When I was first tapped as a peer mentor in college, I was cautioned not to give any advice lightly. Whatever you say may be well intended but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so it is important to think very carefully about the person and the situation you are dealing with and not just come out with a few “standard” comments.
In recent years I have come to realise that much advice given by senior people is either reminiscent of the path they have taken or about enviable greener pastures they wish they had found. Worse still is to receive “off the shelf” advice which bears little direct relevance to the problem at hand. Good advice, like a business suit, is always bespoke, tailored to the recipient.
However, year after year, at least one type of “mass market” opinion is eagerly sought by students and not given the careful consideration it needs. I am alluding to university rankings, the ultimate form of arbitrary, one size fits all advice.
Rankings used to matter to me - a lot. Back in secondary school, I remember pondering over theTimes Good University Guide late at night. I did receive a life-transforming tertiary education, but as I later found out, a good educational experience and rankings have little in common. There may be a correlation, but most of the time it is a mere coincidence. No matter how multi-dimensional and objective a ranking system strives to be, it has to rely on a set of criteria established by “strangers”. While studying in England, l enjoyed my time to the full, but some of my classmates bitterly resented what they saw as overly expensive tuition fees, lack of programme flexibility - as compared to an US education – and the weather. Further, there is much more to a university education and one's later career development than measures like academic excellence, average post-graduation salaries, and costs. Intangibles, such as extra-curricular activities, friendships made and the alumni network can hardly be quantified, yet they often define one’s experience in taking a degree or MBA.
Warren Buffett’s story at Wharton/U Penn is very telling. The “sage of Omaha” left arguably the best undergraduate business school in the US for the little known University of Nebraska because of home-sickness. By the same token, Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, dropped out of the London School of Economics because he could not stomach the hustle and bustle of London. We may not all have the blessing of a second chance, but picking a university or a programme merely on its reputation - and not taking due account of all the other factors - is a hazardous undertaking.
Make no mistake: I agree there is some validity in the rankings. Nevertheless, there is only one thing that should matter – what you will get out of it. An MBA, in particular, is a serious investment of time and money, so instead of conveniently outsourcing your research to ranking agencies, do your homework. Visit the school. Talk to as many current students as you can. Reach out to alumni and gauge their opinion of the programme and the school. If possible, sit in on classes and see for yourself what the classroom experience is like. Find out which mode of study would suit you best. Check the career path of graduates, and see whether the school lives up to its promises.
Doing all this is never a waste of time. The effort will be worthwhile if you end up finding the course which is right for you in most respects and avoid the “wrong” one which might just happen to be ranked higher.
Originally posted on Education Post on 16 January, 2014