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What do MBA rankings have in common with David & Goliath?

(This post was originally published on my website on October 14, 2013 and has been updated.)

MBA rankings season is in full force. Then again, when is it not rankings season? With more and more media rankings to keep up with, the season seems to extendall year long.

In the span of just one week, there was not one –but two major MBA rankings released.

On October 15, The Economist published its 2015 global ranking of the best full-time MBA programs.

Yesterday, Bloomberg Businessweek announced the best business schools for 2015, which ranked full-time MBA programs in the U.S., international full-time MBA programs, and part-time MBA programs.

For MBA programs that have moved up in the rankings, or have been ranked for the very first time, it’s like the sun has come out. For others, whether it’s a drop in position or they have yet to be represented, it may seem — well, a bit cloudier.
While we know that media rankings do not tell the entire story of a business school’s strengths and value proposition, the fact of the matter is that many prospective MBA students all over the world make decisions, in part, on these rankings.

I remember when a prospective full-time MBA student came into my office for an interview clutching the Financial Times ranking and asking me point-blank why a close competitor was higher up in the survey.

The challenge is that no matter where your MBA program lands in media rankings, there will always be other business schools with more desirable positions. Even if your MBA program is ranked in first place, there are so many different media rankings and such volatility (often due to changes in rankings methodologies) that there’s bound to be at least one other business school, at one time or another, in a “stronger” position.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

As an observer of MBA rankings from a strategic marketing perspective, I often consider them in view of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants. 

In this book, The New Yorker columnist and author of such bestsellers as The Tipping Point and Outliers demonstrates the advantages of disadvantages.

Through the example of David and Goliath, he explores the relationship between “underdogs” and “giants”.

It’s a fascinating read overall, but I was particularly interested in chapter three since it is focused on higher education. Here, Gladwell maps an inspiring story about the Impressionists against the competitive college selection process.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can.  But rarely do we stop and consider – as the Impressionists did – whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest.” 

Gladwell argues through a couple of undergraduate case studies that the most important factor in the college selection process is what is in the student’s best interest.

Otherwise, he claims, students can get sidetracked from their original career goals because they compare themselves to their peers in the classroom and get discouraged when they feel they don’t measure up. He states that as humans we compare ourselves not globally, but to people in the same situation.

“How you feel about your abilities – your academic ‘self-concept’ –  in the context of your classroom shapes your willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks. It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence.

In other words, it’s all about fit.

Regardless of where your MBA program is ranked, be sure to create opportunities that enable prospective students to explore if your program is a good match for their academic and professional backgrounds as well as needs and goals.

One of the best ways to determine fit is to get more prospective students to visit your campus and experience the program for themselves. Use experiences such as class visits to help them determine if it is a good match and to overcome perceptions.

Think of out-of-the box ideas to capture attention and interest.  In fact, I received this lead nurturing email from Rotterdam School of Management today.

And if prospective students can’t make it to campus?  Find innovative solutions to bring the experience to them. Here’s one idea. Develop student personas based on career interests and establish a digital library video clips of classes so you can send the ones relevant to their goals. For example, if a full-time MBA student is interested in a career change from marketing to finance, send short video clips of finance classes.

Finally, remember that perceived needs may be highly influenced when media rankings are fresh in their minds. It’s known as the Recency Bias. Keep your marketing focused on the bigger picture of how your program fulfills their needs or present the data in a new way.

For example, take advantage of the halo effect by highlighting faculty who attended more highly-ranked schools. Yes, competitors may be positioned higher in the new rankings, but you may have faculty who are alumni from those institutions. Strike while the iron’s hot!

Another thought…help candidates feel more comfortable and envision a fit by connecting them with faculty, students, and alumni who graduated from their alma maters.

Whether you are pouring champagne or something stronger as the result of media rankings published this past week, consider the rankings from a prospective student’s point of view. There is so much information and so many data points. It can be overwhelming. What can your business school do to be helpful so more prospective MBA students can make a decision based on their best interests?

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