Sam Chase, who's starting his second year at SMU's Cox School of Business in Dallas, had similar concerns. In addition, he wanted a school with a strong focus on the private equity and hedge fund industries, and he wanted a school in an urban center. So SMU - which was ninth in the Journal when he applied but barely visible elsewhere - seemed like a good fit. "To me, picking a school was about contacts and networking as much as anything else," Chase says. "And if I want to live in the South, a Southern school makes sense."

Equally telling are admissions figures from the University of Chicago, which has been as high as second and as low as 10th in the last four BusinessWeek rankings. According to admissions experts, Chicago's yield - the percentage of students who accept offers to attend - should change along with the ranking. But the school's yield has hovered around 60 percent since 1998. The only significant deviation came in 2002, when 67 percent of those offered a slot in the program accepted it. That's the reverse of what should have happened, given that applicants had seen the school drop from third in 1998 to 10th in 2000.

All this ties into a study The Financial Times performed a couple of years ago. The newspaper asked executive MBA students what influenced their school decision. Almost 60 percent cited brand image and reputation, while only 3 percent referred to the rankings. Della Bradshaw, who oversees FT's rankings, says that difference was quite surprising.

And then again, maybe not. "We've always said that students should use the rankings as only part of the process," says BusinessWeek's Merritt. "It should be a tool, and not the decision maker."

Which may be a lesson that the schools can learn from their students.