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Does a Higher GPA Make You A Better Employee?

Someone tweeted me a question yesterday, “Is GPA [Grade Point Average] an accurate summary of how someone will be as an employee?” I checked the source of the tweet and — no surprise — it seems to be coming from a student. I don’t know the person but my guess is that he is either struggling and trying to rationalize his lower grades, or he’s got a high GPA and he’s trying to justify his hard work. But the question seems to be asked in a way that wants a “no” answer, kind of like a kid asking, “Do I really have to do my homework?”

Well I’m going to surprise the questioner by answering “yes,” but then I’ve got a major disclaimer to go along with my answer. That’s because I believe that GPA does in fact highly correlate with how you’ll act as an employee. Students with high grades have shown that they can:

  • Focus their energy on following directions even when the directions are unrealistic and make no sense
  • Perform as well in subjects that they can’t stand as they do in subjects they love
  • Treat emotional and social growth as secondary to memorization of dry facts and performance of mind-numbing repetitive activities
  • Defer gratification by postponing what they really want so they can focus on what other people consider important right now
  • Suppress their creativity to slog through subjects that have no relation to real life

Yes, a high GPA does make you a better employee. But only under the 1950’s definition of employee: a clerk, a ditch digger, a mindless construction worker, a soldier in the infantry, a machine operator.

And that’s the core of the problem: our current educational system is still focused on turning out the kinds of workers that were needed 50 or 60 years ago. We still need some of those people today, so it’s not a total loss. But advances in technology have drastically reduced the number of jobs that require mindless focus on following tedious directions without any understanding of why things are being done or how they might be done better. And our economy has shifted from a labor force of industrialized workers to a more diverse set of creative jobs that require specialization in design or people skills or problem solving.

When I hire someone right out of school, I look at GPA, but higher isn’t better. I try to get a sense of the person. Is the person bright and creative? Does the person understand how things work or do they just follow directions? Is the person curious? What motivates the person? What are they interested in?

GPA is part of the picture, but only to see if it fits into the whole. A lower GPA without an explanation is a red flag, but there are lots of valid explanations: focus on part-time jobs, taking care of a family, interest in student politics, etc.  A lower GPA can mean that you don’t care about anything — low motivation, which is a bad thing.  Or it can just mean that you care about something else more than you care about academics, which can be perfectly fine.

A higher GPA also demands an explanation. Did they push for the high GPA for the right reasons? Was it because of a strong interest in the major? If so, what about it was so interesting? Was it because they sacrificed all other aspects of their life? If so, why was that so important?

GPA is kind of like body temperature. You don’t use a thermometer to take a child’s temperature because you want to know how hot or cool she is. You want to know the temperature because a high temperature is a warning sign of an infection in the body. Similarly, GPA doesn’t have a value in itself — it’s just an indication of a student’s dedication to following the rules in her curriculum.

In today’s world there is a need for a certain number of employees who can follow the rules. They probably make up 50% of the work force. Another 25% of the work force is made up of people who barely hold on to their jobs — they’re unmotivated and just do enough to get by. But the true success stories come from the remaining 25% — the employees who not only know how to follow the rules but they know why, and they know when to break the rules to make things better. This 25% of employees gets promoted to better jobs, to higher pay and to higher recognition. Some become outstanding individual contributors: the designers and engineers of a new era. Some become managers or executives where they set direction and strategy for workers who continue to just “follow the rules.”

Yes, GPA is an accurate summary of how someone will be as an employee — at least to start. But sometimes those students with a high GPA manage to overcome their too-focused-on-grades early years and become successful anyway.

Hi, I’m Harwell, and I’m a recovering high school valedictorian.  Yes, a higher GPA can make you a better employee.  But why be just an employee?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eric S. Mueller December 1, 2011, 11:41 am

    Great thoughts. Also, a GPA is based on a “one size fits all” philosophy that assumes everybody learns alike. I’ve known plenty of bright people who for whatever reason don’t test well. I’ve also known lots of book-smart people who score high on tests but can’t apply knowledge in the real world.

    I can’t say my GPA or grades have ever mattered outside of school. Nor do I believe they are the best measure of whether or not a student actually comprehends the material. They are also not a good measure of intelligence or ability. I was a horrible student in high school. By the time I buckled down in college I was in my 30’s. I achieved a 3.87 GPA with two kids who weren’t sleeping through the night yet. The difference? I was bored out of my mind in high school. I was fascinated with my area of study in college (IT).

  • TJ Adkinson December 1, 2011, 1:29 pm


    Thank you for taking the time to not only respond to my tweet, but make an entire blog post about it! Crazy cool. Your perspective is unique and I greatly appreciate it.

    @nonstickglue: “@HarwellThrasher Is GPA an accurate summary of how someone will be as an employee?”

  • TJ Adkinson December 1, 2011, 1:32 pm

    And yes, you surprised me with your answer!

    • Harwell December 1, 2011, 2:55 pm

      Well don’t just be one of the 50%. What do YOU think? And why? Why were you surprised?

      • TJ Adkinson December 1, 2011, 6:46 pm

        I am surprised because you are the first person to actually say yes; however, even in your post you had stated it is the old “1950’s” definition of the word employee. Additionally, I have heard back from Michael Hyatt (http://michaelhyatt.com/), Chris LoCurto (http://chrislocurto.com/) of Dave Ramsey’s organization (http://daveramsey.com/), and @Leadershipfreak who all answered no. Chris even stated, they do not even look at GPA when they hire.

        With such large, winning companies who are willing to publically admit that GPA is not a valid indicator of how good an employee is or will be, it makes me wonder if organizations that focus on GPA are focusing on the wrong things when they hire. Should I even bother applying at companies who focus primarily on said college achievements? I want to work for a company that is winning.

        High or low, it’s merely not a good indicator of performance or potential performance.

        I may have an average GPA; however, I have those valid explanations you mentioned. I have worked and still are working my way through college. Full-time student, full-time employee. I am fortunate enough to have found a job in my field before I graduate and one of their benefits is tuition reimbursement. I will graduate college within the next year (on-track with my friends who I went to high school with), with no debt. Personally that’s a much better accomplishment than earning a higher GPA. I do not want $50,000+ in student loan payments to begin when I graduate. Additionally, I will graduate with over 3 years of experience in my field, not that I have any intentions of leaving the company I currently work for.

        I do not want to be that college graduate who has to deliver pizzas because I cannot find a job in my field after graduation.

        Lastly, I never plan on being in that 50%. I plan on being one of “the employees who not only know how to follow the rules but they know why, and they know when to break the rules to make things better”. I spend my personal time furthering my own professional development when I’m not focusing on my college course work or my job, which between the two, take up the majority of my time.

        • Harwell December 1, 2011, 7:18 pm

          Well technically I guess you’d have to say my answer was a “yes but …” I reacted to the word “employee” which to me in this context has the connotation of a kind of a master/servant type relationship. People shouldn’t aspire to be an employee — they should aspire to find work that excites them. Also, I used your question as a way to introduce a concern I’ve had for a while that our educational system — particularly for children and high-schoolers — has not evolved to reflect changing socioeconomic times.

          You should also consider that, as I said in the article, the way you ask a question tends to bias the answer (I wrote about that in my article, “How to Create Misleading Statistics in 6 Easy Steps”). It’s difficult to answer your question with anything other than a “no” so I wanted to answer it with a “yes” just to show you an alternate point of view.

          Whatever happens, keep learning, and don’t get stuck in a learning stage — that can stop a career on the spot.

  • TJ Adkinson December 1, 2011, 8:10 pm

    I can’t take credit for the question. Someone else tweeted it, which sparked this article (http://bit.ly/twE4uB) and I simply asked the same question to you to get your perspective.

  • John Laham December 2, 2011, 3:37 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Ironically though, I’m not one to have low grades, but I am one to realize that my grades don’t really reflect my performance in the real world today. And what’s even more depressing is that even though I feel like I have the potential to do more, I sometimes feel like the professional/corporate world today is trying to advance while keeping its hands dug elbow-deep in the ways of the past… it just doesn’t work, and I feel like it’s suffocating me, professionally.

    You should check out the works of Sir Ken Robinson; here’s a link to his website: http://sirkenrobinson.com/skr/

    And he’s also done a few talks on TED… very interesting stuff, and loved this post.

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