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How to Use MBA Rankings: Notre Dame Offers Some Advice

It's an exciting time to be shopping for MBA schools. You could choose from several Andrew Sama of Mendoza College of Businessdifferent types of MBA programs -- part-time, full-time, executive, online, accelerated -- and dozens of specialties exist within each type: marketing, finance, non-profit, IT security and sustainability, just to name a few. An overwhelming variety of rankings are posted for different programs, schools and specializations, and these ratings may not even be consistent.

Consider the top three positions in some of Google's highly searched MBA rankings for 2012 and 2013. The Financial Times ranked Stanford's business school as second in the world, and U.S. News & World Report agrees. Forbes, however, feels the school is only worthy of third place, while Business Insider respectfully suggests that Stanford is worthy of the top spot. As for Bloomberg Businessweek, Stanford doesn't even grace the top three positions, and the university is entirely locked out of The Economist's top five positions -- and almost locked out of the top ten.

Rating the rankings

Some may find it difficult to establish an apples-to-apples comparison between rankings, as various rating systems rely on different methodologies. Rankings change from year to year, of course, and not all lists are updated yearly. For example, the 2013 lists from Business Insider and Forbes focus on non-academic aspects of MBA programs.

What is a student to make of this information overload? According to Notre Dame's Andrew Sama, not much. "From a student's perspective, I think you have to look at [MBA rankings] as filtering tools," Sama said. "It's all in how you use them, just like any tool."

Sama is the senior associate director of MBA admissions for the University of Notre Dame, where he has worked for the past five years. Sama suggested MBA rankings can be useful for students sifting through the wealth of information presented to them and looking for their ideal program types.

"I think if you use the rankings as a filtering tool to help you discern what programs do well in ways that [you] might be interested in, that is going to help you," Sama said. "I've seen [the MBA] help folks that have had 10 plus years of work experience, I've seen it help people like myself who have had no business background, and I've seen it help people who were coming off of Wall Street."

Students should be wary of using the ranking as the sole deciding factor. "I think where students get into trouble is when they use it as a selection mechanism," Sama clarified, with this line of thinking: "okay, I've been admitted to these schools, I'm going to go to this one because it's ranked 16th and I'm not going to go to this one because it's ranked 20th."

Ranking schools with your own criteria

Sama said MBA programs may work best when they are paired with a student's interests. "I think you have to know what you are going to use [an MBA] for," he elaborated. "This is the reason every school asks you to write a career development essay. It is not a contract, but it is a logic test. They are trying to see if you have some sense of who you are as an applicant, what you bring to the table, and what the school can realistically provide."

For instance, if a student feels brand value is important in an MBA school, that student might go for schools in the top three rankings -- such as Stanford, if The Economist is excluded -- while students who want to grow their network of contacts may prefer a school lower down the list, a school with smaller class sizes or a school with higher admissions criteria. The same can be said for students looking for specific program options like sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or ethics, such as those offered by Notre Dame.

"We have over 100 different classes where we spend at least one day within that course talking about some topic related to CSR, or sustainability, or ethics, that is germane to that subject," Sama said. "When those topics come up naturally, in a core class, and it is right there next to terms like "ROI" and "brand equity" and "brand awareness," the conversation is just different."

In the end, "what ranked MBA program should I attend?" might rank lower than questions such as "why do I want an MBA?" and "what am I going to do with it when I graduate?"

Interview with Andrew Sama of the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, conducted by Jamar Ramos, May 22, 2013 - MBAPrograms.org
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