Academics, Grading & Exam
During orientation, I asked second years for advice on life at HBS. “Enjoy your time and don’t stress too much” was the answer I heard most often. This article is intended to help you do just that by explaining a few of the intricacies of academic life at HBS.
While the academic environment is certainly challenging, much has been done in recent years to ease the pressure and focus on personal learning rather than relative performance. A 1998 Student Association recommendation prohibits companies recruiting on campus from asking students for their grades, and the classroom environment is very supportive, rather than ruthlessly competitive. Of course, it is still important to work hard and learn the material (of which there is a lot!), and while it’s tough to “fail out” of HBS, it’s good to know the rules of the game.
This set of courses was introduced fairly recently to offer a low-risk environment in which to get used to the case method. It is graded S/N (satisfactory/ not satisfactory), based on differing standards of completion, which basically amount to timely attendance, proper preparation and some reasonable comments. Definitely don’t stress about this one, just do the work, be yourself and you’ll be fine. Use it to get comfortable in class, and to party with your classmates while the workload is still a little lighter.
Weighting: Except for Foundations, grades are usually based on three elements: class participation, the midterm exam (if any), and the final exam. For most RC courses, participation is weighted 40%-50%, the midterm 10%-20% and the final 35%-50%. Many courses will also give you a “bonus” weighting on your best grade, or reduce the weighting on your worst grade to make life easier for you.
So a typical weighting might look like this:
Class participation: 40%
Addition to best
grade’s weight: 10%
Or it might just be:
Class participation: 50%
Feedback: There are two main ways you will receive feedback on how you are doing during a course, both of which occur roughly at the halfway point. One is the midterm exam, the other is written mid-term feedback on class participation that you will receive from your professor.
This will give you an idea of how the professor has evaluated your performance so far and suggest ways to improve. In addition, professors will let you schedule individual appointments at any time to discuss things further.
The “Forced Curve”: Once students have been ranked using the weightings described above, they are assigned grades for each course according to the
Category I Top 15%-20% of class
Category II Next 70% of class
Category III Bottom 10-15% of class
There is also a Category IV for rare instances where a student exhibits a failure to meet minimum standards or achievement and/or commitment.
A quick note on the side: because of this system, odds are that you will pick up the odd III somewhere. Don’t stress about it too much-most people will and you’ll be fine as long as you have your share of II’s as well.
In all classes, the professors will outline what constitutes good participation in their view. While all have slightly different opinions on this, here are some general points that are valid across all classes:
o Quality is more important than quantity (within reason)
o The timeliness of comments is crucial (a great comment is not worth
anything if said too late)
o Try to use concepts and cases learned previously
o Try to build on other people’s comments
o Use personal experiences
Don’t worry about participating too much, it may seem difficult at first but you will definitely get used to the idea of speaking in front of your classmates.
Most Term 1 courses and some Term 2 courses have midterms. Midterms tend to come in two basic formats: for the quantitative subjects (TOM, Finance, FRC), midterms are in class, often multiple-choice, number-focused exams. Only one sheet of notes is typically allowed and exams are quite short (one to three hours). Midterms for the “softer” courses vary, but tend to be closer to the case-type exam used for finals. As midterms are typically not worth more than 20% of the grade, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t do well. However, do take them seriously as an indicator of your knowledge to date.
These are typically administered in a four-hour, case-based format, which requires students to identify and support key issues and to formulate an action plan to address these issues. There is less number crunching than at the midterm, but students are expected to apply concepts learned throughout the course, sometimes within a tight word limit.
There is no need for fact cramming before finals, as they are all open-book and open-notes (though some are in-class only, while others are take-home). However, preparation is still essential: while most of it will occur during term as you read materials and participate in class discussions, some pre-final preparation will make your life during the exam much easier.
Here are some tips:
o Re-read case notes and especially explanatory handouts, and write down key learnings
o Organize your materials for easy access during the exam
o Get review notes from different sources (section, study group, friends), but of course don’t overdo it
o Attend review sessions
o Do practice exams and ask your professor to grade them
o Get lots of sleep the night before the exam
The Academic Performance Committee
The Academic Performance Committee (APC) is comprised of select HBS faculty and administrators. It is a good news/bad news organization. On the upside, it awards honors to required curriculum and elective curriculum students. On the down side, it has the unpleasant task of identifying students who have not met minimum standards.
First-year Honors and Second-year Honors are awarded to the top 15 to 20 percent of each class. Grades are the primary basis of selection, though the final selection is up to a faculty vote. The APC may also take any infractions committed against the HBS community standards and Student Honor Code into account when voting Honors. Those who are awarded Honors in both the required curriculum and elective curriculum are awarded the MBA degree with Distinction at graduation. Baker Scholars, who graduate with High Distinction, are approximately the top five percent of the class as determined by the APC.
“The Screen” is the other side of the APC. Students who garner Category III/IV/”N” grades in a certain number of their required courses “hit the screen” (the exact amount of credit varies as required courses are changed). The APC conducts full reviews on each student who hits the screen, using written input from the student and all of the student’s professors. The good news is that hitting the screen does not necessarily mean that the end of one’s time at HBS has come. The APC may recommend that a student who has hit the screen continue at HBS with or without conditions. Generally speaking, students need to get above Category III grades in more than 50 percent of their courses to graduate.
There are many further resources available if you need them. Don’t be afraid to use them-remember you are here to learn!
MBA Student Support Services offers a broad range of services to support academic achievement. In addition to advising students on case learning and classroom performance strategies, MBA Student Support Services staff coordinates skills-development workshops and collaborates with faculty to develop programming that enriches the learning environment.
Education Representatives (Ed Reps): Each section elects an Ed Rep as one of its section officers about a month into the first term. The Ed Rep is the academic contact for the section, and is a good starting point for finding out what resources are available and how to leverage them.
Many sections utilise the experience of individual students, especially in the more technical courses. Volunteers take calls, answer questions or run review sessions.
Professors are willing to meet with students as needed to discuss class material. Schedule an appointment if you feel the need. Also, many professors hold lunches with small groups of students-attend these as a great way to ask questions and just have an informal chat.
All technical courses will provide extra review sessions on a regular basis.
MBA Student Support Services:
If you are finding life at HBS particularly difficult, the Academic Affairs staff provides one-on-one planning and counseling sessions.
The sheer amount of items competing for time in your calendar will likely cause your stress levels to rise at one time or another. Just don’t let it get to you too much-enjoy your time, remember to learn and use the wealth of available resources.