HBS Launches Student-Wide Survey on MBA Rankings

Raseem Farook, Contributor

Raseem Farook (MBA ’21) talks to the marketing and admissions teams at HBS to understand their perspective on business-school rankings.

MBA rankings have become increasingly important to business-school applicants over the last few years, as they help them compare different MBA programs. Finishing on top of these rankings sends a strong signal to the applicant pool, and therefore, these lists have become strong marketing tools for business schools around the world.

However, do students rely purely on rankings to make their decisions? If so, there are more than 14 different ranking lists. Are all of them important? Or are there a select few that matter to applicants more than others? In an effort to find answers to these questions, HBS this week released a survey to the entire student body to better understand how current students here made their decision regarding business school.

“Participating in these rankings takes a lot of time and effort,” says Mark Cautela, Director of Communications at HBS. “We used to participate in over 10 different rankings. But a few years back we made the decision to reduce our participation to just five, and we haven’t noticed a drop in interest.” This prompted the marketing and admissions teams at HBS to investigate whether rankings mattered to incoming students and whether it was worth the effort to participate in them.

“A coordinated effort among 15 staff members is what is required to participate in one of those rankings,” says Brian Kenny, Chief Marketing Officer at HBS. Kenny is also concerned that “by reaching out to our alumni to participate in these rankings, we are using an opportunity to interact with them, which in turn causes us to delay other important messaging.” But the most interesting takeaway from my conversation with Kenny was his opinion about business-school rankings in general.

He believes that rankings might be helpful as a way to develop a short list, but beyond that the search must get more personal. “Each student’s motivation and reason to attend business school will be unique,” he commented. “Some come to pursue entrepreneurial paths, while others may come to switch careers. And it is not possible to create one list that captures the requirements of all these different individuals. So, rankings should just be one data point in the decision-making process and not the sole criterion.”

HBS has also provided some feedback to the media houses publishing these rankings on the methodology they use. Currently, the rankings use salary and total compensation as a measure to judge the success of the program. “By doing so,” said Kenny, “the current methodology does not value students entering the world of arts, nonprofits, and social enterprise.”

When I asked whether those pursuits should be valued more than other traditional ones by the publishing houses, he had an interesting response. “It is not that they should be valued more than other career choices. It is just that today, these pursuits are certainly being valued less by the rankings agencies as their algorithm judges success by looking at salary data.”

This brings us to an interesting dilemma. How should schools resolve the conflict that arises between placing well in the rankings and building the best class? Do they have to be mutually exclusive?

To understand how the School deals with this conflict, I spoke to Chad Losee (MBA ’13), Managing Director, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at HBS. “We are not solving for rankings as we make our admissions decisions,” Losee says. “Our goal is to admit a class of talented, curious leaders with different perspectives on how to solve important problems in business and society.”

He further explains, “Those commonalities—and the differences—are what power the case method, our learning model, and our HBS community. Ultimately, we are using our best judgment to admit a class of leaders who will make a difference in the world. We have already made a bet on your readers!” 

When asked how HBS has managed to develop an immunity to the results of the MBA rankings and keep its yield rate consistently high, Losee says, “Many of our admissions outreach efforts aim to help prospective students get to know HBS on a much deeper level—and to imagine themselves here. For example, I just held admissions information sessions in four cities in Africa, and in each one we had inspirational local alumni come and share their experience at HBS and thereafter. In an event like that, or in the digital outreach we do, prospective students learn a lot more about HBS than they can from a ranking. As a result, our yield has stayed pretty stable over time, thanks to the countless efforts of students and alumni chatting with newly admitted students about the experience they can have at HBS.”

From this, one can infer that HBS’s strategy has been to focus on helping prospective students see the school on a more personal level, rather than emphasizing the rankings. By enabling prospective students to imagine themselves being here, HBS has succeeded in continuing to attract a highly talented applicant pool.

Link to Survey: https://hbs.me/MBArankingssurvey

Note from Admissions: We could not build a great HBS class each year without the help and support of current students and alumni. Prospective students want to hear your authentic experiences at HBS as they decide where to apply and attend. Please drop us a note at admissions@hbs.edu if you would like to get involved with HBS admissions.

Raseem Farook (MBA ’21) is a current MBA student at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, he was working in Columbus, Indiana, in the industrial manufacturing space, where he helped to launch two new products in the automotive industry. Originally from Chennai, India, he cannot tolerate cold weather and can be seen wearing sweaters in August.