How MBAs Are Graded At Top Schools

by John A. Byrne on

photo_students_3Do grades really matter in business school?

Most MBA students concede they matter very little, particularly when compared to one’s undergraduate grade point average which is an important data point for admissions officials at graduate business schools. But once in an elite MBA program, students tend to give short shrift to whether they get an A or a B or anyone of the unusual grading systems common in the prestige schools.

There are several reasons why undergraduate transcripts tend to be more important  At the graduate level, many high achieving students want the freedom to take courses they otherwise would not try, if grades assumed greater importance. Plus, a core part of the MBA experience is a student’s engagement with clubs and organizations and the social life that leads to networking that can be valuable throughout one’s career. Getting straight As for most MBA students seems far less important than flexing one’s leadership muscles in a key on-campus organization or engaging with fellow classmates who may be able to help you once you’re an alum. 

EMPLOYERS MORE INTERESTED IN SOFT SKILLS AND CULTURE FIT

Grades also are less critical in the next step of one’s career: landing a job. “Your GPA carries less importance to employers at the MBA level than one’s undergraduate grades,” says Anjani Jain, senior associate dean of SOM’s MBA program. “Employers of MBAs are often looking for a number of attributes, and they are keen to look for soft skills like leadership and an ability to communicate. They’re most focused on well-rounded people who fit with the culture of the firm.”

Jain was on the faculty committee at SOM that recently completed the first review of grading policies at the school in 15 years, and the school announced today (Feb. 27) a significant change. Yale’s current grading system has four categories: Distinction, Proficient, Pass, and Fail.  The main element of the new system approved by the faculty is the introduction of a new grade category between “Distinction” and “Proficient.” Tentatively called “Honors,” the new category would allow faculty greater opportunity to recognize high-achieving students.

The school said that the top category of “Distinction,” which may be renamed “High Honors,” will be awarded to 10% of each class, while the new category will be used for the next 25%.  Yale’s SOM faculty also voted to set the proportion of the two lowest categories to be uniformly 10% for core courses and a target of 5% for electives. “We noticed that our grading system was a lot less fine grained than we would prefer,” explains Jain. As high as 85% of the grades in a course could be “Proficient” at SOM, a fact which easily explains the change.

Grading systems at the elite schools vary widely, from traditional alphabet assessments at Wharton and Chicago Booth to the category I, II, III and IV grades at the Harvard Business School. Many schools, including Stanford, go in for grades such as “Honors,” “High Pass,” “Pass,”  “Low Pass” and “Unsatisfactory.” At Wharton and Chicago, professors are not allowed to exceed a 3.33 GPA average for their classes.

While MBA students in general are rarely competitive about grades, many schools acknowledge the students at the top of the class at graduating. Harvard has its Baker Scholars (the top 5%), and Stanford has its Arjay Miller Scholars (the top 10%). Most students who graduate at the top of their classes include that honor on their LinkedIn profiles and resumes so it still counts for something.

For a sense of how grading policies differ at a few top business schools, see the table on the following page.

DON’T MISS: WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN ARJAY MILLER SCHOLAR AT STANFORD

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  • Jay

    What about Sloan?

  • anon

    John… I’m surprised you didn’t bring up grade non-disclosure policies at these different b-schools. GNDs probably affects student behavior a lot more than do differences in grading scales… Perhaps you should be a bit more thorough on your research…

  • MadridStudent

    I study at IE Business School in Madrid, which is a well known Business School in Europe and we have a pretty strict grading rule compared to what I read here. Every single course gets curved with a somewhat normal distribution (which still holds in the elective where courses can have only 15 students) with a mean GPA average per course of 3.15 on a 4 scale.

    C+ 5%, B- 15%, B 35%, B+ 25%, A- 15%, A 5%;

    Failing a course is only possible if you cheat or do not show up to class, but if students get an average GPA below a certain level (permanent C+ and B-) they get expelled from the program without a refund, which is checked after each term.

    The grades are also published internally but also on all transcript of records and in the supplementary documents to the final degree.

  • RealAssetsFTW

    ^^^ Please add Sloan to the mix.

  • Indigo

    Yale? I thought you said top schools.

  • metric0

    You could’ve simply said – “John, I’m surprised to not see GND policies mentioned for the schools, as I believe that’s a very relevant variable in this discussion. Was there a reason you opted not to include that variable?” – and gotten your point across without coming across as having no social skills

  • JohnAByrne

    Again, this is only meant to be a glimpse at some top schools to show the differences–not a complete overview of grading systems. I do intend to do more of a deep dive on this subject in the future which will naturally include a more comprehensive comparison among the best schools.

  • RealAssetsFTW

    That would be great. Keep up the good work!

  • Matt

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Kris

    For some reason, Booth is placed above Wharton in this table. P&Q: Biased as usual. Why deceive readers into believing in an inferior product?

  • Renault

    And Stern is above Tuck and Kellogg — I wouldn’t lose sleep about the order.

  • rajendra

    After having achieved the admission in the school of choice its imperative that the best work is done in the classes too. A habit , or an attempt, to master the subject/topic of the class is essential and must be attempted. Moreover grades cant be changed after passing out. So why not do a good job on the campus? And continue to excel later in the profession with same spirit?

  • rajendra

    Anjali , good table. John, thank you again.

  • Norbert Weiner

    Yale is #8 in U.S. and #10 globally per FT. (http://rankings.ft.com/businessschoolrankings/global-mba-ranking-2014)

    Please stop the Yale-hating.

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