Each year, applicants to b-school receive admission to more than one and must settle on which offer to accept. I’m always astonished to discover a few applicants who, in the late stage of their admissions process, are still focused on the rankings of schools. This is a mistake. The acceptance decision should be driven by more important considerations.

I must preface my criticisms with a disclaimer: Darden is a big beneficiary of rankings. Our school is listed variously between #8 and #15. Last month, U.S. News & World Report released its annual rankings of business schools. Darden appeared at #12, up a tick from last year. This is the third year in a row that Darden has risen in this poll. Also, USN&WR nodded to Darden as one of the best schools in the specialty of management. I pay attention to rankings because people I care about pay attention to them: applicants, students, alumni, corporate recruiters, and prospective faculty members. Our goal is for Darden to be ranked among the top ten globally, consistently over time.

The thoughtful person should bring a strong sense of irony to the reading of these polls. They tend to have deep flaws, such as the following:

**Poor data-gathering. On March 1, the Kenan-Flagler School at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, issued a public condemnation of the CNN-Fortune ranking of b-schools that had been posted on the CNN web site. Valerie Zeithaml, Associate Dean, scored the ranking for “multiple issues of poor data-gathering and analysis…minimal fact-checking…figures that are out-dated or wrong,” and confusion of Kenan-Flagler with North Carolina State.

**Unrepresentative sampling. Naïve distribution of survey forms or follow-up can introduce biases in the survey sample that make it impossible to conclude that the survey represents the attitudes of any group in particular.

**Questionnaire design. It is easy to frame questions in ways that will bias the responses.

**Arbitrary adjustments. Some respondents may not complete the survey. U.S. News & World Report simply inserts an arbitrary figure to fill the cell in the data. This was the prominent issue in an op-ed by Michele Tolela Myers, President of Sarah Lawrence College. Her college does not use SAT scores in making admissions decisions and therefore cannot report an average SAT for the entering classes. The response of USN&WR is to insert the default assumption that the school performs one standard deviation below the mean on absent factors. She charged that USN&WR makes up the numbers it can’t get.

These and other problems mean that the rankings are measured with considerable error. Such error matters a great deal and complicates the really big issue: whether the differences in ranking are really significant. My chief indictment of the various rankings is that none of them present information that would allow us to test the significance of difference in ranking from one school to the next. Is a school ranked at #15 really different from a school at #8? If the publications gave us the standard deviation associated with their ranking scores, we could test for the probability that the difference in ranking is simply due to chance rather than something more meaningful. In the absence of such data we don’t know how material are the differences in rankings.

In the context of all of these flaws, why would you pin your important acceptance decision on rankings? It is too late. Rankings are only good for helping you understand the general lay of the land among b-schools—a perspective that is useful at the start of your application process. But rankings are absolutely inappropriate for making the final choice among offers of admission.

On what should you base your final choice of acceptance? The possibilities for personal transformation should drive the choice. Three factors should be decisive:

**Fit. How well does a school match your style of learning? Many schools teach by the lecture method. In contrast, Darden teaches almost wholly by the case method. Does the culture of the school strike you as welcoming? Is it a diverse and inclusive environment? Do you see other people like you at the school? Did you like the students and teachers there—or, if you haven’t been able to visit, did you resonate with any alumni or visitors from the school you may have met? It is too easy to think that a tough-minded business person can fit in anywhere—well, think again. The culture of an organization is abstract but everyone agrees that it is hugely important. You won’t “click” with the opportunity for personal transformation unless you feel some alignment with the culture of the school. A big red flag is having no idea about the culture of the school whose offer you are considering.

**Vision. Where are you headed? How well does a school suit your vision? Do you aim for a career in a narrow functional specialty? Or do you seek a career of leadership, rising to general management and the CEO’s brass ring? Recruiters tell us that Darden prepares people very well in functional skills (like finance, marketing, and operations), but our mission is to “develop leaders in the world of practical affairs”—these are necessarily generalists, people of unusual ability to get things done in teamwork with others. Do you see a long-term future working for big firms, or do you want to run your own firm some day? Darden’s Batten Institute offers a very rich environment in which to engage the world of entrepreneurship, venture capital, and private equity—all of these perspectives are at the heart of running your own show. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. As the Proverb says, “Without a vision, the people will perish.” A big red flag is having no vision for your future. Without a vision, you might as well throw a dart to select a school. Better yet, without a vision you might as well defer your enrollment until you have figured things out.

**Passion. Does the school spark any energy in your heart? What does your spouse or partner think?—he or she has a huge stake in the decision too. Given the hard work, time, and other resources a top MBA degree experience requires, you should feel some positive drive about the school you attend. Passion-less learning is a waste. Students who are disengaged and passive learners tend not to think critically or for themselves and therefore don’t squeeze much juice out of the educational fruit. Two very big red flags are (a) feeling blasé about the choice or (b) feeling that no matter what you choose, the outcome is inevitable. You have some choice in the matter. A great MBA education is a life-changing experience; passion and gusto help make it so.

My point is this: if by the acceptance decision you are still focused on such considerations as rankings to drive your choice, you may blow it. My colleagues and I want students who choose a school and know why they are there; who fit with us and are self-confident in their choice; and who have a zest for the learning experience. You should care about this too, for the students around you will have a big influence on your satisfaction with the learning experience. Friends don’t let friends accept admission just on the basis of rankings.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 04/28/2007 10:50:53 AM