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Do Grades Matter in Business School?

Students, b-school officials, and employers discuss whether MBA grades make a difference.

MBA students don’t necessarily need to worry about poor marks in their courses.
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When Jerry Goolsby, who directs the MBA program at Loyola University New Orleans's Butt College of Business, refers to MBA degrees becoming "largely irrelevant because of dumbing down of the curriculum and grade inflation," he means business. "I have eliminated any instructor who gives everyone an A, [of] which we had a few," he says. "We had one professor who gave [almost] everyone an A, but only one student each semester got a B+. I wondered, what the hell did that person do to deserve a B+?"

Many MBAs paint a similar portrait of business school grades, which, they say, just don't matter all that much. When she evaluates prospective employees, Elle Kaplan, founder and CEO at Lexion Capital Management in New York, focuses on candidates' passions and professional achievements, rather than their GPAs. "Although it is still important to do well, I believe that grades have an inflated level of importance that does not always translate directly to the workspace," says Kaplan, a 2005 executive MBA graduate of Columbia Business School.

Other business school graduates, such as Naresh Vissa and Matt Richter-Sand, also question the relevance of b-school grades. "I likely graduated in the bottom quartile of my class, and I think I had the highest starting salary at graduation," says Vissa, senior producer of the online financial station, The Stansberry Radio Network, and a recent graduate of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Richter-Sand, founder and CEO of NX Fitness in Los Angeles, initially cared about his grades as an MBA student at University of California—Los Angeles's Anderson School of Management, but by the time he graduated, he couldn't have cared less. "The MBA is usually the last educational stop for most of us, and those who focused on their grades exclusively often missed the bigger picture," he says.

[Learn why grad applicants shouldn't let grades or test scores hold them back.]

But other MBAs and executive coaches say business students should take their grades more seriously, at least in certain circumstances.

"It's brutal out there. Competition for summer and permanent positions is more intense than ever before. Even students from top tier b-schools are graduating without jobs," says Roy Cohen, an executive career coach in New York and author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide. "Companies that hire are looking for the trifecta: good grades, great experience, and presence. So yes, grades do matter."

But good grades don't guarantee success on the job, Cohen warns. "Five years out, a stellar student may be a mediocre employee," he says.

In the fields of management consulting and investment banking, which have "the most structured recruiting processes" and adopt a "methodical approach" to identifying talent, GPA is one of the factors that recruiters weigh, says Eric Thomasian, head of product at online video tech startup Blayze in Los Angeles.

But in other fields, b-school grades don't matter, according to Thomasian, a 2012 MBA graduate of and career coach at UCLA Anderson. "Most students who are not pursuing those paths tend to not even post their GPAs on their résumé," he says.

[Read about the best jobs for MBAs.]

Other MBAs say that grades can impact business students if they are either really high or really low marks. If students are at the top of the class, or win an award, they should add that to their résumés, says Ruthanne Feinberg Roth, a partner at and cofounder of the New York-based executive recruitment company, Hudson Gate Partners. "Unless you are one of the two sides of the bell curve, I personally don't think it matters at all," she says.

Alex Sukhoy, a career coach and adjunct professor at Cleveland State University's Monte Ahuja College of Business (previously the Nance College of Business Administration), agrees. B-school grades are so inflated that a B+ signals average performance, she says. "Unless a student earned a 4.0, most will graduate on par with their fellow classmates."

Clarified 12/10/12: An earlier version of this article referenced a business school graduate who is not an MBA.