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I graduated last year from a master's course where I was fortunate enough to graduate top of my class. However I was told this in confidence by one of my referees to a PhD programme, and they informed me that under no circumstances was I to put this on academic applications, as it would be against 'department guidelines'.

I also tried to enquire with the department directly concerning class rankings, but as expected they were unwilling to reveal this information to me.

I'm now considering applying for a job, and believe that the class ranking would be a good thing for my CV. However I really ought not to know this fact, as it was revealed to me in confidence by my referee, and I risk jeopardising my relationship with him if the department found out.

Am I overthinking this, and should I just put it down, or is there a way to resolve this in a less risky way?

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    I can not speak for others, but your "class rank" means nothing to me. The lowest ranked student out of a highly selective program is more impressive than the top ranked student out of a very poor program. – emory Apr 18 at 21:17
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    @emory, not sure what your background is but that strikes me as an academia-centric viewpoint. In industry, I'm not sure if anyone cares about ranking or program after a certain point. I've hired many staff from low-ranked local colleges who outperformed hires from Ivy League programs. Further, it could be argued that class ranking in some programs correlates to work ethic - people who tested their way into a name brand program and then ended up low-ranked because they couldn't apply themselves might not have the sweat equity as someone who worked hard to get to the top of a lower program. – dwizum Apr 19 at 12:57
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    that strikes me as an academia-centric viewpoint — Well, yeah. Consider where we are, @dwizum! – JeffE Apr 19 at 13:16
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    Luckily none of us are perfect! I agree very much with your "in general," sentence - if anything, rank and program are minor details compared to showing skills, experience, and the ability to solve problems in a way that's relevant for the specific position. – dwizum Apr 19 at 13:41
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    But how did the person who told him know? Professors don't generally have enough free time, interest, or access to everyone's grades to compute class ranks themselves. Sure, professors can express their opinion that the student is very strong, but without the actual data (and the time and inclination to process it), any claim that a student "tops the cohort" just uninformed opinion. – JeffE Apr 20 at 22:00
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So, you put it on your CV, the future employer does what employers do and phones the institution to check details of awards, years etc.

BOOM - the institution does not confirm you were "top of the class" as that is just not done.

Now the future employer is confused - what else may be wrong on your CV AND your referee is pissed at you as well.

Do you really want to go there?

  • The discussion about rhetorical questions has been moved to chat. – Wrzlprmft Apr 21 at 9:44
  • @Wrzlprmft , Is moving discussions about rhetorical questions to chat really where we want to go as a Q&A community? ;) – msouth Apr 24 at 16:40
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For many jobs, willingness to keep confidential information confidential is essential, far more important than class rank. If a potential employer finds out during a background check that you disclosed something you were told in confidence, you may lose the job regardless of how well you did in class.

Class rank is not something I would have cared much about when I was interviewing, because it is too dependent on how other students did. For recent graduates, I did care whether the candidate got a respectable GPA for a relevant degree. Once someone has a few years work behind them, experience becomes more important. I have known excellent programmers with no degrees at all.

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Aside from the insightful advice given by Solar Mike, I'd like to emphasize the importance of maintaining a good professional relationship with that referee. You would be compromising a seemingly valuable relationship by doing something he explicitly advised you against, and he will most likely include that information in some form in the letter/recommendation anyway. It is quite common for academic referees to state in their reference letters that the student is among top students in the course/class/whatever, for example, along the lines of "This student was among top 1% of students in the class". They have different ways and means of saying that, and I would trust that they know how to provide an excellent reference for an excellent student (it's an integral part of their job, after all). He trusted you, why wouldn't you trust him?

An action you could do that might be less contentious is to state your GPA for the course, but then you might want to adjust your CV accordingly (e.g., you'd probably want to state that for other courses). You could ask your referee about what they think of stating the GPA.

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This may not need to be a separate answer, but many people are pointing out that, if they were reviewing resumes, they would not be impressed with the placement because they don't know who you were competing against, etc. If what they are saying is true, then it's possible that the value of putting it on your resume is zero, while the cost (in terms of causing a rift between you and your referee (and possibly causing the referee professional issues if the leak can be traced back), or having the department refuse to confirm it and make you look shady, or whatever) seems to be very likely non-zero.

So analyzing the risk/reward would make adding this to a resume a questionable decision at best.

[For the record/intellectual honesty of my argument, I personally think being able to say I was "top of my class" is going to have a positive psychological impression on pretty much anyone that reads the resume, and it's a shame you can't use it. But it's knowledge you are not supposed to have, and it's good practice at the beginning of your career to learn not to be tempted to act on knowledge you aren't supposed to have.]

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Honestly, if you have the skills and can prove to your potential employer that you are fit for the job, they will hire you even if you were an average student. I personally feel like it is an irrelevant thing to put on a CV. Employers really do not seem to care about this.

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As suggested by your prof, this information is not appropriate on your CV or application. Even if there were no department guidelines or telling in confidence, you should not do what you suggest.

Your ranking will not matter when applying for a job in the "real world". You are not competing against your schoolmates. If you place it on the CV, you will just display that you don't understand irrelevance of the fact.

Regardin academic applications - if anyone cares there (doubt it) they will check it themselves instead of trusting your word. And you don't even know if this fact is true or the prof just said it out of mistake or to make you feel better. After all, you are the only person to whom your placing matters.

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Most application rules require you to document any claim in your CV to be taken in account, and some of them may want to check those that can't be documented. Your claim that you ended on top of your class can't be backed by document or reference. As any unverifiable claim, yours is not worth much. At least, it isn't likely worth enough to overcome the drawbacks described in the other answers.

In summary: since any of your former classmates could make the same claim and the prospective employer couldn't tell it's false, don't expect any employer to value it.

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Ordinarily, the way details of your performance in your program would be passed from graduate department to potential employer would be in a letter of recommendation. In my own letters of recommendation, I have often used phrases such as "one of our very best students" or "the best performance I have seen in several years," backed up by specific, relevant reasons for saying so.

I hope your discussions about this issue haven't damaged your relationship with your adviser and others who write such letters.

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