One of the least pleasant aspects of going back to get your MBA is being graded on your work again. While we’ve all received feedback in the workplace already, it’s still a bit unsettling to be evaluated in an academic environment. The rules are sometimes opaque, you don’t know how tough your competition will be, and the effort required to succeed is often unclear.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that you will need to balance the time you spend on academics against the time you spend networking and recruiting. The whole point of going to an MBA program is to get a better, higher-paying job. Therefore, during your first year, you’ll frequently have conflicts between your career and academic interests.
The Grading Curve
The first step to dealing with this issue is to understand the overall academic context. Below is the recommended course grading curve at UCLA Anderson. At UCLA, students are given a letter grade for each course and assigned grade points based on that letter grade. Please keep in mind that this curve only applies to the core courses that all MBAs must take and is a recommended distribution; most professors will abide by these percentages but have the flexibility to make adjustments if they see fit.
A couple of things to note about this curve:
- A’s and A+’s equate to the same grade point score, so being in the top five percent is really just for bragging rights.
- To get a perfect 4.0, you need to be in the top 20% of the class, or the top 14 people in your section. (Anderson’s current class has approximately 70 people per section)
- Academic probation occurs when you score below a 3.0 average for all of your courses. Statistically, this is difficult to do but sometimes people fall below this line. To stay above the academic probation threshold for a given course, you need to do better than 10% of the class, or 7 people in your section.
- The grade point scores are tiered, meaning you can get a 3.7 or a 3.4, but you can’t receive any score in between those numbers for a given class. This is kind of annoying because recruiters usually view the cutoff between a good GPA and a bad GPA as somewhere between a 3.5 and 3.6. Therefore, this grading structure makes getting into the shaded range of the curve that much more important.
Actual Grade Distribution
So what do people’s actual grade point averages look like? Below is an aggregate grade distribution for the class of 2010. The data covers two years of courses and therefore includes both core and elective courses, the latter of which are not necessarily subject to a grading curve. All GPAs were rounded to the nearest tenth of a point and international students were not included in the population. The source for this data was a study conducted by Professor Barz in the Statistics department; the study looked at potential drivers of success in MBA programs.
The way the first year recruiting cycle works, you do most of your networking during the fall and then interviews for internship positions start right when you come back from winter break. Your first quarter or first semester grades are the ones that go on your resume for this critical recruiting period. However, the importance of your grades depends on what type of job you’re recruiting for.
If you’re applying to marketing or plan to start your own company, then grades will probably not be that important to you. Recruiters for many marketing positions won’t even ask you about your grades. Therefore, if you are pursuing one of these fields, you should devote more of your time towards networking as your academic performance likely won’t be a differentiator.
If you are pursuing Investment Banking, Consulting, and certain tech firms like Google, your grades will definitely be scrutinized. I know that, for consulting specifically, many firms will view your undergraduate grades as well as your GMAT score and split as predictors of your potential as a consultant. If any of these historical factors are low for you, you should definitely push harder to achieve strong first quarter grades to balance out your profile.
Many of the companies with tough recruiting processes equate your commitment to maintaining good grades as your standard of quality in the actual workplace. They don’t want people who will settle for average work. Your GPA can easily mean the difference between getting an interview and being left out. If you are pursuing one of these companies, I would advise you to not hold back during your first quarter/semester and get the best grades you can possibly achieve. For most of us, the fall academic period is the last time in our careers that grades will ever matter; there’s no reason not to give it your all.