For their part, the surveyors say they work diligently to take the schools' concerns into account. They have streamlined survey requirements, tightened criteria definition, and even added categories to make the results more reliable. "We have to keep up with the times," says U.S. News spokesman Richard Folkers, "and when the schools have a question, we try our best to address it."

Throughout this entire discussion, the schools - and to a lesser extent, the surveys - assume that prospective students hang on every number. And some evidence indicates that's true. The number of applicants at Wharton almost doubled between 1993 and 1999, after four number-one rankings in the BusinessWeek survey. At Tuck, inquiries increased by two-thirds in the year after its Wall Street Journal first. And the BusinessWeek b-school chat rooms - where applicants and students trade school info - generate half the traffic on the magazine's Web site. Some schools actually station admissions staff there to keep tabs on the gossip.

But talk to students and a different scenario emerges. The rankings play a role, but may not be as crucial as the schools fear.

"I used them when I started looking for business schools, but they were really just a starting point," says Jenni Winslow, who starts her second year at Haas this fall. "I did want to go to a school in the top 20, but I also had a lot of other criteria."

In fact, graduate business students account for a host of other considerations. As a general rule, they're in their mid-to-late 20s, which means family and career influence their decisions. Winslow, who lived in the Bay area, was accepted at Kellogg in suburban Chicago, which ranks at or near the top almost across the board. She chose Haas - which made the top 10 in only one of the four major polls. Why? She didn't want to uproot her husband, who would have had to transfer or find a new job in Chicago.