When the Economist published its 2021 full-time MBA ranking earlier this year, the reaction was mixed, to put it mildly.

Put under pressure by unprecedented circumstances, some of the world’s best business schools—including Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania —decided not to participate. Some analysts marvelled at the ranking and wondered if it can be taken seriously given the notable absentees.

Yet other analysts, like business education expert John A. Byrne, chose to be more constructive, pointing out that this year’s ranking actually “opened applicants’ eyes to a broader and deeper selection of schools from which to choose”. After all, the list still includes many excellent programmes that might otherwise be overlooked in a more normal year. And many of these programmes may actually be a better fit for many applicants than the absent heavy hitters.

European schools conquer top

The year was quite difficult for business schools, but it was not all bad. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, 66% of programmes saw applications rise. The Economist noted that business schools deserve praise for “adapting their business models—as their professors preach others to do.” In response to Covid-19, schools took measures like extending deadlines, adding extra application rounds, granting conditional admission, and moving application interviews fully online. Some even waived admission tests as a requirement after test centres in many regions were forced to close. Due to these difficulties, some of the institutions decided not to participate in the ranking, but the majority were in favour, the Economist said.  

The list has thrown up a lot of surprises. For example, there were only two European schools in the top 10 in 2019, the last time the ranking was released. This time, five European schools found a place in the top 10. The ranking includes 90 schools, including 35 from the US, 12 from the UK, six from France, five from Spain, and three from Germany.

IESE (Spain) topped the ranking thanks to the strong potential to network and the attractive career opportunities available to graduates. 2021 marks the fourth year that IESE’s MBA has been ranked #1 in the world by the Economist. HEC Paris (France) came in second, thanks to its good results in the salary and network potential categories. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (US) came in third this year, climbing six places.

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Diversity and networking potential

One of the benefits of rankings is that prospective applicants can group schools across different subcategories that they consider important. For instance, in terms of geographical diversity of students, the highest score was achieved by IE Business School (Spain), Hult International Business School (US), EMLYON Business School (France), EDHEC Business School (France) and ESMT Berlin (Germany). In terms of gender diversity, University of Hong Kong - HKU Business School ranked first, followed by Tilburg University (Netherlands), Lagos Business School (Nigeria), University of Edinburgh Business School (UK) and ESIC Business and Marketing School (Spain).

In terms of networking potential, another subcategory high in the list of priorities for MBA aspirants, HEC Paris ranks highest, followed by IMD (Switzerland), Schulich School of Business (Canada), Leonard N Stern School of Business (US) and Warwick Business School (UK).

How is the ranking compiled?

Data were collected during spring and summer 2020, using two surveys. The first was completed by schools with eligible programmes and covers quantitative matters such as the salary of graduates, the average GMAT scores of students and the number of registered alumni. This accounts for around 80% of the ranking. The remaining 20% comes from a qualitative survey filled out by current MBA students and a school's most recent graduating MBA class. Memory has been built into the rankings by taking a weighted average of data from 2020 (50%), 2019 (30%) and 2018 (20%) to provide a rounded picture of the school over a period of time. Learn more about how the ranking was compiled.

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Access MBA advises business school aspirants to gain an in-depth understanding of the methodology behind each ranking before deciding whether what it measures should actually impact their MBA selection and in what way.