Sunday, November 04, 2012

The importance of a college GPA

I've been thinking a bit about the importance of a college GPA.  This is prompted in part by looking at resumes of students for jobs and internships.  This post of course is no representation for any of the companies I have worked for or do work for.

In industry we often review resumes by students at top public schools, including UC Berkeley and the University of Washington.  We passed by at least one resume with a 4.0 and phone screened some candidates with an interesting background but otherwise lower GPA.

First, what's a "lower GPA"?  These students are all generally smart (they have to be to get into a top public school), so they tend to have decent GPAs.  Anyone who's consistently getting low grades has been weeded out by this time.  A good GPA was generally above 3.7, a median GPA might be 3.67, an OK GPA is around 3.4, and a bad GPA is anything below 3.3.  So these students are getting A's, B's, and maybe an occasional C (note that we did not see the courses they were taking unless they were offered on the resume).  A GPA around 3.4 made us think, "maybe this girl/guy is really smart but just working on other projects."  So if the student had other projects, we would consider her, but if she listed no projects, that GPA would be a bad sign.

I don't know about others reviewing resumes, but honor societies on resumes meant nothing to me.  Maybe that's because I was rejected from the National Honor Society in high school and distinctly remember the students who got in making up community service activities for the application.  Maybe it's because my parents took the bait from the National Society for Collegiate Scolars, which is really a sham organization.  But that's another blog post.

Anyways, we passed by some students with very high GPAs, because they sometimes didn't seem involved in anything besides school, and their school classes weren't exactly what we needed.  It was far more important to do internships at interesting places or to be involved in interesting research projects.

Of course, to get those top internships, or to work for a professor, or to even get into a top college, a high GPA is necessary.  So my recommendation is that students focus on grades in high school and early college, and, if they're interested in an industry job, they should do a rockstar job at the companies they work at.  And if they're not involved in extracurricular activities (a relevant job or research assistantship), they should have a damned high GPA.

If students want to go to graduate school, grades in higher-level classes are important.  Again, though, it is much more important for students to demonstrate their ability to do independent research than for them to get a GPA (I know at least one guy who had a C in a calculus glass who got accepted to an Ivy-league CS graduate program, and I'm sure there are many more).

For what it's worth, I was always very school-oriented.  I didn't have a 4.0 in college, but I was still in the higher end of the range. So I write this post arguing actually that such a focus on school is not absolutely necessary and can in fact be a bad choice, if it's at the expense of relevant experience.