Are the grades of incoming classes at elite business schools going up every year? The answer is yes — with some caveats.
Looking at the five-year trend at the top business schools, there can be little doubt: Between 2012 and 2016, the average undergraduate grade point average rose at 18 of the top 25 schools (as ranked by Poets&Quants), and stayed flat at four others, leaving just three schools where it dropped. But if you narrow the scope, only 13 of those top schools saw an increase in GPA between 2015 and 2016, with four schools staying flat — and of the schools that saw GPA go up, four saw only small increases of .02 or .01. So, grades have been going up in the long term, but 2016 may be the start of a leveling-off period. We’ll know more in a half-year or so.
If grades are going up — even at a slower pace — the first question is, why? Grade inflation — awarding higher grades than students deserve to maintain a school’s academic reputation — is a commonly accepted, though all but impossible to prove, cause. But increasing competition in the elite MBA applicant pool is doubtless a major factor as well. The only indisputable fact is that the numbers keep inching skyward — and at the elite of the elite, the M7 or the T10, GPAs (like GMAT and GRE scores) are positively gaudy.
SOME UP, SOME DOWN, ALL STERLING
Once again, as it has the last six years, Stanford Graduate School of Business edged all other schools for the best average GPA. Stanford’s Class of 2018 notched a 3.73, which is actually a drop of .02. Nonetheless, Stanford’s number beat out No. 2 on the list, Harvard, which reported a class average of 3.67 (up .01 from 2015). Harvard has played second fiddle to Stanford in the GPA wars since 2013. Rounding out the schools with the top average scores were UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (3.64, down .02), Yale School of Management (3.63, up .03), Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (3.60, same as last year), and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (3.60, same).
The biggest increases in the top 25 over the last five years were at Notre Dame University’s Mendoza College of Business (.11, to 3.37), Yale University School of Management (.08, to 3.63), Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management (.08, to 3.37), and Georgetown University McDonough School of Business (.08, to 3.40). And those three schools that saw a GPA drop? Northwestern Kellogg (-.09), Emory University Goizueta Business School (-.08, to 3.30), and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management (-.04, to 3.52.
In 2016, six of the top 10 schools boasted class GPAs of 3.60 or more. That’s the same number of schools as last year.
Low GPAs don’t always sink candidates. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business (interestingly, the only school among P&Q‘s top five to report the range of GPAs in its incoming classes), someone with a 2.60 was admitted. At MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the GPA range (10th to 90th percentile) as reported to U.S. News & World Report was 3.24 to 3.90; at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, 3.24 to 3.84; at Columbia Business School, 3.10 to 3.80; at Yale SOM, 3.31 to 3.91; and at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the range was 3.02 to 3.83. The highest “low” GPA belonged to UC-Berkeley Haas: 3.34 (Haas’ high was 3.89). To find the lowest low you have to travel further down the list, to No. 41 Illinois Urbana-Champaign: 2.90. But Illinois ranges up to 3.90.
LOW GPA? THE ELITE SCHOOLS MIGHT BE PERSUADED TO OVERLOOK IT
Say you’ve got a decent-but-not-great GPA and ambitions to study in a top program. Do you dare to hope? The experts say yes — with, you guessed it, caveats. In a 2015 analysis, P&Q contributor Wayne Atwell found that 38% of applicants to top-25 programs who had a GPA of less than 3.0 were admitted. Narrow that lens to the top-10 schools, however, and the percentage of admits drops to 8%.
Personal qualifications can overcome a mid- to low GPA. As Karen Marks, president and founder of North Star Admissions Consulting, wrote last year, “I have helped clients with GPAs as low as 2.4 get full-tuition scholarships to top-10 schools, and clients with sub-2.6 GPAs get into top-five schools with significant funding.”
Adds Betsy Massar of MBA admissions consulting firm Master Admissions: “A great GPA is not the only thing that admissions officers care about. It’s also the quality of that GPA. A student who has a lower-than-average GPA for a school in a subject like applied math or chemistry is still going to get a good look. Everyone knows not all majors and not all courses are equally difficult. If you have just an average GPA but took courses in really difficult subjects like physics, you shouldn’t worry. It’s really about how much you challenge yourself.
“But it’s not just about grades,” Massar tells Poets&Quants. “We see people all the time with great grades and scores who are really quite boring. The grades might get you considered, but you have to deliver.”