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?