How to become a Baker Scholar

George Fisher Baker (1840-1931), the first major benefactor of Harvard Business School and namesake of the Baker Scholars

George Fisher Baker (1840-1931), the first major benefactor of Harvard Business School and namesake of the Baker Scholars

Case method classes in business school are unlike any other academic environment one will encounter. They require diligent preparation, excellent communication skills, and the ability to quickly analyze an evolving business problem in front of your peers. Class participation at many case method schools account for half of one’s grade. That’s the situation at Harvard Business School, where even though there is an official policy of grade non-disclosure, there is stiff competition for top marks.

At the conclusion of each course, students are assigned one of four grades designated as Category I, II, III, and IV.

Category I - given to the top 15-25% of students

Category II - given to the next 65-75% in a section. The actual number of Category II grades is subject to the number of Category I grades assigned.

Category III - given to the lowest-performing 10% of students in an elective curriculum course section.

Category IV - seldom assigned; designates failure of achievement and/or commitment and, therefore, failure to meet minimum standards of the course. If Category IV is used in a course, the combined number of students who receive Categories III and IV must equal the lowest 10% of the elective course section.

Those whose accumulation of “Net Category I” grades (i.e. the sum of their “I”s minus the sum of their “III”s and "IV"s) puts them in the top 5% of their class (over both years) earn the distinction of “Baker Scholar,” an honor named in memory of George F. Baker the "Dean of American Banking" who literally built HBS. Those who receive 5 or more “IIIs” face suspension from the program pending a review by the academic board (something called “hitting the screen”).

What steps can you take to make Baker Scholar and avoid hitting the screen?

1. Invest in your team.

Case method schools often assign students to discussion groups to analyze the case before the class. See our article on how to get the most of your Discussion Group here. These people are not there to merely suck up an hour of time you might otherwise spend sleeping – they are there to make you look good by challenging your understanding, assumptions, and analysis private before your classmates will attack them in public. This really only works if you foster trust, cooperation, and reciprocity among your discussion group, so before you get to work, get to know them first and foster the comradery you would want in a high-performing team.

2. Work smarter with “Case Captains”.

Read our article on that system here. Until you get really good at preparing cases they take 2-3 hours each to read, analyze, and write-up. That means that you’ll need to prepare 6-9 hours in advance of a three-case, easily sucking up any time that you might otherwise spend on other productive activities such as networking and recruiting. By using Case Captains, you can free up time on nights when you’re not on duty to attend social events to keep you sane, and recruiting events to keep you employed. Plus, if something happens and you’re not able to read the case, the Case Captain system throws you a lifeline to see participate in class.

3. Enlist a feedback buddy.

It’s really hard to be on the dance floor and to visualize yourself from the balcony at the same time. Likewise, it’s very difficult to accurately assess how you come across with your comments in class and what you need to improve. That’s why you should enlist a feedback buddy to keep special notes on the things you say. Things to have them look for include (1) the logical flow of your comment (was it easy to follow?), (2) your volume (could you be heard?), (3) its relevancy (did it fit in with the flow of the conversation or did it take the class on a tangent?), (4) the reaction of the professor and the class (positive or negative?), (5) any public speaking ticks to correct (you’re practicing a skill when you speak in public, practice it correctly!)


4. Keep a comment log.

Related to the above. Note on a I-III scale how well you think you did with your comment. This will give you a sense of how well you think you should be doing going into mid-term feedback and will help you understand where you need to invest your time to improve your grades. Noting when you speak in class will also tell you when you are due for a comment. When you’re overdue (i.e. it’s been more than three classes since your last one) you might want to start expecting a cold call. Having air-tight analysis pre-prepared in such a situation will make you look like a rockstar, but you’ll probably only be able to do that when you know the cold call is coming!

5. No case-facts or chip-shots

Every comment you make in class is graded. Each one is assigned a potential maximum value based on its level of difficulty (think of the way gymnastics and diving are scored by “degree of difficulty” in the Olympics). Questions where the answer is a case fact are by their nature incredibly easy. The best you can score by answering such a "chip-shot" flawlessly is a low “II.” If you mess it up, you’re in for a low “III”. Professors specifically ask these questions for students who are extremely nervous or under-prepared so that they can get their participation grade and get back out of the conversation. If you’re hoping to do anything more than not fail out of the school, you should avoid these questions at all costs.

6. Don’t speak in the first 30 minutes of class.

Related to the above. This is where all the case-fact questions are asked. The questions with a level of difficulty in the “I” range come usually at the two-thirds or three-quarters mark.

7. Quantity has a quality.

Every professor will say that the quality of your comments matter more than the quantity. However, after a certain point, quantity achieves a quality all its own. This happens for a couple reasons. First, faculty work to balance the airtime between students, so if you’re always speaking, the professor won’t want to waste a (dreaded) cold call, when they can use that to instead draw quieter students into the conversation. Second, and related, if you know that you won’t be cold called, you won’t have to play defense by answering chip-shots and case-fact questions. This gives you the freedom to only raise your hand to speak when you have a truly great comment. Last, while faculty say that quality is much more important than quantity, quantity is much easier to measure and consequently has greater weight for grading purposes.

8. Dig past the obvious answer

Most cases are meant to teach an incremental topic or framework. You know that the finance class on using comparable companies to calculate the WACC will involve calculations of comparable companies’ Beta. Don’t be content just calculating the other Betas; chances are all of the other smart kids calculated it too. Instead, ask one question deeper. Something like, are these even the right comparables? What do their Betas tell me about the strength of their firms? What does this WACC tell me I should invest in?  

9. Make one point and make it well.

Comments with one thesis are easier to execute and easier for the class to follow. Complex comments referencing five points made over the past 30 minutes disrupt the flow and won’t be appreciated.

10. Erect signposts.

"Signposting" is the act of providing meta-structure to your comment in order to aid in its understanding. Example, “I disagree that the CEO should fire her CFO for three reasons. The first reason is that…”. This will help the class understand the journey that your comment is going to take them on, as well as then they can expect it to be over.

11. Let overripe comments go

Every comment has a moment in the case conversation. When the moment for your comment comes and goes, let it pass. Saying it anyway will disrupt the flow of the conversation and make it look like you were not listening to your classmates (i.e. being disrespectful). There is nothing more self-denying and zen than sitting on a comment you were sure would score a home run after your team has taken the field again.

12. Visit office hours.

Professors are people too and they appreciate getting to know you outside of class. Making one or two appearances shows your interest in their subject, and can provide great opportunities to ask questions that you never got to in class. Plus, professors can be valuable assets after graduation and visiting with them can really boost your professional network.

See related articles:

Is the Case Method right for me?


Business schools can be separated academically into two separate categories: majority case-method programs and non-case-method programs. In the former category are schools like Darden, INSEAD, Berkeley Haas, UNC Kenan-Flagler and, of course, Harvard Business School, which pioneered the case method of MBA instruction by borrowing the Socratic dialogues used to teach at Harvard Law School. Schools that are non-majority-case-method incorporate more traditional lectures, team-based projects, and experiential learning, in addition to case-method classes. The average MBA program teaches 30% of its classes in the case method.

Case method courses are very different than traditional lecture-based classes. To prepare for a case method class, students are given a bound document (a “case”) presenting a roughly 10-page overview of a business problem faced by a team, firm, or industry followed by a series of quantitative and qualitative exhibits that an MBA might need to analyze the problem and find a solution. The goal of the case is to simulate as accurately as possible what it would feel like for the student to experience the business problem themselves, by placing the student in the role of the “case protagonist” from whose vantage point the story is told. The day of the class discussion, students normally meet with discussion groups to go over the study questions and try to anticipate where they believe the case conversation will go.

The actual class is a real pressure-cooker. The professor usually leads off by “cold-calling” (i.e. involuntarily selecting without prior warning) one student, often one specifically chosen for their relevant prior professional experience, and grilling them on what they would do in that situation. Other students are brought in to reveal different facts, challenge different perspectives, offer analysis, and argue out the correct course of action. Students need to be ready at a moment’s notice to agree or disagree with the other voices, forcing everyone sit on their edge of their seats, paying close attention.

Sometimes professors will reveal incremental data on what intermediate steps the actual case protagonist took and what results they achieved. The professor will then ask individuals whether this new information changes their perspectives and how.

Very often the case protagonist him or herself will sit in on the class (they find the conversations useful too!) and use the last part of the session to describe what happened, respond to individual students, and take questions. The result is a thrilling class experience where students develop intuition for handling emerging business problems, practice communicating their ideas articulately, and get comfortable leading through uncertainty.

The question is, is a case method program right for you?

Test Yourself

Below I’ve posed a dozen statements. If you disagree with the statement, give yourself 1 point, if you’re neutral 2 points, and if you agree 3 points. At the end, tally your score.

  1. I want to develop my public speaking skills
  2. I think reasonably quickly on my feet
  3. I want to be a general manager or CEO one day
  4. I am confident that I can teach myself finance out of a text book
  5. I have a “big personality”
  6. I prefer short stories to long technical readings
  7. I came to business school to learn
  8. I want to really get to know my peers
  9. I think diverse perspectives lead to better answers
  10. I not that excited to hear about faculty research
  11. The best way to learn something is to do it
  12. I want my peers to take class seriously

12-18 Points: Avoid the case method. Apply to schools that are majority lecture based like Carnegie Mellon Tepper, USC Marshall, UCLA Anderson, Vanderbilt Owen, Michigan Ross, and Oxford Said.

19-23 Points: Choose a program with a mix of teaching styles, including team and experiential-based learning. Examples for this category include Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua, Georgia Tech, SMU Cox, NYU Stern, and Georgetown McDonough. If you're still curious about case method classes, you consider trying out HBX CORe, which does a decent job at simulating the section experience.

24-30 Points: Apply to programs with a moderate mix (but not a majority) of case-method classes. Examples include Dartmouth Tuck, Stanford GSB, Columbia Business School, UPenn Wharton, and Yale SOM. If you're worried about case-method classes, you can dip your toe into subjects like leadership, ethics, and marketing, where the case method is easier to grasp, while sticking to traditional methods for learning finance and accounting.  

30+ Points: Definitely apply to majority-case-method program. These include schools like HBS, UVA Darden, INSEAD, Berkeley Haas, IESE, University of Western Ontario Ivey, and UNC Kenan-Flagler. Here is where you will really thrive.

What Military Vets bring to the MBA classroom


The former Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School Dee Leopold would famously tell interviewees that admitting a class of MBA students is similar to building a salad. Each student is meant to add a certain flavor to the overall mix. For investment bankers, it is economic intuition and modeling skills for the finance classes. For consultants, it is the marketing and strategy frameworks for those classes. But what is the flavor that we military veterans are meant to add?

As military veterans seek to achieve the benefits of an elite business school – higher paying jobs, vibrant personal networks, a world-class education – this is an important question to ask. Schools like Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, Chicago Booth, and Wharton, look for students who will bring voice to certain perspectives in the classroom. When you write your essay, it is important to convey a narrative that gives the admissions committee confidence in your ability to play the role that they have envisioned for you. So what do they look for in vets?


Leadership Experience

Unlike your peers, who at most have indirectly supervised a couple other consultants on a client site, military veterans have an incredible wealth of leadership experiences. Veterans lead many times more people, in diverse organizations, in some of the highest-stress environments in the world. As you write your application, your resume should shout your leadership experience from the rooftops.

Socio-Economic Diversity

Many students at elite schools like Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chicago Booth, and Wharton come from elite private universities and have generally spent their entire working careers working with those who have done the same. Very few will interact at length with anyone who has not gone to college. In contrast, the military is an incredible melting pot of class. Officers from Dartmouth, UVA, and Notre Dame work side by side with those who dream of completing a degree online from Central Texas University, University of Phoenix, or University of Maryland University College. This experience often gives Veterans higher Emotional Quotients and the “common touch” needed to interact with people who are very different from themselves. That’s a valuable part of diversity that would likely be nowhere else in evidence at prestigious MBA campuses.


Large-Organization Outlook

 Start-ups are “in”, but the fact of the matter is that it is always easier to go from a big company to a smaller one. Ex-military service members excel at big companies like Exxon, General Electric, and Eli Lilly, because they how to navigate large organizations. After all, with 3.1 million service members, there is no bigger American employer than the US Military. The ability to navigate complex power dynamics, advance causes through bureaucracies, and motivate subordinates are all topics that will be central to your MBA leadership classes, giving Vets a lot to contribute in them. 

International Exposure

One of the key issues students grapple with in business school is how to lead global teams that cross different time zones, work styles, functions, and cultures. While pretty much everyone in business school has traveled to other countries, few have substantial work experience in more than one country. Here again, military members often have an advantage, and can speak to the practical complexities that come with such work.


Geopolitical Perspective

When it comes to classes that involve government or foreign policy, often the rest of the class will instinctively turn to hear the perspectives of its Veterans. In addition to having the credibility that comes from wearing the uniform of your country, military leaders are trained early to have a global perspective – to look for geopolitical crises may arise and train to meet those challenges. Many other classmates on the other hand have spent little time thinking about issues outside their teams, firms, or industries.

Mark Zuckerberg's advice for MBA applications

Facebook CEO and noted dropout Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard’s graduation this year, and he left the graduates with an important nugget of advice for applying to business school. If you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed it.

Here is the full video. The quote in question comes right after 6:00:

Here is the quote:

One of my favorite stories is when John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

What did the Janitor do in his reply to strike a chord with the President? In a word, he offered a purpose for his work.

Say one of the Janitor’s Window Cleaner peers applied to business school. If we were on the admissions committee and came across his resume, we might see lines such as “expertly cleaned all glass surfaces with 10% fewer streaks and peers” or “implemented new harness safety program, dramatically reducing falls.” 


Now let’s consider the Janitor. What might his business school resume say? Maybe, “Enabled the success of the moon-landing by providing clutter-free work spaces that enabled calm, decisive mission management” or, “Aided the President’s key national priority by maintaining safe, clean, and functional work spaces that top engineering talent would want to work in.”

Why do we find the second resume more compelling even though they have similar performance in similar jobs? In the first case, the Window Cleaner demonstrates an achievement-orientation and a desire to do his job better than others, but his impact starts and ends with himself. His resume explains why he is a better worker, but it does not explain why we should root for him to be successful. We never learn why we should care about how well he does his job. Meanwhile the Janitor, much like the Third Stone Cutter in an earlier blog post (check it out if you have the time), extends his impact outside of himself. In doing so, he creates a cause -- a vision, a meaning, a mission --- big enough for all of us to root for. The purpose of his work is clear and all of us can feel a part of it.

When we help clients craft their admissions essays, we never lose sight of the fact that Admissions Committees are made up of people who find meaning in their work by believing that it matters on a global scale who they decide to extend offers of admission. Whether at undergraduate colleges or MBA programs, all Admissions Committees want to give those spots to the people they believe will make the most of them. The surest way to make that argument in your application is to clearly explain not only the nature of your work, but its purpose as well.