The Wiki Man

Why I’m hiring graduates with thirds this year

6 July 2013

Whenever I return to my old university, I am always struck by how incredibly focused, purposeful and studious everyone seems to be. It fills me with despair.

It’s hard to tell the difference between a university and a business school nowadays. Where are all the hippies, the potheads and the commies? And why is everyone so intently serious and sober all the time? ‘Oh, it’s simple,’ a friend explained. ‘If you don’t get a 2:1 or a first nowadays, employers won’t look at your CV.’

So, as a keen game-theorist, I struck on an idea. Recruiting next year’s graduate intake for Ogilvy would be easy. We could simply place ads in student newpapers: ‘Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.’

Let me explain. I have asked around, and nobody has any evidence to suggest that, for any given university, recruits with first-class degrees turn into better employees than those with thirds (if anything the correlation operates in reverse). There are some specialised fields which may demand spectacular mathematical ability, say, but these are relatively few.

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So my game theoretic instincts suggest that if we confine our recruitment efforts to people in the lower half of the degree ladder we shall have an exclusive appeal to a large body of people no less valuable than anyone else. And such people will be far more loyal hires, since we won’t be competing for their attention with deep-pocketed pimps in investment banking.

The logic is inarguable: the best people to hire (or date) are those undervalued by the market. (An expat friend of mine always dated Brooklyn girls for this reason: their accent seemed exotically alluring to him but was repellent to most New Yorkers.)

This approach will be familiar to readers of the book Moneyball, which records the story of the baseball manager Billy Beane. Given evidence showing that the metrics historically used to determine the value of a player did not best correspond to his value on the field, Beane made a series of hires which turned the cash-strapped Oakland Athletics into a surprise success.

So, in the absence of any evidence that degree-class is a predictor of value, why don’t businesses follow Moneyball and hire more inventively?

Well, you need to whittle down applications somehow. And to create a spurious veneer of objectivity, recruiters all fall back on the same, lone quantifiable measure (degree class) even without evidence to support it. Tolerable if you are the only person adopting this policy: idiocy when everyone else does. In the words of F.A. von Hayek (praise be upon him) ‘Often that is treated as important which happens to be accessible to measurement.’

If you recruit only using a single measure, your pool of talent becomes dangerously homogeneous (in 24 years in the advertising industry, the most impressive people I have met range from beard-stroking Oxbridge intellectuals to people who started their careers in the mailroom). It also leads to insane, competitive credentialism, where signalling your qualities to employers requires so much work that only obsessive weirdos or the already privileged can make the grade.

The escalation in demand for internships is just another manifestation of this credentialist arms-race. That’s why I am planning to offer an exclusive service to Spectator readers from 2015. Send me a litre of Tanqueray and I’ll happily confirm that your son or daughter performed a magnificent four-week internship with me. Meanwhile your kids can all go off to Goa and spend the summer smoking drugs on the beach as God intended. Nobody will be any the wiser — and nobody will be any worse off.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Jacob Taylor
  • Alexia

    No keep your hippies here. Send only the worthy ones to India. India does not want your stinky hippies from the UK just the ones who can add to the country not just extract. Hope you can understand, no doubt you are an intelligent man yet still clouded by your own thoughts of right and wrong, merit vs favouritism.

    • Mickey_disqus

      If you don’t want their money, don’t take it.

  • Dan Hawes

    A different article to what I usually come across! I like the concept and hope recruiters can review their entry requirements if only there was another way to do it without incurring massive cost and time. Possibly HEAR will get noticed as a truer reflection of a graduates ability?

    • Alice Hickman

      Hi Dan – you would hope so, but the decision by HEFCE to make it an optional requirement and leaving the criteria selection on section 6.1to be decided upon at a University level means that it will be a difficult tool to interpret from a recruiting perspective. Opportunity missed, I fear.

      • Dan Hawes

        Yes the optional bit is the fly in the ointment.

  • John Williams

    What about all the ones who spent their 3 years high as Snoop Dogg, drunk as Oliver Reed and still nailed a first? – They do exist. Surely you’re onto a winner with these guys?

    • tomdaylight

      Or conversely, those who had a miserable time at university and emerged with very little to show for it. Degree class is just one of the various arbitrary measures employers are using to determine that they don’t want to take on the likes of me. What employers want is a confident candidate – and they’re going to struggle to find one in someone who’s already been knocked back with a third and has a list of rejections as long as the number of firms who actually bother getting in touch with their unsuccessful applicants.

      • Camp Swank

        I disliked university life, too — rattling around in a large urban campus, feeling like a nobody with a number, intimidated by the whole thing, and especially by the snottiness of the profs — and my checkered grades don’t reflect on who I am at all. It was an ordeal to be got through and I got through it. But then, the liberal arts education was already in its death throes….

        • Nargis G Erabi

          I felt the same way about university life- it was an ordeal to get through and I considered dropping out at some point, but decided to stick it out.

    • Camp Swank

      No, because when things don’t come easily — and one day, one way or another, they won’t — these people won’t have the discipline and maturity to get through it. They are self-indulgent and feeling strongly entitled: two qualities that no employer (or spouse or friend, for that matter) wants.

      • LMB

        I have and always had those qualities. I am doing very well on the job market. My arrogance, which us the effect of the self-entitlement, is seen as self-confidence.

        You nay find it questionable, but that’s how I roll.

        • maivalentine

          You have missed the point – those qualities do indeed do well on the job market (and in life), but just because they do well on the job market doesn’t mean they were the best candidate for the jobs they recieve.

          • Camp Swank

            I don’t think arrogance ever suits personal relationships, do you? Self-knowledge, yes; arrogance, no.

          • maivalentine

            Again – the point has been missed. Arrogance never SUITS personal relationships but will often do well socially anyway Such relationships are often doomed to failure (depending on level of arrogance and tolerance etc) BUT – arrogance can be mistaken as confidence and arrogant people will often be successful in ‘getting the girl/boy’ or initially impressing a group, often through the most basic factor of having the confidence to approach the group/person due to their arrogance.
            (sorry for the occasional capital letters for emphasis – I havent mastered formating italics yet, I don’t intend to be shouting)

        • Curnonsky

          That you, Cameron?

      • John Williams

        Thanks, I thought as much. I’ll waste no more time being jealous of them then.

      • Anthony McDonnell

        but surely that is as true for all people who didn’t work in University, regardless of success?

        • Swank

          I don’t know how you can be a long-term success at anything without applying effort.

    • rorysutherland

      These people do exist – usually you find them doing mathematics or theoretical physics, those rare subjects where bullshit and hard work count for nothing if you don’t first have the rare talent required to do them well.

      • Swank

        But even there, raw talent will take you so far, and then no farther. My grandad, before retirement (his book is still in print from the U of Cambridge Press) was a chemist, working mainly in plastics and fibre optics. He said that there were chemists more brilliant than he, but they would be stuck for their whole careers in the labs, in the back rooms, because they weren’t good communicators or administrators and had no head for business. I’m not saying they were lazy. But a talent or ability has to be very rare and very outstanding indeed before other people (and employers) will put up with severe deficits in other respects for the sake of having access to that ability. And they will make sure such personnel don’t trespass where they might possibly do harm. As you know.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Well if they stop being drunks I suppose. Hiring drunks doesn’t sound a very good idea to me. Drunks are a staggering disaster.

  • Ed

    I like this a lot. The competitive jobs market clearly creates a employers market. There is also definitely value to be had outside of the differentials of university marks, extortionate internships and gross self proselytizing CV’s. Hard work, Life experience, fun and honesty can also go a long way. Yes organisations have to narrow down their applicants but surely taking a cross section of applicants across perceived market value creates the opportunity to consider personable characteristics alongside standardised measures and objective skills and find real value for employers in the jobs market.

  • knightofmars

    One word comes to mind, “awesome”. I’m one of the individuals who did all the things that one isn’t supposed to in high-school and college. Slid through most of my classes with B/Cs (an A here or there if I liked the class). Now I’m a top programmer at my company and get lauded regularly for great business input. Trying to translate how someone acts from 13-25 into work performance at 25+ is downright bizarre after you really step back and really examine it. I understand it is upsetting to those who put their nose to the grindstone from 13-25 with the expectation of “making it big” but the reality is that our cultures lie to us about what it is that really enables a person’s success. The truth is that a combination of the following attributes generally play the largest role: starting out rich, raw intelligence, the ability to communicate well, a strong drive, being physically attractive. Obviously there’s no one equation to success, which means believing that “getting good grades” and “doing as your told” will make you successful inevitably leads to some very unhappy people at 40.

    • James Chandler

      You’re right, the system isn’t perfect, but should we really stop putting emphasis on hard work and getting good grades, etc. and celebrate indifference just because you proved to be an exception? No, I don’t think so.

      On average, those with good qualifications (who presumably worked hard) live longer and healthier lives than those who don’t – that seems fair to me. There will always be winners and losers in any system but you can’t denounce one entirely based on anecdotal evidence alone.

      • knightofmars

        James, my evidence isn’t anecdotal as there have been studies done on whether or not school performance is an indicator of job performance. The outcome of those studies? There isn’t a correlation between school performance and job performance. I am in no way am celebrating “indifference”. I think the only way for the system to change is for people to start acknowledging that it isn’t functioning the way we all want to believe it is functioning. Our education system isn’t producing the “best and the brightest” we’re producing the “most capable of following a standard format” and “least creative”. Do some Googling, you’ll see numerous studies detailing how the structure of our education system is in no way optimal for learning and has gaps in teaching real world skills such as creative problem solving. I stand by my previous statement about the attributes that truthfully play a role in an individual’s success or failure.

        “On average, those with good qualifications (who presumably worked hard) live longer and healthier lives than those who don’t”, this statement given the context is anecdotal. I even did a handful of searches to see if there is any truth behind that statement and was unable to find conclusive evidence. An actual indicator of life quality is that those blessed with FOXO genes live longer and healthier lives than those who have either one or none. Other indicators are whether or not your family has a history of heart-attack or cancer. Are you a smoker? Do you drink more than 1 drink a day? Do you exercise regularly? There is a reason your doctor (and insurance companies) ask you these questions and not “What was your GPA in high school? How about college?” The evidence of what does and does not indicate longer and healthier lives is immediately available to us based on our interactions with entities that base their entire existence upon them.

        • Swank

          You can’t learn anything though from the drinks question. People routinely understate their drinking habits (and for good reason, given medical-political oppressiveness). I would tell someone with the power to harm or help me what I think he wants to hear. Doctors have always lied to me: so I lie back.

        • allymax bruce

          Yes, the system grades you, to a degree, how much like the system you become.
          I realised this doing my undergrad, thus why I challenged myself to ‘do it my way’ for my postgrad.

  • Daniel Maris

    These days, given how easy it is to cheat thanks to the internet and course work, a third must be either a sign of honesty or idiocy.

    • Sam Shorto

      Yeah, it’s really easy to cheat when pretty much every university uses automatic plagiarism detection software and marks coursework based on originality. If anyone cheated, they’d know in a second. And internet research still takes skill, anyone that says otherwise doesn’t know how to do good internet research. People that do well at university are those that are bright and work hard. Why do people like you always feel like you have to do your best to take away from the achievements of everyone else?

      • TFD

        As a university instructor, I can state that in my experience, grading on originality is not the norm. Maybe it happens in literature and history classes sometimes, but in math, science, languages, and social sciences, the focus is foremost on demonstrating that you actually understand the material.

        • Neil Cameron

          That is surely because your task is to indoctrinate compliance.

          • TFD

            When you need a heart bypass someday, Neil, do you really want a surgeon who isn’t compliant?
            When you drive over a bridge or sit through an earthquake in your home, would it comfort you to know that the engineer was a free spirit who thought rules were made to be broken?
            Creativity and innovation are obviously important, but:
            1. You can’t teach creativity, anyway. Go to any college creative writing class if you want proof.
            2. The creative spirit can ONLY create great work if it’s founded on a rigorous mastery of the basics. If the teacher fails to instill that mastery, then natural genius runs to waste.
            3. Some people are just naturally not very creative, but they can still save lives, build homes, and improve everyone’s quality of life. But first, they have to know what they’re doing thanks to a rigorous education.

          • woolfiesmiff

            Well that kind of depends on the circumstances really TFD. Bleeding to death in an Andes plane wreck, then basically anyone willing to have a go would do.

            As to your earthquake analogy again it depends on what the free spirited rule breaker came up with as a solution. I think if you pop along to the history department you might be surprised to find that the vast majority of scientific, engineering and innovative breakthroughs came from unqualified amateurs .

            Yes plodders are important, but they will keep on doing stuff the way they were taught no matter what. Which is ok, sometimes.

          • TFD

            Well my point is that the rule-breaker can’t come up with any useful solution if they don’t know the ins and outs of the system they’re working with.
            And I think in history we need to distinguish between rigorous autodidacts and unqualified amateurs. If you went to that history department, you’d probably be surprised at how many of those “unqualified amateurs” had 10-20 years of diligent practice and studying behind their breakthroughs, which were somehow left out of the popular histories about them.

          • Swank

            Charles Dawson being the standout oh-my-god autodidact/talented amateur who decided to give the world “Piltdown Man” for his own aggrandizement. The writer John Evangelist Walsh, who wrote the best book on the subject, is amazed at the presumption of Dawson — which was accepted by all parties at the time — in lecturing an actual world expert (who was not a fraud) on the ins and outs of paleoarchaeology.

          • Neil Cameron

            You missed my point. I do not advocate a world populated with non compliant anarchists. Compliance has a place, and society desperately needs compliant people.
            But an army of compliant clones is not what society needs or will tolerate.
            Having sat through earthquakes, and designed many buildings, i am painfully aware of the need for compliance, however i am also painfully aware that pure compliance renders the built environment a maze of ugly bunkers constructed using the economically viable products and methodologies du jour.
            We have to live here on this planet between those occasional extreme events which challenge our survival.

          • TFD

            Rather, I think you missed the point of my two comments. It’s not that I think compliant, uncreative zombies are all that societies need. My point is that creativity and originality are mostly irrelevant to a STEM education. It’s something inherent to the student, which he/she brings to the table. The STEM college instructor doesn’t teach creativity, and shouldn’t try to, but instead teaches the knowledge and rational thinking skills that give certain creative endeavors their structure. A genius artist like, say, Jimi Hendrix probably has no use for that kind of learning, but for a potential genius architect or a potential genius scientist it’s absolutely essential. That creative spark, however, can only come from the student.

          • Tsering Norbu

            I agree with you TFD. Creativity and Genius are things that cannot be taught. Trying to “teach” creativity and entrepreneurship in our schools (as they seem to be the latest buzzwords on the TED circuit.) is self-defeating because then we will be focusing on TEACHING kids how to be “creative”. Once you start “teaching”, you will end up with cookie-cutter “creative” zombies.

          • zeblonite

            Sorry Neil, your comment is a fail. Math and science are evidence and proof based disciplines. If a math instructor’s task is to indoctrinate compliance, it is to indoctrinate compliance with reality rather than myth, assumption, and ignorance.

          • Neil Cameron

            My comment is no fail. It is a statement of fact.
            The fail appears to be emerging in the PERCEIVED intent behind my statement of fact.
            Naturally such a person is likely to oppose those with a tendency to not obssess and be totally immersed in compliance. The maleable putty people are as vital as the rigidly compliant stiffs.

          • Fergus Pickering

            No it isn’t. Science has disseminated ignorance and assumption like anything. Have you heard of the wandering womb?. That was scientific truth in the nineteenth century. What about the solid state universe. Scientific truth in the first half of this century. We could talk about global warming but people are liable to get very cross…

        • Alison Piearcey

          All my degree coursework failed you for plagiarism, original work is mandated. Demonstrating understanding (and all those other higher skills you talked about in teacher ed) requires original thought

          If the question you ask is: What is the code to display ‘hello world’ in C++? you are looking for a direct answer

          If the question you ask is: Who might be described as fathers of the Internet? you are looking for a discursive answer.

          Being able to write involves constructing arguments and weighing evidence. Or in other words being at least a little bit original. I don’t want to mark sixty copies of the textbook answer – I want to know the student has _understood_ not merely regurgitated.

          Rigour & accuracy and creativity & originality are not in fact opposing axes, but complementary skills. The best science happens when you take ideas and mix them up, asking ‘what if’

  • yomcule

    With so many contrarians already around us and given that the numbers seem to be swelling by the day, it, probably, is not a good time to be a contrarian. :-)

    • rorysutherland

      On the contrary, game theory suggests that, when everyone else is following strategy A, strategy B often pays. Competitive sailors and Darwinists understand this well….

      • yomcule

        Thanks for replying Rory. I absolutely agree that “when everyone else is following strategy A, strategy B often pays”. What I meant to say in my comment above is that is some spheres, what has traditionally been considered to be ‘contrarian’ strategy seems to be the in-thing. For example, when it come to recruitment, recently Laszlo Bock (Google) made a similar point claiming that G.P.A.s are not a very good indicator of on job performance in general. I am an amateur investor in the markets and I see a similar trend in investing.

        • rorysutherland

          I suspect that in investment there is a natural aversion among intermediaries to old-fashioned “value investing” because it doesn’t give you enough to do to justify your fees. You need a regular stream of new theories and narratives to create constant noise and activity, however pointless this activity might be!

          • rorysutherland

            No estate agent will ever say to you “Gosh you have a really nice house as it is. Why don’t you just stay where you are?”

          • yomcule

            Also intelligent investors do not sell or buy a lot, they try to minimize transaction costs. To the average client who does not understand a lot about investing, this looks like his fund manager is not working hard enough!

  • Jon Patience

    I dropped out. Please may I have a job?

  • Jon Patience

    I dropped out. Please may I have a job?

  • Leisureguy

    The author fails to include another common reason for basing hiring decisions on academic achievement: covering one’s ass. If the candidate fails in the job, the hiring manager would rather say, “Well, don’t blame me! He had a Harvard/Stanford MBA” than, “We’ve been over this. I did indeed know he was a self-educated chicken farmer, but I was impressed at his knowledge, initiative, and drive,” etc. In other words, a way to brush off failure. If you can shift the faulty judgment from yourself to someone else—Harvard/Stanford in this case. “It’s their fault, not mine!” seems to many a much better thing to say than, “Yeah, I made a mistake.”

    BTW, I have to say that when I worked at the American College Testing Program decades ago, researchers there established that grades and test scores had zero correlation with adult-life accomplishment, provided that a basic level of skill and knowledge was gained—in other words, 20 years on, you could not tell from real-life accomplishments and standing who was an A student and who was a C student.

    That was when and why ACT added the “out-of-class accomplishments” scales to their test instrument: those scores also did not correlate with grades or test scores—but did correlate with later accomplishment, which makes sense: the best predictor of future performance is past performance (for people, not stocks and bonds). And it makes sense in the specific context: a person with the initiative, energy, and motivation to undertake out-of-class (unassigned) projects, those characteristics will likely persist, and in real life, those are just the ticket.

    • rorysutherland

      Quite right. I was going to add this, but ran out of space. There are two kinds of decision in business: good decisions, and decisions which are easy to defend. They are not the same thing.

      • whiteafrican13

        Rory, an interesting theory, but here’s the thing: these days, a 2:1 by itself is rarely enough to get graduates the job they want. They typically need a CV that demonstrates other useful skills relevant to the chosen job. So, for example, a law firm is more likely to hire a graduate who, in addition to gaining a 2:1, also contributed to a student law review publication or participated in mooting competitions. While there may be no correlation between academic ability (alone) and life achievement, experience teaches that there is a correlation between the combination of academic ability and relevant skills on the one hand, and life achievement on the other.

        So why should the 2:1 (alone) be a prerequisite to even looking at a graduate’s CV? Because experience again teaches that students who are motivated enough to get a 2:1 are more likely to be motivated enough to have developed some useful additional skills. It doesn’t guarantee that they have these skills, but it creates a reason to believe that they might. Conversely, students who spent their days in a drum circle probably have the skills to roll a great joint, but are less likely to have the skills to carry out complicated research tasks. It’s not a hard rule -there are exceptions- but finding them is a laborious task and for most employers (major-league baseball excepted) the payoffs of finding an outlier are not likely to compensate for the time and expense of finding them.

        • Paul Adsett

          if one has spent the bulk of one’s uni-life booking acts in the common room and reading ‘lord of the rings’, would that amount to participation in an entmoot? a moot point…

        • Carl

          The education system in the UK has been dumbed down to such an extent now that getting a 2:1 from even a top university is now meaningless: 30% get As for A-level maths (and 15% get A*s), when in my day only 10% got As; anecdotally, the exams are easier, full of coursework, modular, and the questions are easier. I only have stats for Imperial on what comes next (because thats where I went and I recently looked it up), but now 86% get a 1st or a 2:1. Why bother with university at all when it has become such a sausage factory? When I went, it was an achievement to do well and get offers from Oxbridge/Imperial, but now it is not. I’d be more impressed by someone who didn’t go and worked their way up (computer programming is probably a good area to start in for which you don’t need a degree: you have to be fairly smart to get good at that. Pure sales is generally too much about who you know and can be ‘blagged’).

  • Chris Postle

    As someone graduating this week with a Desmond, I have to ask, are you hiring?

    • rorysutherland

      Always interested!

      • Nargis G Erabi

        How about a third (in Chemistry)? After reading that people like me must be either dim or lazy or perpetually drunk, this article gives me some hope that not everyone would be so judgemental. Not that I mention my degree on cv- I emphasize on other things I have to offer.
        And if you are hiring, I’m willing!

        • Alison Piearcey

          My employer loves my unclassifed degree (that being the only one available in my discipline)

          Oh wait, self-employed, proving point. First class guy in next nearest class is piling tins, I’m the CEO.

    • Alice Hickman

      Hooray for the Desmond, well done sir (and ditto).

  • JunkkMale

    Sold my agency to a FCB a few years back.
    I got a 3rd.
    Mind you, it was in Civil Engineering.
    Maybe that’s why headhunters are not even passing on the CV?

  • Candide delMilano

    Here at Network Rail we have been pursuing this policy for 10 years. That’s how got to where we are today. We’re getting there (but you’re not).

    • Rachel

      However according to the Network Rail website you still need a 2:1 degree for all of the graduate schemes.

      • Narcfox

        You also need 1+ years experience in the rail industry to do any none graduate schemes, seems a bit cyclic doesn’t it?

  • Sarah Sá Couto

    That business school mentality starts at home. Mothers/parents should lay off a bit.

    • Swank

      True, Sarah; but I wish mine (hopelessly out of it, etc.) had laid on a bit more….

  • Joey Jones

    As the owner of a first class philosophy degree, I fully support Rory’s proposal, grounded as it is in sound and logical observation. I don’t feel particularly excluded either: greater learning has shown me that employment is for those who haven’t figured out a better way to spend their time. And besides, there are few nominally respectable professions more odious than advertising.

    • Swank


  • andy_gill

    You really don’t understand Moneyball do you? Billy Beane hired players who had excellent skills as demonstrated by their performance statistics. They were only undervalued by the market because the market was using different performance criteria.

    Now what are your performance criteria? Getting a third does not seem to be a very useful predictor of future success. I think you will need to be a bit more selective than that.

    • rorysutherland

      But this is my whole point. Beane used different metrics in deciding whom to hire – on-base percentage rather than RBI, for instance – and cleverly broke with the consensus by creating a model with better predictive value. Yet current hiring practice seems uninterested in questioning or even assessing the value of their current approach.

      But crap models may not matter much if everyone uses a different crap model. What creates the absurdity is when everyone uses the same crap model. This leads to what biologists call a runaway signalling effect.

  • JackSpringman

    When my father graduated from Oxford in 1950, his tutor told him “give it twenty years and it is usually the thirds employing the firsts”. Up until the end of the millenium, this had become amplified to firsts working for drop-outs or non attendees – Gates, Ellison, Dell, Branson, etc. Sadly this trend seems to have been reversed by the boom and the risk is that in a couple of years we will all be working, in some way or another, for the PdD founders of Google.

    But despite this I think two underlying truths will continue. Firstly that those without grand qualifications will be more entrepreneurial than those that have them as the latter will suffer a higher opportunity cost for setting up a business due to what they could earn in paid work. Secondly that those who spent their time at university partying are probably better versed in interpersonally skills- hugely important in for both managing business relationships and leading – than those who spent their time chained to a desk revising.

    • Swank

      Getting drunk and disorderly at frat parties is a qualification for success in business?

  • Emily Slee

    You can have a life and get a 2:1. You can’t have a life and get a 1st. But you have to be pretty damn lazy to get a 3rd.

    • Fergus Pickering

      More nonsense. Getting a third, or a fourth in Oxford, takes considerable effort. At doing other things. Getting a second is a breeze. Philip Larkin had a first. W.H. Auden had a third. John Betjeman left without any sort of degree at all. And so did A.E. Housman, Professor of Latin at London, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, poet everywhere.

      • Swank

        Exceptional people will always be exceptional in most things: they either overperform or underperform but they are not average.

        Besides the fact that probably a third of current high school students should not be going to university at all, we all know that the physics grad with a 2.1 is probably sharper and more knowledgeable than the one that got a first in Gender Studies. Also, who would be a better business hire: the egghead with the first or the sociable fellow with a second or third who is also excellent in cricket? The answer isn’t obvious. People should be assessed on their merits.

      • Emily Slee

        Not everybody goes to Oxford or Cambridge

        • Fergus Pickering

          No they don’t, Emily, but these chaps all did. My point was not the superiority of Oxbridge, but the fallibility of a degree as a measure of success.

    • allymax bruce

      Little miss prissy ; bet you were the class swot.
      It’s damned hard work; you see, when your politics dept keep giving you A’s , and B’s you gotta find a way to screw up; I told my dissertation marker homosexuality is only a social construction. I didn’t know she was a Lesbian!

    • Jack

      ‘You can’t have a life and get a 1st’.

      This is just vacuous nonsense, really.

  • woolfiesmiff

    There’s only one qualification that matters and that’s attitude.

  • tbower91

    As a recent graduate I’d just like to say how refreshing it is to hear comments that carry so much common sense behind them. I studied Media (specialising in PR) and I was amazed how many first class students at my university couldn’t hold a basic conversation! God knows how they’ll get on in the communications industry without basic communication skills. I willing sacrificed my chances of a first to take part in a society which eventually I went on to run and I feel will benefit me professionally just as much, if not more, than my degree. I am looking for work so I’d love to send you a CV, although I did get a 2:1 (I hope that doesn’t under-qualify me!).


      “I was amazed how many first class students at my university couldn’t hold a basic conversation! God knows how they’ll get on in the communications industry without basic communication skills.”

      Completely agree. Some of the people i met at uni weren’t necessarily the brightest and they certainly didn’t apply themselves as well as they could have done. However, what they were good at was communicating and holding conversations abut a range of topics. Surely the ability to communicate, especially in the ‘real world’ as i was so often told, holds far more weight than a social outcast with a 1st that finds the prospect of meeting new people frightening.

  • Brightsource1

    I like your thinking! However, successful graduate recruitment also relies on employers running rewarding and crowd-pleasing recruitment schemes. Well done Ogilvy for coming in at 89 in a recent poll – Top 100 Companies for Graduates to work for (published by the JobCrowd). However, maybe your company could take a leaf out of Brightsource’s book, a marketing services company that’s enjoyed a 30% rise in graduate recruitment in just 2 years and an encouraging 100% retention rate. Oh, and they also made the number 3 spot in the same poll!

  • mikej

    I have gone back to an art / design college to do my masters and was horrified at how career conscious everyone across the college is. You are all in creative fields yet so driven by their marks. Not by doing work they truly love. The reality is half the celebrity alumni failed or quit.

    Having worked in advertising. The best people I have had the pleasure of meeting or working with always had an interesting story to tell. I cant remember it once starting with … when I got top honours at …

  • PWB

    I got a third and have just been taken on as a copywriting intern at a marketing agency in London. They brought me in purely because they came across some work I’d done and liked it. No one asked me what class of degree I got, or to see my CV.

    It’s refreshing. I feel very lucky to be here and determined to learn as much as I can and prove my worth. It would be nice if more companies hired like this.

  • Adam Ball

    I didn’t do the best at university and I only really found what I was passionate about when I’d left. I had a great time, met some of my now closest friends, and its defined who I am as a person. Not my future career though.

    I started out as an intern at Concept Cupboard (which actually looks to transform the way young people are educated and work) and am now General Manager. I’ve now figured out what it takes to add value to a cause and university didn’t help me with that. I had to throw myself in at the deep-end and rely on someone taking a chance on me in the beginning.

    Thanks for showcasing this Rory, great piece.

  • allymax bruce

    Rory, how refreshing your ideas are; you see opportunity as a two way street, that is retro in its early postmodern era of 60’s essence. In a Capitalist market, even capitalism must keep reinventing itself. Marx knew that. As for hiring ‘thirds’, that’s clever; I had the most ‘productive’ time doing my postgrad’ in psychoanalysis. I was having a great time with a large array of friends, of whom, we seconded a large corner of the Student Union bar, which became ‘drop-out-corner’. The most clever of students drifted in, and out, of our social student matrix, discussing deep deep ideas, and pulsating debates in psychology, philosophy, history, etc. I got my postgrad, but it was an enlightening Master of Arts to manage it!

  • Elliot Levi

    Great to read thoughts that mirror your own.

    In my opinion a lot of university is pants. I think they should teach one thing above all others: critical thinking.

    Yeah. Anyway. I’m finding it pretty hard to get a job, so what would you say to someone who got a first but completely agrees with you? I am definitely okay with admitting that I drank and smoked and other thingsed.

    • Alexsandr

      lie on your CV. say you got a 2:2. no-one will notice.

  • Jack

    ‘I have asked around’.

    That sounds like rigorous, meticulous, incisive research.

  • Thomas Edward

    The author seems to have overlooked that creativity is something that good universities value in both arts and science subjects. I have studied both history and maths to a reasonable level and would argue that good marks are impossible without creativity in argument or proof respectively. The premise of the above argument is that 2:1s or firsts result from following a formula and working hard on irrelevant subjects. I would never say that these will not result in good marks, but the majority of high achieving graduates do so because they can do the skills that the workplace will require: present information in a concise and organised way; research efficiently; produce arguments in a limited time/under pressure; come at problems from new angles. As an undergraduate I would love to say that people with thirds are as valuable – and perhaps in some jobs they are (one of the most successful men I have met in recent times got a 2:2 and has made a fortune ‘gambling’ – his words – on currency ever since). But for the majority of jobs out there a first in a hard subject (history, sciences, maths, philosophy, english lit, politics etc etc) demonstrates a high statistical likelihood that they’re going to be good at the job you’re hiring for. And if you want someone with vocational training – there are plenty of people coming out of courses of that nature as well

  • ling

    Heavily involved on campus + volunteering work + part time work to support myself through uni + played sports at BUCS level for the uni, and still graduated with a first fro York. Some people manage everything better than others. Why should I be penalized for my ability to do well socially and academically at the same time?

    • Haidee

      I completely agree with you – I don’t know why so many people on here are under the impression that First students are socially inept! I also graduated from York (with a 2:1) and the majority of the First students on my course had plenty of friends, were the nicest people to talk to, and had active social lives. They shouldn’t be penalised under the assumption that just because they worked hard, they must have no social skills!

  • Cymrugel

    So basically you think academic failure is sign of hidden talent and being a more rounded person? Just generally a more interesting individual all round -having been off attending the “university of life” and all that bollocks.

    What a lot of cack

    • Alexsandr

      faulure? I don’t think a Desmond or a Douglas is failure. they have a degree.

  • Neil Cowan

    Starting your fourth para (NB my specialist maths skills) with “Let me explain. I have asked around, and…”, I’m unsure about how far your ‘around’ stretched?

    F’rinstance, while you make only passing reference to degree type, yesterday’s FT carried an article — entitled ‘Humanities grads shine in business’ — which must have delighted all those holders of ‘useless’ arts degrees, such as English. Indeed, such as me. Or should that be such as I? (Well, I said arts degrees were useless.)

    A-a-a-nyway, if you were to combine low grades with useless degrees you might actually achieve that perfect storm of low-class graduate recruitment.

    Good luck!

    PS There’s a lot of very serious comments out there. Is mine the only one that reflects any sense of irony you may have been intending?

  • D2E

    Bit late to the party but as someone who got a 2:2, this
    article really resonates with me. Bottom line, I wasn’t really interested in
    the course so I didn’t do well. How is any 18 year old kid meant to know what to
    study? Only the most focused have a clue. I only took my course because going
    to uni was what’s expected of me. I’ve since completed 2 Masters and did much
    better because I enjoyed subject matter. If I ever have kids, I’ll suggest
    taking a couple of years out after school to work out what they want to do for
    the rest of their lives. And the key criteria will be that they’re passionate
    about it.

    • Alexsandr

      2 years out before uni should be law, especially for teachers.

  • Katie

    Grades don’t mean much. Being a straight A student all through high school didn’t get me into a top university, crying poor and disadvantaged did. If I had put in more effort instead of deciding to get some social skills and make a friend or two then I probably would have received a place without the necessary begging. Which might not have been the right choice, I don’t mean the whole scraping the bottom of the A grade and slipping to some B’s thing, but that now I’m at university with a bunch of very study focused people who have fewer social skills than me, don’t understand that my summer was two jobs and eight to fourteen hour work days to be able to support myself so i can just attend this year, have never drunk any significant amount of alcohol or done anything other than study and have no apparent sense of humour to date.

    So now where do i go from here? I’m so glad you asked because now i can tell you that i have absolutely no idea. i just have bills to pay, a working class background extending to every known generation of my family and an opportunity to do ‘better’, whatever ‘better’ is.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Speaking of thirds, does anyone like the new Britney Spears song? It’s featured on youtube.

    George Balanchine

  • Flip Flops

    When I got my degree results I found out I was one of 8 in the room to not get a 2.1 or higher, and the only person I knew to have done so. Whilst I was a little upset by this, I was comforted by the knowledge that I was also one of about 8 in the room that had got a job. While everyone else had been busy studying I’d been spending a little bit too much time volunteering and accidentally talked my way in to a job. At the time it was the job of my dreams, 3 years later I’ve moved on and am training to be an accountant in a small firm and wouldn’t change that for the world. If I had got a magic 2.1 who knows where I’d have ended up, but having been a member of staff at a university I’ve seen some of the people that get 2.1s and I’d employ those with 2.2s etc over most of them any day.

  • Don Reed

    As a college dropout who could only comprehend half of this, I say, there is much to recommend in this articulate defense of my social caste.

  • Richard

    I got a 2:2 in my Economics degree and was shunned by employers. The 2:2 wasn’t indicative of my ability or intelligence, I just didn’t study at university. I eventually got hired by a small solicitors firm where my natural talent shone through, and I have gone from strength to strength. We often get law graduates with first class degrees looking for work experience, vast majority of them turn out to be completely useless. Makes me wonder how they got a first class degree in the first place.

    • Swank

      Why didn’t you study at university? Why else did you attend? Mating pool?

  • Richard Alberg

    I founded and ran one of the largest providers of graduate selection tests and many years before that started my career as a graduate trainee in a top ten advertising agency. Somewhat ironically I never went to university. I agree with Rory’s thesis. The unfortunate reality is that firms that attract large numbers of applicants are always keen to find ways of quickly and inexpensively sifting candidates. Whilst a good degree may not be the only predictor of capability and may exclude some exceptional people, it does normally indicate a disciplined individual with an acceptable minimum level of talent.

    I had always hoped that online testing, costing very little and scaling very well, would allow the application gates to be thrown open. Any person who could achieve a minimum score would be looked at. However, few graduate recruiters have Rory’s perception or courage.

  • Arashi Stormlover Arashistorml

    Great point. Listen to a meeting room full of smart kids at tech companies nowadays. Sure, they’re mixed by race, gender and nationality. But they are virtual clones of each other, personality-wise. They look different but they talk and think the exact same way. Everything is, like, awesome or super-cool and they’re like, stoked.

  • Charles Hedges

    Dear Mr Sutherland,
    Have you investigated which univerisites have the courage to award third class degrees? i know at least 2 in London which dare not do it.

  • Charlie King

    I like the analogy of Moneyball in this article. However, I feel that the analogy does not favour Rory’s argument in question. The Oakland Athletics used the sabermetric model to improve their game. However, they could not win a World Series. The Red Sox were the ones who used this model to win the World Series and they had the much better players.

    The Moneyball analogy actually favours hiring the best of the best because if you find the high achievers and apply a model to bring out their best skills and aptitudes then they will succeed. As Moneyball demonstrates you can make people better, but it does not always mean they will succeed.

  • johnturnip

    As someone who stood behind fellow students complaining that it it was unfair that I got a 3rd and how could I possibly pass and that it was not right, I have to say it was not hard getting a third.

    Just not going to lectures and turning up late and drunk to exams seemed to suffice.

    I had a great deal of fun, learned a lot of life’s lessons and was irresponsible in a safe environment.

    I would not recommend my approach, however I fear that life experience is the most important outcome from University.

    Recently I have yet to meet a graduate I would employ, some seem unable to string a sentence together.

    I left teaching as the opportunity to enthuse children, develop their learning skills and their sense of wonder is drowned out by the focus on achievement.

    What my employer gets is innovation, creativity and independent thought. I can do business in peoples Board Rooms, manage the head office, and am happy to lay cable under the car park.

    The real fun is in laying the cable, especially when you have never tried it before, even better when it works.

  • aggieagatha

    Makes sense if you want to hire the lazy and irresponsible.

  • Teacher

    One of the cleverest and most inspirational teachers in the school where I taught had a third. Come to think of it, another of our very best teachers didn’t have a degree at all and neither did one of our head teachers. Strangely, the 1960s/1970s educated B.Eds had better subject knowledge than the newer ‘single subject degree’ teachers. Pieces of paper and funny hats don’t account for everything.

  • Tim Spencer

    I take it the Ogilvy group recently landed the Tanqueray account then?

    • Tim Aldiss

      They’ve been on it for years 😉

  • LeonJD

    I work with graduate data every day. As lively and refreshing as this debate is, it misses some vital demographic angles. The fact is a university education is now a necessary, but not sufficient qualification for most decent jobs. The days when only the social or intellectual elite would attend are long gone, so being a drop-out is no longer the dubious badge of honour for creatives it once was.

    More and more employers are looking for specific technical abilities, either vocational or academic, leaving about half of graduate jobs suitable for more generic backgrounds. Indeed, it’s often argued that the UK is currently producing too many generic graduates and not enough vocationally mature grads such as engineers.

    In a buyer’s market, employers can afford to look for graduates with top honours degrees and expect them to have excellent social skills and work experience alongside. The problem they have is the pool has become a lot larger, so their sifting needs to be even more sophisticated unless they just court the ‘top’ universities, as some sadly do.

    On the other hand, a combination of more motivated students, improving teaching practices (oh yes) and current league table pressures mean there are so few graduates awarded third class degrees that you’re likely to find they’re not so much the cool set as those still battling with the underlying economic, social or personal issues that prevented them from getting higher grades in the first place.

    Finally, the issue of a causal relationship between grades and employability is moot. There is, however, a clear correlation between grades, whether A-level tariff or degree class, and employability (more exponential than linear) whilst the graduate salary premium between grads and non-grads, in the most comprehensive dataset, is widening again, despite a massive rise in HE participation. These facts suggest that, on a macro-economic level at least, grades do indeed relate to business success.

    As something of a romantic I love to see the underdog win, and many brilliant individuals from less academically successful backgrounds will indeed surge past their former peers once in situ, but I fear any employer intentionally hiring from lower percentiles may unintentionally reconfigure themselves as social enterprises.

  • 1stAndProud

    In my second year at Uni I was on a 2.1 and I though to myself, I reckon I can get a first, so why not try. And for the first time I actually excelled academically (I nearly dropped out of a-levels). I still went out, was in about four sports clubs and had a fantastic group of friends that made my time at university amazing. But I still got a first. Please don’t discriminate against people in my position for getting within a specific degree class, we worked really hard for it, and although I agree you shouldn’t cut the majority of people out of the market – doesn’t that effort count for anything? We’ve shown we’re committed and intelligent, and although obviously you need more than that to do well in the world, it is a measure of your ability to sit down and apply yourself and get results. As well as having a great time, surely at the end of the day University is about studying something you’re passionate about and hopefully furthering your prospects. If you take that away, then what are you actually paying for?

  • anybody

    Many dyslexic individuals get lower grades at uni , not because of a lack of ability on their part but because the lack of understanding by some universities regarding dyslexia and the effect it has, when being judged against mainstream ‘normal’ people. If more Employers thought outside the box , then what would be accomplished is a rich and diverse workforce who are capable and intelligent and fundamentally don’t just judge you on your essay writing and your memory. As I have never been asked to write an essay by any employer or had my memory tested , the degree is not representative of ability but in my opinion just how good your memory or your essay skills are.

  • PaulMcKechnie

    There’s a paradox here. Will Rory Sutherland hire the best third-class applicants he can find, or the worst? But never mind that: I hope he’ll write again next year and say how these third class hires are working out.

  • andre mostert
  • stevemeikle

    I got a degree. Not that it was worth anything.

    I now work as a semi skilled woodworker/labourer, making pallets, crates and bins, and I am far happier than ever I was in the profession for which I got my now grubby degree certificate which sits unlamented in a draw

  • Alessia

    I wish I read something like this while at university. It would have saved me a good 1/3 of my anxiety.

  • James

    I’m an engineering undergrad at Imperial, one of britain’s top five universities, on track for a first class, yet I love this article. One thing I’ve learned is that a person’s grade isn’t much indication of their ability or how much work they put in. No plagiarism checks are done whatsoever on our coursework except for the two most important pieces (one being the final year project dissertation) leading to many students openly cheating on their coursework, eg by working in big groups on reports that are supposed to be done individually or by getting marked reports from students in the year above so they know exactly what to do. Myself and some other students who I know to be bright sometimes get poor marks for having the audacity to try things ourselves while others coast ahead and I know damn well they’re cheating. Even the lecturers know and they don’t give a damn.

    Most of my classmates have some overly competitive attitude, they cheat for high grades and I’ve seen how people will lie to others or ditch their friends just to suck up to those who can help them, all so they can get one step ahead. Frankly some of those are the people who will get the well paying jobs because they have the ruthless selfish attitude needed. But I see other coursemates who will probably get 2:2s or 3rds but have a genuine passion for the subject and an interest in learning, they get poor grades because they don’t care about studying and working to other peoples’ standards in modules they don’t care about but are forced to do. They want to learn things that interest them and work to their own level and they are the ones who will really be the happiest in life. They will turn out to be their own people, not repugnant career minded robots or anti-social shut-ins who can do amazing work but barely string a sentence together.

    In my opinion the whole graduate recruitment process is broken, it offers success to the people who deserve it the least because they’re the ones who know how to game the system and exploit it. Quite frankly most companies’ impression of the ideal employee is my impression of a selfish, superficial, dishonest and exploitative person. Still, one upside of my horrible time in university is I’m more aware of how people will be like in the real working world and won’t be in for as many nasty surprises.

  • Carl Wells

    Interesting discussion, but I have to say that one of the most important factors in career success is luck, and that hasn’t been mentioned at all … we seem to believe that success in business/life will be meritocratic, but that is not generally the case in my experience; whilst it is sometimes true, luck, timing, and ‘fit’ play a far greater role.

  • Anne Boleyn

    What about those of us that took loads of drugs and still managed to get a 2:1? What then?

  • Laura

    I graduated 4 years ago with a first degree. And personally I haven’t found that any employer cared about what grade I got. No one has ever asked about my results, and in fact some flat out said they didn’t mind if I even had one or not.

    No one has ever asked to see my degree either or for any proof of it – so honestly, I could have just made the whole thing up. I’ve found that, as a creative anyway, employers look at your book, you personality and your enthusiasm. Which is how it should be, rather than putting emphasis on what grade you got.

  • thrive

    Olgivy is owned by WPP (Wire and Plastic Products), a company owned by Martin Sorrell which holds many other advertising companies including Grey Group, Young & Rubicam Brands and JWT. Sorrel’s annual salary is around £18m. It’s in his interest to hire people willing to take any opportunity and therefore accept a low wage, work long hours and eventually make huge profits for Sorrell. This is just another example of the rich exploiting the poor. WPP owns so many companies Sorrell admitted he can’t even remember them all. Wake up and create your own opportunities otherwise we’re just heading towards an elite owning everything.

  • Rich Hawkins

    I worked insanely hard to get my first class degree last year. I also work insanely hard in the job I now have in the industry I worked hard to be a part of. There is something to be said for commitment. Sorry to simplify!

  • Richard

    I like the ideas around recruitment, academic performance and
    business potential. I agree, probably the most important thing in
    business is good communication skills, good team working and hard work.
    A good degree only requires the last one of those and specifically
    marginalises the first two (the first is hardly done at all and the
    second is called cheating.)What I don’t agree with though is the
    idea that getting high is somehow a worthy goal and the best use of
    one’s time. I would know, as I spent a fair amount of my time at
    university doing just that, and honestly it didn’t do me much good.
    What’s more important than being intoxicated is the experiences you have
    and the people you meet. Basically, getting stoned with a complete
    idiot is a lot less fun than being sober with some really great people.

  • Nex

    Hiring is no longer common sense; Why hire based on how much individuals how good they can talk in dreary, artificial multi-round interviewers? Then employers complain why they are losing so much money on bad hires, instead of giving paid trial periods which are cheaper, faster to implement and generate more goodwill that are much more effective in, I dunno, seeing how good they actually work like what real people do in choosing mates?

    Or they don’t want to hire the right people in the first place?

  • JW
  • Hrasan

    I can play african drums excellently, I am capable of rolling a splendid joint and altogether I have done a lot of crazy shit. However, unfortunately, I still happened to get a 1st. What do I do now with my career?

  • Thomas McAvoy

    one thing a third class degree and a reasonably successful career shows is the ability to get back up – I got overloaded at 19 turn out it was a genetic trait – my sons did also but they were in usa – before they went to uni so after they matured they are now going into medicine – at 50 I realise the stupidity of not being able to fix a degree award after a period of time

  • hucksawyer

    Why don’t you just hire the bums on the street and get it over with.

    Let me translate the article into plain English:
    Blah blah blah, blah blah blah – I have somehow found myself in a nice position, and I can do whatever I want! I can hire whoever I want, the only criterion is my mood, screw you all, you can go to hell, thank you. Blah blah blah blah. Blah.

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