Do the Rankings Matter? Who Compiles the Rankings and Why? Ranking the Rankers.
You have probably encountered this abbreviation on the Web. It stands for "Harvard, Stanford, Wharton." While there are approximately 15 elite MBA programs in the U.S., these three rise above the crowd and are universally acknowledged as "super-elite" schools.
I have always preached that the difference between an elite program (one of the top 15) and a super-elite is in the recruiting. The very best firms recruit at the super-elite schools. And anyone fortunate enough to graduate from one of these programs can expect rock star treatment throughout his or her career.
The problem with the HSW orthodoxy, however, is that recruiting by the most elite firms is just as good at one other top school—Kellogg. In my opinion, that makes Kellogg the fourth super-elite.
Do the rankings really matter?
In a way yes and in a way no. The rankings themselves aren't terribly important. The top spots are occupied by the same programs year after year with very little variation. What matters is that you know the difference between a top-tier program, a second-tier program and an also-ran. The rankings help applicants draw those distinctions.
Why Do It?
Why do magazines rank business schools?
To make money. Lots and lots of dirty money! Most MBA applicants believe there is a rigorous scientific methodology behind the rankings and that eminent academics oversee the process. Actually, the data is usually compiled and "interpreted" by an editor and a couple of summer interns. That's all it takes to sell magazines.
3 + 1 Super-Elites
Hands down the best brand name in business schools. Opens doors at every top firm.
Best MBA program on the planet. Noteworthy school feature: golf course on campus!
Ranking the Rankers
BusinessWeek: Probably the most influential of the ranking surveys. No reason for that. They just do a better job of getting their message out.
U.S. News & World Report: Also a good review of the programs. If I remember correctly, U.S. News was the first to rank colleges.
Financial Times:  Very Eurocentric, and like most things about Europe, confusing to Americans. Read it if you're bored or European.
Wall Street Journal:  Shockingly bad. Compiled for recruiters, not MBAs. Mother Jones would be more relevant. Ignore this one.
MBA Ranking Links
The notorious BusinessWeek MBA poll. (Also known as the day I lost faith in magazines.)
I can't even remember the year it happened, but there came a time when BusinessWeek ranked Stanford number 11 in it's annual poll, behind Cornell, Michigan and Duke, among others. As a dedicated GSB fan, I took umbrage at that insult and, while in my pajamas and sick with the flu, wrote a response that, although a bit dated, still resonates. I'll include a link to it below so you can see that you don't always need to take the rankings seriously.