When Hiring Recent Grads, How Should You Factor Grades?

An experienced entrepreneur and friend asks:

So now that you have a semester behind you: If you get an A in a subject do you really understand it? Can you get a B or C and still get the material? I have a problem hiring folks that got C’s in college – did they not try or were they pre-occupied? I make the exception with sales and marketing folks. It always depends on the individual but if I ask someone their college GPA and it is 2.75 I grow more skeptical. I know GPA doesn’t equal success in life, but I think it indicates a person’s ability to focus on a task and accomplish a goal. If it doesn’t matter then why measure it? I’m looking at hiring some recent grads for entry level stuff – should I change my filter?

The larger question of filtering when trying to hire someone is key — we all develop filters and rules of thumb for sizing people up. Most employers use academic performance as the chief filter for hiring people fresh out of college. My thoughts:

1. For most jobs, especially in business or start-ups, whether you really “got the material” is irrelevant. Most of the material studied in college seems to have little direct application to a job, especially an entry level job.

2. High grades to me indicate an ability to focus, understand and follow rules, obtain a basic competency in a topic area, and please your superior (teacher). All these things can be important in job settings so in this sense grades serve a useful predictive purpose.

3. If someone has a 2.75 GPA in college, I’d ask the question, “Why the low GPA?” If the answer is the person decided to screw around vigorously on other projects or hobbies that sound worthwhile, I’d give him credit and worry only about his ability to take and follow direction. If someone has a 4.0 GPA in college, I’d ask the question, “Did you do stuff other than try to get high grades?” If the answer is no (of course their answer is going to be yes), then I’d be concerned that he lacks a creative urge, or is too much a rule-follower / pleaser.

4. The reason the question makes exceptions for sales and marketing people is that sales and marketing people need to be scrappy, creative, high on people skills, and so forth — all things not usually captured in a GPA. Engineers, on the other hand, tend to be workhorses who can executive specs and rules given to them. That’s why the GPA of a would-be engineer seems especially useful. So: depends on the type of person you’re trying to hire. A secretary? GPA all the way. Engineer? GPA. Future CEO? No way. Salesperson? No way.

5. Over-reliance on GPA as a filter can be a sign of laziness. It’s generally agreed, right, that time-intensive activities like talking to references (and calling the candidate’s professors in school) or even having a 45 minute in-person conversation with the person would yield far more insight than a glance at a GPA? It’s just that as a hirer, you don’t have that kind of time? Maybe so. Or maybe you should invest more in hiring — after all, great people are five times as valuable as good people, and if you’re a start-up, there’s no room for mediocre people and no time to hire and fire a bad person.

6. The average GPA of self-made millionaires in America (at least in one sample) is 2.92 out of 4.

7. My friend Cal says in an email: “Some smart, focused people with good work habits don’t get good grades. But they’re difficult to identify. Grades are a good rough indiciator that a person has [the important] traits. It’s not the only indiciator. It’s not a necessary indiciator. But it’s a sufficient indiciator. So it’s used.”


Related Link: The Rules of Thumb – Human Resources page contains hiring and people hacks like “A bad reference is as hard to find as a good employee” or “Never hire a salesman you’d want your daughter to marry” or “Reinforcement ought to be specific, incorporating as much information content as possible. Reinforcement should have immediacy. Reinforcement should be unpredictable and intermittent.”

17 Responses to When Hiring Recent Grads, How Should You Factor Grades?

  1. Eric Wolf says:

    I’ve spoke with a few employers and they are reluctant to hire those with 4.0. They overvalue themselves and sometimes have trouble leading. Someone that works at the headquarters of A.G. Edwards refuses to hire them all together.

  2. Jude says:

    My uncle, who hired people for his department at what was then North American Rockwell, said that if two people had equivalent grades, he’d choose the person who’d worked his way through college.

    Referring to your second point, don’t you think high grades might also connote intelligence? I couldn’t help most of my good grades, so I wouldn’t want them to be held against me. It required effort to do poorly in a class (with the exceptions of symbolic logic and Latin, which actually required me to study). Ordinarily, I was too random to bother much with studying.

  3. Dani says:

    I find that for quantitative classes/majors, grades matter quite a lot, because they are indicative of understanding the material. But for more qualitative courses, even in college, I find the “grade school archetypes” generally apply still–the students who get the highest grades are the most obedient and compliant. (aka well-behaved girls who aim to please; extroverted, ambitious males; and the ever-present grade-grubbers who will do anything for a point bump.) I applaud professors who take strides to reduce over-rewarding compliance, but few truly do so.

    Students who shake things up or question the professor are more likely to “suffer” for their non-compliant behavior in their grades–even though I’ve yet to see a syllabus that says “you will lose 0.5 on your GPA if you’re a pain in the professor’s ass.”

  4. Krishna says:

    Ben, is that you?

    Normally you present others POV and hold back yours. Here you gave a 6 pointer plus a friend’s view… Much appreciate that turnaround::)

  5. Krishna, read Ben’s book. In it, he reveals the truth about his middle school and high school academic performance.

    Sotto voce: Ben wasn’t a stellar student during much of that time. Had something to do with running a growing company. However, he pulled his grades up before he graduated.

  6. Cal says:

    Here’s a question…

    I often hear the trope that students who are more obedient and aim to please are more likely to get grades.

    I’ve never seen this.

    Indeed, in the qualitative classes I’ve attended, it seems the students with the challenging questions and outlandish ideas were the ones that ended up being appreciated by the teacher and doing well. If anything, the “well-behaved girl” trying to please ends up getting on the prof’s nerves — or is ignored.

    My question: Are these observations unique to the schools I’ve attended (Dartmouth and MIT), or is the whole idea of browning nosing your way to success just a comforting cliche?

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Cal, I do think the better the teacher, the less the brownnoser wins.

  8. R. Carter says:

    In high school I was a well-rounded 4.0 student because I believed in doing my best and not half-assing anything. Plus, I come from a poor family background and knew that my mom could not afford to finance my college education, so I needed scholarships.

    Now I’m in college with a full scholarship and several grants and I continue to do my best to keep them, maintaining a 4.0, while also pursuing non-academic interests. I’d hate to be classified as someone who overvalues himself and haves trouble leading because of my GPA. This GPA is a means to an end, and part of the reason why I can afford to attend college in the first place.

  9. Chris Yeh says:

    All other things being equal, including extracurriculars, etc., would you prefer the student with the higher GPA?

    I think the answer is obviously yes.

    Would you rather hire a 3.0 student who had accomplished amazing things, or a 4.0 student who hadn’t?

    Again, the answer is obvious–hire the 3.0 student.

    The problem is that there is no simple way to measure amazingness with a single number.

    As a result, people filter first on GPA, then on amazingness.

    I know that I filter based on things like schools and work experience, simply because I can’t talk to everyone.

    But guess what–if have done amazing things, you damn well better figure out a way to convey that fact.

  10. Joe says:

    Ben, you always seem to forget techhnical education. If I were running a start up company developing nanosolar cells, would I hire a guy who aced his semiconductor courses or a guy who got straight Cs? A smart person in a humanities class can get a C if he doesn’t put in enough work. But if a person gets a C in a technical class, that guarantees he didn’t learn the material and won’t be able to apply it in your company.

  11. Krishna says:

    Martha… Won’t you let me give Ben a nudge…!!!

  12. Ben Casnocha says:

    John,

    I’ve never dismissed high grades as unimportant. You say I think grades don’t mean “really anything positive other than ‘hard work and playing by the rules’. We can’t underrate the importance of hard work and playing by the rules. I think these two things are hugely important for success, and for most jobs, and in that sense grades are very useful to size someone up.

    It’s not all or nothing — grades indicate some things and not others. And it always depends on the person and what they’ve done with their time.

    I would never use grades as my sole or even primary measure of someone’s “intelligence” (whatever that means). I would use it as a measure of someone’s ability to work hard and play by the rules. Contrary to what you imply, I therefore find grades useful and important for hiring entry level college grads.

    Of course for any hire after new college grads, grades are a terrible way to measure anything, because by then the person has real life failures or successes.

  13. Dani says:

    Cal–

    I would say you’re very lucky! Over-rewarding compliance is definitely a norm that is alive and well–it’s just much easier for the teachers to do.

    I’ve been at a few colleges, public and private, for undergrad and graduate work, and it is a rare few professors I’ve encountered who break this mold. This is in stark contrast to the public high school I went to, which did celebrate and reward students who shook things up a bit.

    You’ve been at two colleges that are extraordinary and clearly hire well, I’d say.

  14. T.J. says:

    Here’s a good heuristic: ask the interviewee what books or scholarly papers they’ve read lately. That way you separate the people who love to learn from the people who don’t know why they went to school.

  15. Hello Ben,

    Very good article.

    I was a great GPA before college, and little above average during college, where I learned to live, interact with people, more then anything teachers teach in classes.

    I enjoyed a lot the link “Millionaire´s Mind”. Worth reading.

    I agree that is difficult to hire someone with bad grades. It needs some reasons, or you choose someone else.

    Also, the best article about hiring is the one from PMARCA blog, where he says the most important is 1-drive, 2-curiosity, 3-ethics. Usually GPA doesn´t measure it.

    Best wishes, Miguel, from Brazil

  16. Sudhanshu says:

    Great article.

    I might like to add that as entrepreneurs, one has to find opportunities where others don’t see any.

    So why not take that for recruiting as well.

    Big firms will always take the ones with good and great GPA (or percentage here in India).

    There are loads of great people with low GPAs. As a startup, you need to find those people.

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