably little difference in overall opportunity for a program ranked 8th as opposed to 13th.
- ROI measures may reflect geographic differences or differences in starting salaries in particular industries more than educational quality.
Rankings are surveys spiced with data and frequently mirror commonly held beliefs about institutions. Reputation and brand can play a role in your application and acceptance decisions. They should never be the primary reason you apply or accept an offer of admission. After you research a school's strengths and weaknesses, educational approach, culture, admitted student profiles, and educational and professional opportunities, then you can consider brand.
So as you choose where to apply, mine the “rankings” that are not really rankings. Use the data to launch and supplement your qualitative and in-depth research about the schools. You will unearth the gems just right for you.