How are we graded?

As Philip Delves Broughton writes in “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School”, one of HBS’s features is the ubiquitous curve grading system, which motivates and compels us to be combative and Darwinian whether or not we are cutthroat by nature.

Ahead of the curve

Specifically, every class at HBS grades students from category 1 to 3, based on daily class participation and the results of a final exam. In most classes, class participation and the final exam are equally weighted fifty-fifty.

The most abominable component of this grading system is the resulting “forced curve”, in which the lowest 10-15% of each class automatically receive the lowest grade, category 3. Since it is a comparative grading system, the top 15-20% automatically receive category 1; the next 70-75% receive category 2; with the remaining 10-15% (9-13 students per class of 90) receiving category 3.

Should a student receive a category 3 in more than 5 classes per year, that unfortunate soul is reviewed by the Academic Performance Committee (APC) at the end of the year to determine whether they should continue on to the second EC year or withdraw and take some time off. Called “hit the screen”, this is the last situation in which any student wants to find themselves.

No matter how Herculean our effort, we are at a risk of scoring poorly, ultimately dependent on the class’s overall performance. Surrounded by the smartest students from all over the world, a large number quake at the thought of this brutal competition.


Midterms started last week. However, since our grades are primarily determined by class participation and the final, in many classes, mid-term exams have a minimal effect on the final grade (0-15%).

What disconcertingly comes to mind is the fact that we are halfway through the term and final exams are insidiously lurking in the shadows.

So sorry to cut this short, but I have to study….

2 thoughts on “How are we graded?

  1. Pingback: Final Exam | Two Years at HBS

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