Inflated GPAs Good For MBA Applicants


Question: To get into a highly selective business school, is it better to have a higher grade point average from a school where grade inflation is the norm? Or is it better to have a slightly lower GPA from a university with tough grading standards.

A new academic study shows inflated GPAs are better for MBA admission, even if the undergraduate school is less rigorous in its grading policies. The authors of the study say that the bias toward higher GPAs occurs because admissions officers are not taking into full consideration the grading standards of the undergraduate institution.

The study found that applicants from schools with tougher grading policies had an acceptance rate of only 12%. Applicants from schools known for grade inflation experienced an acceptance rate of 72%–a very sizable difference of 60 percentage points.


The analysis suggests that  “candidates who happen to graduate from schools with higher grading norms may actually have a better chance of being accepted to college or graduate school,” said the authors from Harvard Business School, UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, and CivicScience, a polling firm.

Of course, everyone knows that college admissions is more art than science and certainly an imperfect process. For MBA candidates, GMAT scores are more heavily weighed than GPAs. A recent survey of B-school admissions officers showed that a low GMAT or GRE score is the single biggest reason why business schools ding MBA applicants. The survey found that 58% said that a weak GMAT score is the biggest application killer. A low undergraduate GPA placed second at 24% (see GPAs & GMATs: What You Need To Get In).

Business schools routinely report the 80 percentile middle range of GPA scores, excluding the bottom and top 10% of the scores from public disclosure. In that data set,  no top ten business school in the U.S. has a GPA range of below 3.0. The average GPA at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is 3.7, while the average at Harvard is 3.66. The highest ranked school, which publishes its GPA range for admits, is Cornell which accepted a student with a grade point average below 3.0.

So, the results are certainly not good news for MBA applicants who come from universities that have cracked down on grade inflation.

Some admissions consultants say the study may cause admission officers to adjust their practices. “I would hope that the publicity surrounding this study could serve as a wake-up call for admissions committees to look more carefully at their processes around grades,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “Perhaps they will  have to weigh class rank more heavily or look more carefully at the quality of the courses the student has taken. As for what I will advise prospective students, I’ll be encouraging them to work on alternative transcripts if their GPAs appear lower than the business school’s average — for whatever reason.”


What’s especially surprising about the discovery is that most admission officials think they naturally discount a GPA from less selective schools where higher grades may be the norm and they typically “lift” a GPA from candidates who went to more selective institutions such as the military academies. But the issue had never been studied before.

“Nobody before us really looked at the consequences for important decisions like selection and admissions,” Harvard co-author Francesca Gino told Working Knowledge.  “And you can imagine that one of the consequences is that you end up admitting people who should not be admitted, and rejecting people who should not be rejected.”

The results even surprised the researchers. “We thought that experts might not be as likely to engage in this type of error, and we also thought that in situations where we were very, very clear about [varying external circumstances], that there would be less susceptibility to the bias,” Gino told Working Knowledge. “Instead, we found that expertise doesn’t help, and having the information right in front of your eyes is not as helpful.”


The findings, moreover, were supported by several experiments. In the study that showed the 60 percentage point gap, 23 members of the undergraduate admissions staff at a U.S. university were asked to play the role of admissions staff for a selective MBA program. They were given the candidates’ GPAs as well as the average GPA awarded at the applicant’s undergraduate school, as well as the applicant’s grades and average grade given in 10 recently completed courses.

Yet another experiment documented in the study used actual admissions decisions on more than 30,000 applicants at four selective but unnamed MBA programs over several years. The result: When comparing comparably qualified applicants, it was better to have earned high grades at a college where it was relatively easy to do less helpful to have gotten slightly lower grades from a school with tougher grading.


“The disquieting strategic implication of this finding is that if a school wants to get its alumni into graduate school, it should grade more leniently,” Don Moore, one of the co-authors of the paper and a Haas professor, told “Admissions officers should not look at grades at face value.”

The study has implications well beyond college admissions because most employers also screen candidates by GPAs and one study showed that 58% of them say that a grade point average below 3.0 would all but eliminate a person’s chances of being hired for a job.


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