Reputation and Rankings Trump All in B-School Selection

Applicants who responded to a survey overwhelmingly say they consider rankings “extremely important.”

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I must confess; I'm a sucker for surveys. Whether it's from a favorite website, magazine, or even my cable provider, I can usually be counted on to share my opinions, because I believe consumer feedback is one of the best tools companies have to improve their products and services. As an M.B.A. admissions consultant, I like to get feedback from my clients from time to time, so my company can better tailor its services to help them achieve their educational and professional goals. With that in mind, Stacy Blackman Consulting surveyed 652 business school applicants in February 2012 to find out what matters most to today's applicants and why.

When you consider the hefty price tag that accompanies an M.B.A. degree from a top-tier business school, it comes as little surprise that prospective applicants consider ranking and reputation the two most influential factors when deciding which programs to target. There's a level of credibility automatically conferred to certain schools, and by extension, to their graduates, and many applicants rightly believe they will benefit considerably by attending an M.B.A. program with an outstanding pedigree. This is especially true as the public bruising some schools took during the financial crisis becomes more of a distant memory.

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While reputation is a legitimate consideration in the selection process, placing a heavy emphasis on rankings can actually become a distraction for some applicants. Two thirds of respondents to my survey said that a school's rankings are "extremely important," while another one third categorized rankings as "somewhat important" and less than 1 percent of those polled said rankings are "not at all important" to them. I'm always surprised by the extreme interest in rankings, which are, after all, rather fleeting. You may have your sights set on the "No. 1" school, but a decade from now, that same stellar program might have slipped to number 10.

Take my alma mater, Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, as an example. Forbes magazine ranked Kellogg 7th in 2011; the 2012 Financial Times Global M.B.A. Rankings puts Kellogg at 16th; and U.S. News ranks Kellogg somewhere within the top 10 in its upcoming 2013 Best Graduate Schools rankings, out March 13.

Each publication uses somewhat different methodology in its ranking process. For instance, one might place greater emphasis on return on investment, job placement rate, or alumni satisfaction levels. While rankings should inform your decision of where to apply, I think applicants would do well to focus more on a program's culture, size, or the strength of its alumni network. Fewer than 12 percent of survey respondents considered culture a top priority, and a mere handful noted that program content was the most important factor influencing the decision to attend a particular business school. I find these results troubling, because it means people aren't paying enough attention to the program that's truly a good fit for them.

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Although some schools, including Kellogg, plan to refocus their energies on the one-year M.B.A. program going forward, 89 percent of those surveyed said they are considering a two year, full-time M.B.A. program. And while applicants traditionally have applied to an average of three schools, that trend has shifted, with 21 percent of respondents applying to five business schools, 14 percent applying to six, and 8.3 percent applying to eight or more.

Most of my clients apply to one to four schools each, so I wonder whether applicants might think they'll apply to more programs until it dawns on them just how much work is involved in drafting a customized application for each school. In the end, aiming to submit about four to six applications is a good strategy, because you really want to diversify and not get hung up on one or two schools.

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The survey also drove home one important point, and it's one I think the schools should take note of: When asked which standardized test applicants did or would submit, a whopping 97 percent indicated that the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is still the exam of choice for b-school admissions. Despite the buzz over the number of M.B.A. programs now accepting the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), applicants seem to have trouble believing the schools really do accept it without a negative bias.

This is a message that M.B.A. programs need to better communicate with prospective students if they hope to diversify their applicant pool by accepting the GRE as an alternative in the admissions process