Group projects in school are ridiculous ventures. They bear no resemblance to how the real world works. In a business, there would be a project manager who is ultimately responsible for things getting done, with the authority to put a boot in the ass of people not pulling their own weight. In a class, it’s all a matter of consensus with the only consequences coming down on the people who care about their grades. Now that I’m done with school, I can reveal how I’ve managed to survive group projects without killing anyone. I did it without having to do all of the work while also having to share credit with people who contributed little or nothing to the process. Most importantly, I got good grades.
Group Projects Made Easy
Warning: Some of this will require you to be a blatant scumbag. Better to be a jerk than to have your academic career sabotaged by someone else’s poor work ethic, right?
1. Get In Early
People procrastinate on group projects. I capitalized on that by jumping in as soon as the group is assigned. If we have to choose a topic, I pick one. I pitch an angle or approach, and propose a division of labor. Then I claim the part I want to do.
99% of the time no one will argue. They don’t want to have to make a decision and are happy that someone else has made one, even if they don’t like it. I heard “just tell me what I need to do” a lot. You can now work on your piece independently and mostly ignore the rest of the group.
2. Establish Your Alibi
Make it clear up front that you can’t be the group leader. You have a conflict the last few days of the project. You will not be able to give the presentation, edit the paper, compile the PowerPoint slides, whatever the wrap-up entails.
Establish this as soon as possible, so everyone knows far, far in advanced that at some point you’ll fall of the face of the Earth. Let them know that that’s why you jumped in early (step 1) with such enthusiasm to get started ASAP.
It doesn’t matter if you actually have something going on or not. Just lie. You have a doctor’s appointment that it took you months to get. You have an out-of-town wedding. You have non-refundable plane tickets for a vacation your parents/significant other booked ages ago.
3. Ask the Instructor a Lot of Questions
In addition to letting the instructor know that you’ll be unavailable, ask a lot of questions about the piece of the project you’ve claimed. Let her know that your group has decided on a topic and an approach, that you’re doing this part, and you want to know… something.
Make it a good question, a legitimate question, but the answer isn’t the point. The idea is to let your instructor know that you’re engaged in the project, working hard, and both feeling guilty and being conscientious about that scheduling conflict. You’re making an impression that will stick when it comes time to grade the group projects.
4. Participate in Group Discussions
Show up, but do not lead or organize any more than you already have. You’e already got the group going by picking the topic and proposing the division of labor. Let them do the rest. Share what you’ve done, offer suggestions on other pieces, but remain at arms length without looking like you’re trying to remain at a distance.
5. Turn In Your Piece, Then Vanish
Get it done and hand it over to the group. CC your instructor “just in case,” since you’ll be incommunicado and want to make sure your portion doesn’t get lost. Make a show of being conscientious, because you don’t want to leave anyone in the lurch since they won’t be able to reach you. You want to make absolutely sure you’re not letting anyone down because they have your part.
Then disappear. Bail out completely. Don’t show up, don’t answer texts or emails, simply vanish. You led, you participated, you did your fair share. Now bolt before it can fall apart and you end up having to carry the slackers.
6. Collect Your Just Reward
Nearly every single time I’ve done this, I have received an individual grade based on my effort separate from the group grade. If the overall project sucked, and the other team members got a bad grade, I came out ahead. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to grade me on the finished project because I wasn’t there.
Once, the group never finished the project and turned nothing in, and they all failed, but I got an A because my individual portion was good in spite of my tragic circumstances. I think that week I had three dead grandmothers and my city burned down following a kaiju attack or something.
7. Feel No Guilt
Look, you really did do your fair share. What’s unfair is that you should be graded based on the quality of the work done (or left undone) by others. What’s unfair is that other people who don’t contribute, or whose contributions aren’t all that great, should get a better grade because you did great work.
The other members of the group had every opportunity to participate. You haven’t thrown anyone under the bus. I did not deny them the opportunity to do the work. I did not do anything to keep the group from success. I simply protected myself.