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What everybody Ought to Know about GPAs

Student in classroom

Student in classroom Photo Credit: iStock

After four years of exams, thesis statements, projects and internships, college graduates everywhere are ready to put their hard-earned grade point averages to use in their job hunt.

But will they matter?

Cy Wakeman, a human resources consultant and keynote speaker, says GPAs are valued less these days than in years past. Today, employers care more about a candidate's potential contribution to the company.

"While a GPA characterizes past successes in a controlled environment, it is not an accurate future predictor of effectiveness in the real world," Wakeman says. "To truly thrive in today's challenging times, candidates who can demonstrate the ability to capitalize on opportunity presented by change, and who are resilient and confident, [deliver] more results than those ... who have tested well."

Employers seem to agree that GPA isn't everything when it comes to the perfect candidate. Fifty-five percent of employers said they had no GPA requirement for college-graduate applicants, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey. Twenty-five percent require a 3.0 or higher, 12 percent require higher than a 3.5 and only 1 percent look for a 4.0.

When GPA matters, when it doesn't
Wakeman says that the importance of a GPA matters more or less based on the stage of your career, and the size and nature of the company to which you're applying.

For large, traditional and highly sought-after corporations, for example, GPAs are often used to screen applicants. If you're a new graduate applying to this type of company, your GPA might be your only ticket to the door, Wakeman says. In smaller, more progressive companies on the other hand, personal characteristics other than GPAs are usually considered.

"An applicant must make the case that they would provide a high return on investment," she says. "An applicant must [highlight] past results achieved through leadership, effort, resiliency, innovation, creativity or adaptability -- all competencies highly valued by hiring organizations today."

Additionally, it matters in what field you're looking to work.

"In highly technical fields such as nursing, accounting and actuarial science, GPAs are still weighted heavily, as the jobs in these fields closely mirror the actual college curriculums in which graduates are prepared," Wakeman says.

Finally, your GPA will only (possibly) make a difference on your application if you're a recent college graduate. If you've been in the work force for a while and have gained experience, your GPA becomes irrelevant.

"Never leave your GPA completely off your first résumé, but unless it is stellar, drop it off your résumé as soon as you have your first position in your chosen field," Wakeman says. "The only thing that matters to organizations after a candidate is well into the work force is the value they have produced recently: Real-world results, relative skills and talents, and a resilient attitude."

Despite a low GPA, you can still get the job
Obviously, there is more to a candidate than his or her GPA. Even if you have a low GPA, it is possible to draw attention to other elements of your résumé.

Wakeman offers six ways to separate yourself from the pack, even with a low GPA:

1. Take advantage of employee referral programs
Theory proposes you are only six degrees of separation from an employee in any desired organization, Wakeman says. Connect with current employees and sell them on your value.

2. Appear more business savvy than your co-workers
"Read the top journals and publications in your chosen field. Avoid overkill on buzzwords but use keywords in the examples you mention," Wakeman says. Study the company's strategy and hone in on key aptitudes such as learning agility, motivating others and flexibility.

"Provide concrete examples from your past in which you have exhibited these very competencies vital to the company's future. Make the connection for the interviewing manager that you are fluent in the very 'non-academic' competencies that will be important for success at the company."

3. Don't use stereotypes
Refrain from providing stereotypical opinions about how those with great GPAs are "book smart" but not "business smart" or from justifying your own lower GPA. "If asked, be honest about your GPA, acknowledge it and smoothly highlight what you can bring to the table," Wakeman says.

4. Be accountable
Interviewers are hungry for personal accountability so own up to your GPA if asked, Wakeman says. Use words such as "I chose," "I learned," "I assumed," "I denied," etc. Be prepared to talk about what you learned from the situation, how you got to where you are and how you would act differently in the futures.

"Make no excuses. Use the phrase, 'While I did not have a stellar GPA, I do bring xyz to the table.'" Think features and benefits: "What I can do for your organization is ..."

5. Deliver results
"A GPA becomes less important when you have recent experience. Be prepared to highlight actual deliverables and the measurable benefit derived from your work as a volunteer, intern or project team member," Wakeman says.

6. Show extra effort in the study of the company
"Use social media to connect with people who have worked at or still work at the company and interview them. Don't ask them how to get the job, but about what would be most valuable to them in a co-worker. In your interview, mention that you sought out some employees and interviewed them to prepare for your interview," Wakeman says.

"You can't do lousy at college and expect an employer to foresee a total turnaround in your future. They have little incentive to take risks in this economy where experienced workers are in great supply," Wakeman says. "Show extra effort in some area of your life, if not in your GPA, because one truth remains: It truly is extra effort for extra opportunity, no matter how it is measured or valued in the hiring process."

Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow her on Twitter:

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