Dear recent college graduate:
It’s almost graduation season and everyone on the internet is trying to give you advice on what really matters when you’re trying to find your first job.
I am going to be one of those people.
It’s innovative these days to blog about how your GPA doesn’t matter anymore when you’re applying to jobs. About a year ago, a senior vice president of people operations for Google, Lazlo Block, gave an interview to the New York Times on how their hiring process has changed, specifically how they paid less attention to things like degrees, credentials, test scores and GPAs, and it made people on the internet very, very excited. Bloggers, experts and others used it to declare that hiring had now universally changed across the board and we had to follow the “new rules of work.”
Your GPA doesn’t matter anymore, so put your books away and concentrate on hustling through internships and networking and becoming a thought leader through your creative blog posts and tweets!
I’m here as your motherly figure to tell you that unfortunately, that isn’t true. If your GPA is under 3.0 and you’re just graduating, you’re going to struggle and you need to be prepared for that.
Many of the readers of this blog are teachers and already know the importance of a high GPA. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation recommends that states only certify teachers with 3.0 GPAs and many states have already adopted that suggestion. But this blog also attracts young jobseekers from multiple industries, and I think this is an important subject to write about so they are prepared, and if they’re still in school, they can change their mindset about school and likely change the course of their lives.
You might be riled up now and want to argue that I am overstating the importance of one’s GPA. Maybe, but here are my counterarguments.
1. The job market is not fair. Get over it.
A popular argument, often repeated by jobseekers, is that a GPA probably doesn’t measure how well anyone can perform in a position so it’s not fair to use in hiring decisions. Probably true… but oh well. It doesn’t matter if GPA is actually a poor measure of how smart you are or what you can do (though data from Google and others shows it measures something important- more on that later); it matters when employers care.
There is this expectation that the job market should be more fair for jobseekers. It probably should be, but it’s not. Candidates exploit their advantages all the time in the market for talent, whether they are financial (family wealth) or social capital (connections), the reputation of their school, or the fraternity they joined.
If you want to be an advocate for change to make things more fair in the labor market, that is fine and possibly awesome. Go start your organization or platform. But your outrage about fairness has no place in your individual job search if you want to be successful.
TLDR Summary: Hate the game, not the players.
2. Actual research has validated the importance of GPA in hiring and wages.
Academic economic research is important to consider because it validates our suspicions about how people actually behave in real life. Michael Spence won the Nobel Prize for developing the theory of signaling by studying extensive data on how employers and applicants interact within the job market. This is the rare case where a Wikipedia entry describes something really well so I’m going to quote it directly.
In this [signaling] model, employees signal their respective skills to employers by acquiring a certain degree of education, which is costly to them. Employers will pay higher wages to more educated employees, because they know that the proportion of employees with high abilities is higher among the educated ones, as it is less costly for them to acquire education than it is for employees with low abilities. For the model to work, it is not even necessary for education to have any intrinsic value if it can convey information about the sender (employee) to the recipient (employer) and if the signal is costly.
Thousands of researchers have run their own data on education credentials, including GPA, in the job market and validated Spence’s theory that traditional educational signals matter. The world has changed, but not that much. Check out Google Scholar.
Other researchers have also validated that GPA impacts earnings; according to this often cited study on the job market each GPA point increase was correlated with a 9.5% increase in wages for Whites and a 25% increase for Blacks. And if you’re still all “Boo, academics are boring” check out this recent Fast Company study published on LinkedIn that found one point increase in GPA is worth about $20K for MBAs.
TLDR Summary: It is unlikely your individual job search is going to refute 40 years of nobel-prize winning research on how hiring works.
3. You are probably not the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates… and that’s okay.
Our country has romanticized the idea of the anti-intellectual, entrepreneurial college dropout who changes the world and becomes a billionaire. But we forget that all these men came from wealthy families or had wealthy mentors, and dropped out of the top colleges in our country, institutions with 5% acceptance rates.
Do you have all those things going for you? If the answer is no, that is okay. You can still have an amazing career and life. But you’ll have better odds at achieving it with a good college education and decent GPA.
Many of our colleges are underperforming, especially compared to what they charge. In fact, my first publication was exactly about this. None of that changes these facts: today, an American with a BA can now expect to earn 83 percent more than an American with only a high school diploma. In 1980, it was only 40%, meaning the value of a college education is only increasing. So take that “new work rules.”
TLDR Summary: You should not make life decisions based on the belief your talents are exceptional without truly evaluating your privilege… or lack of it.
4. Your GPA actually measures all those non-academic qualities that are important for success like grit, resilience, conscientiousness and persistence.
Go back and re-read the NY Times interview with Mr. Bock from Google. First, almost everyone who has cited Mr. Bock’s interview has got it wrong when it comes to young professionals. This is actually what he said, emphasis mine:
“One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPA’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and GPA’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school.
And that makes sense. If you’ve been out of college a few years, you should have more recent and complex accomplishments under your belt that you should be assessed on. But if you’re just out of school, as Google’s data shows, your college record matters.
Any recruiter or career expert who insists he can assess a new graduate’s talent in an interview and ignore what the candidate actually did in four years of school is just blowing smoke up his or her own you-know-what.
Second, Bock talks about the importance of problem solving skills, grit and leadership characteristics, the things you can’t learn in college, in relation to performance. Paul Tough identifies these as “non-cognitive skills” in his book, How Children Succeed, Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. He cites various research from Angela Duckworth (watch her TED talk to learn about her research), including how a high GPA is correlated with non-cognitive skills. Here are just a few of her findings:
- Middle school students’ scores on tests of self-control were better predictors of their final GPAs than their IQ scores. Who doesn’t want to hire someone with self-control for their team?
- People who score high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college. They also commit fewer crimes, stay married longer, and generally do better in life (earnings).
- And in Tough’s words (emphasis mine), “…High school grades reveal much more than mastery of content. They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance– as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills.”
TLDR Summary: Your GPA earned over four years doesn’t only demonstrate your academic skills, but that you’re truly a hard-worker, organized, conscientious and persistent and matters more than your internship supervisor’s six-month evaluation.
5. You might want to change your career some day… and be screwed.
Bock says that there is a growing number of people at Google succeeding without college degrees, and that is true elsewhere, especially in tech. Almost all of those people are master programmers, and mostly men, who have been hacking their way around computers since their teens. They were only probably in middle school when the dot-com bubble of 2001 hit and sent tech people to other industries. I worry what will happen if any of those professionals want to pursue a career change out of the tech industry someday, because they find they have other passions or we have another bubble as predicted and their jobs disappear.
Whatever industry you’re currently in, you might decide you want to try something new after a few years in your current field. That might include getting into a graduate program, or joining a profession licensed by the government. Good luck with that if your GPA is low. Steve Jobs himself is famous for pointing out to graduates that they have no idea what the future will bring, so deciding to go out to happy hour or take extra internship hours instead of studying for that test could be a regret in 10 years.
TLDR: Don’t bet your future on today’s most interesting opportunities.
If you’re still reading this and I’ve convinced you that your GPA does matter, but it’s too late for you now that you’re graduating, I am sorry. But there is hope – you just have to be prepared. Here are my tips for you.
1. Tell a good story. As a rule, I generally only interview entry level employees and interns with GPAs over 3.0, based on data and experience, but I did make one exception in 2011. I hired an intern who had a terrible freshman year GPA that was dragging down her overall average. She told me that she had a hard time adjusting to college, was hyperaware of that, and had spent the last three years of her college experience hunkering down and trying to improve it. She also took more challenging classes. Her transcript showed that and that made me want to give her a chance and I was glad I did. She now has a very successful career two years out of undergrad where she is enhancing all her skills.
If you have a low GPA, get that story ready. Until you tell it, people are going to wonder why you wasted your (or parents’) hard money for four years. Convince them otherwise. Admit your mistakes and tell an honest story about your struggles and how you tried to improve.
2. Go get any real job, not another internship. If you have a low GPA, people are going to make some assumptions about your work ethic, right or wrong (remember, the job market is not fair!). Get a job, one where you have to show up at a regular time, work hard and there is potential for promotion and recognition, even if the role seems beneath you. Internships are great, but they are not as high-risk as a real job where you are more likely to get fired if you slack off. A job will help show that you are conscientious and responsible and good with other people’s money and time.
So dear recent grad, I wish you the best of luck with your job search. And if you are a future grad, I hope my advice helps you think differently. There are always exceptions to the rules, but why make it that much harder? I will conclude by saying despite my fervor for good grades, a decent GPA is necessary, but not sufficient for career success. If you have a 4.0 but you’re a jerk or you smell, you’re not going anywhere. Hiring managers and recruiters DO want to see that you take risks and have soft-skills that you learn through work so all that other stuff like industry internships and student activities matter. But all the bells and whistles of your college experience will not hide four years of not academically challenging yourself when someone is deciding whether to hire you… and then what to pay you.
Go get ‘em.
With (tough) love,