What the eff does “top 10 MBA” mean, anyway?

Here’s a painfully rigid phrase that I hear far too often:  “I’m only interested in an MBA if I can go to a top 10 program.”  But what the eff does the term “top 10 MBA program” mean, anyway?

For most of you, a certain set of schools immediately leaps to mind whenever you hear the words “top 10 MBA program.”  You’re all thinking of Wharton and Harvard and Stanford, right?  But if I asked each of you to write down the names of the other seven schools on your “top 10” MBA list, you’d all write slightly different lists.  And some of you would be very rigid in your refusal to apply to MBA programs outside of the “top 10,” despite the fact that there’s no real consensus on what the term “top 10” means.

Sometimes we forget that the MBA ranking systems are all somewhat arbitrary, and they inevitably come to different conclusions about MBA programs.  You might notice that Kellogg is ranked #4 according to US News and World Report, but #13 in The Economist.  Yale ranges from #10 in US News and World Report to #21 in Businessweek.  And Darden is #3 according to The Economist, but only #17 on the Financial Times list.

So, yeah:  what, exactly, do you mean when you say that you only want to go to a “top 10” MBA program?  Kellogg doesn’t count if you look at The Economist, but Darden does.  Columbia isn’t in the top 10 according to Businessweek, but Michigan, Cornell, and Duke are.  Was that what you meant when you started thinking about “top 10” schools?

I’ve often argued that MBA rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt, but if you insist on basing your MBA application decisions on rankings, please take a look at the 2012 composite MBA rankings compiled by the always-amazing John Byrne at Poets and Quants.  These rankings accumulate data from all five major rankings systems (Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Businessweek, and US News and World Report), and the results offer some interesting food for thought.

Unsurprisingly, 15 different MBA programs appear in the top 10 of at least one ranking system; only five schools appear in the top 10 of every ranking system.  In other words, there are only five MBA programs that are “consensus” top 10 schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, and Booth.  But we can argue about 10 other MBA programs, each of which appears in the top 10 of at least one major MBA ranking:  Columbia, Stern, Yale, Kellogg, Cornell, Duke, Haas, Darden, Ross, and Tuck.

Here’s my point:  sometimes, MBA applicants take the rankings way too seriously, even though the rankings are incredibly inconsistent.  If five respected rankings systems come up with substantially different results, then why would it make sense for you be rigid with your definitions of “top” schools?

If you’re really serious about maximizing your career prospects, I would encourage you to discard your obsession with the rankings, and take a good, hard look at a variety of MBA programs.  (Interestingly, the official GMAT blog has been nagging readers to do the same thing for the past few years; click here or here or here or here for examples.)  Be open-minded as you do your research, and try not to base your decisions on rumors of “prestige.”

Visit as many campuses as you possibly can.  Talk to strangers who have the job you want post-MBA, and ask them if there’s really that much of a disadvantage if you attend the “15th-ranked” MBA program… whatever that means.  You might be surprised by their answers.

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