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.”

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