Forget about your grades, an MBA graduate told me recently. Don't try to impress the faculty. Argue in class. Debate the teachings. Wrestle with yourself as well as your assignments. Remember why you're there and focus on that. Don't people-please. No employer will ever ask you what your Strategy mark was.
Bugger. That was one of the things I liked most about mid-life study.
Unlike the workplace, or relationships, or just about any other unfair area of adult life, university really does reward you for hard work. Stayed up late to study? Here's a nice 86 per cent for your final exam. Agonised over your 7000 word literature review? Enjoy this A- grade.
Last year's Strategy mark came not only with a framed certificate but a handy cheque from a kindly firm which sponsors an award for the course. I'll be devastated if no one ever asks me what my mark was.
At business school, the Grade Gods arrive every semester to put a little gold star on your 10 weeks of work, if you've made the effort. Where else can you guarantee regular, unbiased, feedback like that?
Of course when an average or worse mark is delivered, it is more devastating than any school exam failure or unnoticed workplace contribution. Not only do you know that half or more of the class has scored higher than you, you've shelled out a Fijian holiday's worth of fees to receive it.
This week, in a particularly unkind gesture, a lecturer informed the class that the critical reviews we'd made of each others' end-of-term presentations would be publicly shared. He made the announcement after we'd written the critiques. Thus, my group of three, who had slightly fumbled our way through a 15-minute, Powerpoint-less presentation, was told in not-so-delicate terms by our fellow students that our work was too long, dull at times and that several of our business improvement ideas would never fly. I'm still hoping the Grade God thinks it worthy of something better than a B.
But that, it turns out, is not the point of business school. As American MBA Professor Margaret Heffernan puts it, you're not there for the grades, you're there for the learning. The best MBA students, she says, set their own agenda and follow that, not what their lecturer wants. They do not act like undergrads, aiming to please the teacher and get good marks. An MBA is not about external documentation, Heffernan says, but internal personal development. The best students "aren't afraid to argue because they know they need to stretch and test themselves".
Heffernan believes that anyone contemplating an MBA needs to know exactly why they are doing it, and then to pursue that goal relentlessly. For most of my fellow students, the MBA is a transition into the second half of our careers.
For some that means a completely new industry. For others, a jump out of their skill base and into higher general management. The grades are either a warm pat on the back rarely received in the real world or a timely reminder of where your skills need sharpening. But they are not the end goal.
Knowing yourself better, having a wider perspective on what you don't know, understanding more of an increasingly complex business environment and being able to apply great techniques for better analysis are perhaps more worthy ambitions.
And, for just these two short years, having your hard work fairly rewarded on a regular basis is a nice added bonus. Though perhaps only your family will ever really know your marks.