It wasn’t until her graduation from Stanford Graduate School of Business this past June that Claire Morrison knew for sure that she had achieved one of the school’s highest academic honors. Soon after hearing her name called out on the speakers, Morrison was identified as an Arjay Miller Scholar.
The honor goes to the top 10% of the class who received the highest grade point averages. Of the 389 graduating MBAs this year, Morrison was one of only 40 MBAs–24 men and 16 women–to receive the honor.
She strolled up to the stage to get her diploma and to shake the hand of the 97-year-old Miller, who had served as the business school’s fourth dean from 1969 to 1979.
‘ANY OF MY CLASSMATES WERE CAPABLE OF DOING IT’
“I had no idea until I was walking to pick up my diploma,” says Morrison. She knew she had a shot at the distinction because students have access to a website that lists their academic performance by the top five percentile and the top 15 percentile. Morrison had been in the latter grouping so she knew there was at least a chance. “I was excited to receive the honor but any of my classmates were capable of doing it. They just had different goals.”
Every school designates the top of the academic hierarchy in one way or another. At Harvard Business School, the top academic honor is the Baker Scholar designation given to only the top 5% of the class. At Wharton, Palmer Scholars, named after former Dean Russell Palmer, also are given to the top 5% of the graduating MBAs with the highest cumulative grade point averages over their two years of courses.
Landing at the top of an MBA class at an elite business school seems even more daunting than getting into one of the world’s best MBA programs. What does it take to make it to the top of a Stanford MBA class? A lot of hard work, for sure, but also the raw material and self-confidence to excel in an environment where you are surrounded by incredibly smart and accomplished young people.
“Becoming an Arjay Miller Scholar is one of the hardest things to do,” says Madhav Rajan, director of Stanford’s MBA program and senior associate dean for academic affairs. “Because we are so small and selective, the group that we get is by definition very talented with super GPAs and the highest GMATs. Students take it very seriously, and they work very hard to achieve it. This is completely driven by wanting to be the best at what you do.”
A RECOMMENDED GRADING CURVE IN EACH CLASS MAKES THE DISTINCTION HARDER TO ACHIEVE
Stanford’s grading system doesn’t necessarily make it easy. There’s a recommended grading curve in each class, and no professor can give a higher overall GPA to a class of students above the recommended curve. Roughly 10% get an honors grade, 30% a high pass, 50% a pass, and 10% a low pass. To win Arjay Miller Scholar status, an MBA would have to log mostly honors and high pass grades in every course in a culture with a grade non-disclosure policy made to de-emphasize those grades.
So at Stanford, students who are competing for the honor tend not to outwardly show it. Students jokingly refer to it as the Stanford Duck Syndrome. “Everyone looks to be sitting calmly on the surface of the water but they are paddling their feet furiously underneath,” laughs Morrison. “The general attitude is that if you like school and like working hard, by all means do that. But if you are there to be more entrepreneurial and more social and focus on your network, you are respected for those positions as well. The emphasis is not solely on academics.”
“The Stanford culture is you never really show you are working very hard,” agrees Rajan. “We post percentiles so students can track where they are within the class. We get lots of students going to the website to privately check their class rank.”
‘IT IS VIEWED AS A REAL BADGE OF HONOR’
Because the honor isn’t announced until graduation, none of the companies recruiting Stanford MBAs know who has it and who doesn’t. It becomes more public later on when MBAs note the honor on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles. “It is viewed as a real badge of honor,” adds Rajan. “It is a very important signal you carry with you for the rest of your life.”