HOW TO PICK A BUSINESS SCHOOL Don't be misled by rankings in a magazine. Do figure out why you want an MBA. And above all, check out the place in person.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – On the wall of the ladies' room of a bar in upstate New York, a plaintive graffito recites a loser's litany for our times: ''No BMW, no condo, no MBA.'' As an antidote to hopelessness, the car or the apartment may be less expensive. But you, being a high-standards sort of person, want self- improvement along with status. Then as your first step, you must select a business school from among the more than 600 institutions offering the master's degree. How not to go about this: Get a list of top schools such as the one that appeared in Business Week (November 28, 1988) or the rather different ranking from U.S. News & World Report (November 2, 1987). Apply to Nos. 1 through 10 -- you want only the best, after all. If you are lucky enough to get in anywhere -- and you will have to be beaucoup lucky because if you are going to fill out ten of these grueling applications, you probably won't do an adequate job on any one -- go there. Should lightning strike and you are accepted at two or more institutions, pick the highest-ranked, of course. ''Straw man,'' you may respond. ''Nobody would really choose a business school that mechanically.'' Don't be too certain. Just ask the management of a school that suddenly makes it onto a list of the top ten. Mike Collins, director of media relations at the University of North Carolina's business school, reports, for example, that applications increased from about 1,200 to around 2,200 in the year after UNC came in eighth on the Business Week ranking, ahead of Stanford. ''A favorable rating sure helps,'' Collins concludes. ''This may be because many kids say, 'I'm going to apply to the top ten schools.' It doesn't really matter what those ten are.'' Dumb de dumb dumb. Aside from the fact that rankings tell nothing about how a particular school will suit you, what if they happen to be wrong? Consider Business Week's selection of the 20 best schools. It was a shocker to institutions that unexpectedly found themselves not among the top ten, which distinguished if dejected company included the business schools of the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, MIT, and the University of California at Berkeley. It would be pushing the limits of understatement to say that faculty members of many of the left-outs question the methodology of the Business Week survey. Their characterizations of it range from a relatively mild ''pointless at best and grossly misleading at worst'' to ''bogus'' and an ''analytic horror.'' Most earlier rankings, including the one by U.S. News, relied on business school deans or faculty members to rate the different institutions. (But then, what does the dean at Arkansas State know about the program at Rutgers?) Business Week instead picked 23 schools and polled two groups: their recent graduates and companies that recruit at a minimum of one-third of the schools. Mailing questionnaires to 3,000 1988 graduates, it got back 1,245, a response rate of 42% -- decent, but not great. The magazine then appraised the answers to 20 of the 35 questions. (What happened to the other 15?) Apparently without weighting the questions according to their relative importance to the respondent, Business Week arrived at an overall graduates' rating for each institution. Given the small sample sizes -- 54 respondents per school, on average -- and the high margin for error that implies, the critics argue that the relatively small differences in ratings among schools really aren't significant. Business Week's survey of 265 companies also produced a 42% response rate. The recruiters were asked to rank their five favorites. Not surprisingly, the five largest schools placed among the recruiters' top six -- more cannon fodder available there. The graduates' rankings differed markedly from the recruiters': For example, UNC came in second with the former, 19th with the latter. Nevertheless, Business Week smooshed the two together to concoct its final rankings, using what it termed a ''standard statistical technique.'' That left academic critics scratching their heads. Says Paul J. Lavrakas, director of Northwestern University's Survey Laboratory, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, and an expert on the media's use of polls: ''This survey is not likely to be what social scientists call externally valid.'' Layman's translation: It doesn't necessarily prove what it purports to prove. Business Week didn't respond to FORTUNE's invitation to discuss its methodology, but then, does Macy's talk to Nordstrom's? IF RANKINGS can be such a crock, what then is the poor pilgrim in search of a good business school to do? You should conduct a thoroughgoing analysis, looking at yourself, at different institutions, and at the match between the two. As a benchmark, the experts advise, use just as much effort as you put into picking a college. Begin by asking yourself why you want the degree. Kathleen Gwynn was MBA admissions director at Stanford before founding a firm, MBA Strategies of Minneapolis, that helps people pick and apply to business schools. In her view, candidates typically have one of four motives: ''They either go to get their ticket punched'' -- gimme that credential -- ''or to get an education, or to change career direction, or to make lots of contacts.'' Different motives call for different schools. If you are airheaded enough to merely want an adornment for your resume -- and apparently a goodly number of folks in their early 20s are -- you should obviously shoot for a big name. If you are older and looking to change careers, you want to avoid a part-time program in which you study at night and work at your old job by day. Gwynn says that prospective employers will take you seriously only if you make a clean break and enroll in a full-time program. A bonus tip from her: Try to find a school that offers abundant opportunities for summer jobs between your first and second years. That bit of real-world experience in a new field may be just the fillip you need to convince recruiters that you mean to change direction. Stephen Christakos, who has served as admissions director of the University of Virginia's Darden School, Wharton, and now Northwestern's Kellogg School, cites another example of matching school to motive: ''There was a candidate who was a bookkeeper for a school for wayward girls in Minneapolis. She was a nun in her 50s who found herself in a job where her bookkeeping skills weren't enough. She was virtually chief financial officer. Did she need to go to a school with a national reputation?'' Clearly not. She ended up at a local school that could provide the additional expertise she really needed, and at a fraction of the cost. Okay, more self-examination. Do you already have a professional goal? If you aim to become a worldclass accountant, then MIT's Sloan School probably isn't for you, but Michigan or Ohio State may well be. What's your undergraduate background? If your major was folklore with a minor in shamanistic psychology, your ultimate prospects for corporate employment could benefit from a school that is, as they say, more quantitatively oriented -- Carnegie Mellon, perhaps, or Chicago. DON'T NEGLECT MATTERS of personal psychology or style. How do you feel about crunching numbers? If the prospect terrifies you, you probably won't be comfortable, or do well, at Wharton. Do you work best in small groups -- if so, try Kellogg or Dartmouth's Tuck School -- or are you a bit of a loner? That would suggest Sloan, but before you steal off there, think about whether you shouldn't be trying to improve your group skills. If you have a significant other you hope to keep around through B-school, ask some further questions. Is there an active, organized spouse group at the institution you're leaning toward? Will Himself have a better chance of finding a job in Durham while you go to Duke's Fuqua School, or in Atlanta if you choose Emory instead? To get the answers, you will need lots of dope on the the competing institutions. For starters, pore over the mountain of slick literature they send you, with an eye particularly to some of the harder data it should contain: number of students enrolled, range of GMAT scores, average starting salary of graduates, companies that recruit there, faculty and its background, and whether the institution is accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. Read the accompanying stuff, including paeans to the ''distinctive East Humpstead School experience,'' as critically as you would any sales literature. To go beyond the official agitprop, consult alumni of the schools you're considering, especially alumni with whom you have something in common -- you went to the same college, or worked for the same company. Consult employers. Many big companies -- Merck, Philip Morris, and PepsiCo, for example -- have surprisingly short lists of schools from which they recruit MBAs. If there's a particular company you think you may want to work for, why not call its recruiters and, between impassioned declarations of your high opinion of their corporation's wonderfulness, ask their advice. And consult guidebooks, including Business Week's new tome, which, once you get past the rankings, provides lots of helpful info on 40 of the arguably better schools. ONCE YOU HAVE narrowed your choice to three or four, take the trouble to visit them. Says John Rosenblum, dean of the Darden School: ''If you don't care enough to visit the place, you don't care enough to come here.'' Once on campus, talk to students, again emphasizing those similar to you in background or interests. How thrilling is the teaching? The placement office? The food? Talk to the faculty. What are their research interests? How do they think the school compares with others? What you are ultimately seeking is an answer to the question Robert L. Virgil, dean of Washington University's Olin School, suggests for every seeker of the right institution: ''What do my guts tell me?'' Give your guts enough information to digest, and they will be able to tell you better than anybody else what is, for you, the best business school.