It is a common trope here at business school that grades don’t matter.
Judging from the amount of hours that most students put in at the library, one might assume that this maxim is some sort of game theory-driven bluff to fool the meek and gullible away from the battlefield. For those of us who have spent a lifetime in a system that rewards only grades as a gauge of learning, in some cases fostering the perverse incentive to take easier and less challenging courses, it can be hard to break old habits.
But in business school, grades should not drive your course selection. Don’t opt out of Corporate Valuation or Derivatives if you’re concerned it will hurt your GPA, even if you consider yourself more of a “soft skills” person. This is your chance to learn this material from industry experts. For most of us, business school is an educational safety net in addition to a career reset button. It serves as a last chance to learn dense academic material in a “safe” setting. After this, almost all of our learning is “on the job,” meaning the ramifications of mistakes are a lot more dire than a poor grade.
Vanderbilt’s business school uses a bell-shaped grading system, and in most classes, about 25% of students receive the highest grade, a superior pass, or SP. The fattest part of the curve is reserved for about 40% of the students who receive a high pass, or an HP. Another 25-30% receives a grade of pass, or P, and perhaps 5% receive a low pass, or LP, but that grade is usually reserved for students who show up so rarely that you never learn their names. On a GPA scale, an SP is a 4.0, an HP is a 3.5, a P is a 3.0 and an LP is a 2.5. This means that the average GPA at Owen usually sits around a 3.5.
Let me also say that while I have been a decidedly “average” student at Owen, I’m close friends with many of our top 20%, and these students were not so myopically focused on grades that they missed out on “the other education,” consisting of clubs, social activities, in-school internships, etc. It is entirely possible to maintain a very strong GPA while “having a life,” but most of our top students will admit that it takes burning some midnight oil to make it happen.
Admittedly, some employers, especially banks and consulting firms, use grades as a sort of threshold when selecting interviewees. However, despite my vanilla GPA, I was rarely denied interviews here at Owen. The amount of in-school projects I took on almost certainly mitigated and possibly overshadowed my GPA. Employers are looking for leaders and teammates. They’re looking for people who can manage in uncertain circumstances and deliver on tight deadlines. Grades can’t measure those attributes as accurately as real experiences, which is why most first round interviews are so often behavioral. In truth, most employers recognize that the curriculum taught in a business school is largely commoditized. We’re all expected to know the 4 Ps of marketing and how to value money across time.
I like to use a clichéd business analogy when describing this. Our classroom work here at Owen is an order qualifier. The fact that we’re here learning from world class faculty members is enough to put us in most selection sets. The order winner is the time we spend reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses, honing our experiences into easily relatable stories during interviews, and taking on internships wherein we gain industry-specific knowledge (especially for career switchers). I’ve never had an employer ask me to regurgitate classroom material in an interview. Rather, I’ve supplemented my work experiences with knowledge and frameworks I’ve gained in the classroom, especially during case interviews for consulting firms.
Grades are valuable in business school in as much as they measure the amount of time we were willing to commit to learn the materials. But that can vary by the course. There were classes in which I knew I needed to truly internalize the information for future jobs, and there were others where I knew a surface level understanding would suffice. In a world of opportunity costs, it is up to us to efficiently allocate our time.
Just remember that you have a lifetime of work ahead of you, so be sure to allocate some time to build relationships with your peers and enjoy the “student experience,” however you define it.