If you’re a high school senio r applying to college this fall, you’ll be getting loads of advice about which school to choose. Your parents and guidance counselors will most likely tell you to challenge yourself, to select a school that will prepare you for future greatness by pushing you to study, to learn, to grow. But if you’re really interested in success, a new study suggests something more cynical: Go for the school that pumps up your grades.
In terms of your immediate prospects, it turns out, it’s just as advantageous to come from a college with lenient grading practices—and, therefore, high average grades—as it is to be above average. Admissions officers at graduate schools are more likely to accept an average candidate from an institution with a culture of grade inflation, according to the study, than they are a comparable student who just happened to attend a school where professors made a habit of handing out low grades. Admissions experts fall prey to this bias, the study says, despite believing they are taking the grade inflation into account.
To make matters worse, the authors found that the same disturbing rule seems to apply beyond academia as well. Just as graduate schools are more likely to choose an applicant with a high GPA, the research shows that employers are more likely to overvalue the worker handling an easy task compared to a colleague working hard to tackle something difficult. In short, if it’s shiny, and pretty, we tend to think it’s gold—a finding that reveals something not only about how people get ahead, but about the flaws inherent to human judgment.
“What I find fascinating about this work is actually the wide range of applications,” said Francesca Gino, a coauthor of the new study and an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Both in our personal and professional life, we may end up choosing partners, or choosing friends, or choosing workers, leaders, or team members—and we just might be making the wrong evaluations.”
The problem is our tendency to put too much emphasis on the individual’s disposition and not enough on the situation—what is known as the fundamental attribution error. We like to think, for example, that the baseball player hit the home run because he’s good or the marketing manager sold the product because she’s savvy. But maybe the player homered because the pitcher is mediocre. Maybe the marketing manager was successful because she was pitching a desirable product.
In this light, even a frustrating practice like grade grubbing actually begins to make strategic sense. On a practical level, in terms of future opportunities, what a student has learned may indeed be secondary to whether he or she eked out an A. So professors and teaching assistants can complain about it all they want: the whining, the begging, and the cajoling for a better grade. The students might be obnoxious, and maybe even undeserving. But according to this research, they’re not wrong.
The lead author on the new study, published in July in the journal PLOS ONE by the Public Library of Science, is a behavioral psychologist named Sam Swift. Now a postdoctoral scholar at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, Swift began this research nearly a decade ago as an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, he had a vested interest in the subject matter. As a college senior looking for work, he said, he wondered how his GPA would be received given that Carnegie Mellon professors, by and large, resisted grade inflation. “That,” Swift said, “was not a policy that I felt like was working in my favor.”
He and his coauthors set out to determine whether there was any merit to these concerns. To do so, they created a two-tier experiment that harnessed both laboratory experiments and real-world data to shed light on the problem.
First, they ran a lab experiment involving 23 admissions officers at a selective US college. The officers were told they were selecting students for an MBA program
and given not only the applicants’ GPAs, but how their performance compared to their peers. Were they above or below average? And by how much? They were then asked to rate the candidates and admit roughly half of them.
The results: Candidates from schools with lower (that is, tougher) grading norms were admitted just 12 percent of the time, while those from grade-inflated schools were admitted 72 percent of the time. Below-average students were almost doomed to fail—at least at the schools with median and low grading norms—getting accepted respectively 4 percent of the time and not at all. Continued...