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When it comes to your career, are grades important?

Math test with an A-plus grade

Good news for students with an imperfect transcript: Most employers value a well-rounded set of accomplishments over an impeccable GPA. As students across the country get ready to sweat it out for another school year, a new survey from the Generation Y research and consulting firm Millennial Branding shows that, of the nearly 3,000 employers surveyed, a measly 2 percent of hiring managers ranked grade point average as the most important factor when hiring. Sixty-four percent said that they would consider candidates who never went to college at all. As tuition prices grow increasingly unbearable, it raises a big question: Are all the stress, debt and tears shed over academics worth it for students who aren't heading to grad school?

What grades do and don't say about a candidate

That depends, according to the experts. GPA is only one piece of a candidate's overall package, but high grades do give employers some quick indicators of an applicant's potential, says Ryan Hunt, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder.

"If you are an employer and see that someone has a 3.5 or 4.0 or cum laude honors, that suggests that that person knows how to work hard, they are intelligent in a lot of different areas because that's a lot of different coursework that they have been able to excel at," he says. "They've been able to manage their time very well over the course of their undergraduate or graduate career. Without saying anything more than a couple of numbers, [it] suggests a lot about that individual candidate."

However, GPA is less helpful when comparing applicants because institutions, including both traditional schools and online colleges, vary tremendously when it comes to academic rigor, curriculum requirements and grading scales. Historically, highly selective employers have overcome this by recruiting exclusively from a small handful of elite institutions that they're intimately familiar with (and often come from themselves), but based on more recent headlines, companies are increasingly abandoning GPA requirements altogether.

After an extensive study of its hiring practices, Google concluded that "... GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don't predict anything," Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice-president of People Operations, told The New York Times. The company now relies more heavily on behavioral interviews to predict a candidate's success.

Certain industries value grades more

Mary Haskins, senior vice-president of Career Management Services for the Americas West region of Right Management, the talent and career management division of ManpowerGroup, says that how much grades matter largely depends on the field.

"In the technical fields, engineering, IT, finance, it matters quite a bit," she says. "... If [recent graduates entering those fields] don't have it on their resume, [employers] will typically ask what their GPA is anyway."

Haskins adds that students can get a feel for how much their GPA will matter in their future career field through research on the Web and by networking with those already employed in the industry. A 2011 survey by CareerBuilder showed that 55 percent of employers have some GPA requirements attached to entry-level positions, and one in five requires applicants to have a 3.5 or higher. But grades weren't a top priority for many hiring managers. Cultural fit, relevant coursework and internship experience all trumped pristine grades, according to the Millennial Branding study.

"Overall, employers are looking for balance," says Ryan Hunt. "You should never go for that 4.0 if that means you have to sacrifice potential internship opportunities during school or miss out on extracurricular activities that are going to fill out your resume…"

What to do if your GPA isn't high

Having a sub-par GPA won't knock you out of the job market, though you shouldn't voluntarily include it on a resume if it's under 3.0, says Janet Jones, director of employer relations for Rutgers University in New Jersey. If there's a good reason why your grades aren't great — such as they suffered because you were working significant hours to help pay for school or you started off in a major that wasn't a good fit but then switched to one where you excelled — a blemished transcript can serve as a starting point for helping employers understand who you are if it's explained in the proper way.

"I would suggest that if students are in that particular circumstance, they meet with a career counselor or adviser at their school to discuss how they might frame that in the proper context so that it sounds positive," Jones says.

That may mean focusing on the time management skills you developed while balancing work and school or how much your academic performance improved after you found a major you were passionate about.

"The key is to take responsibility and accountability for what you've accomplished, and hopefully you're telling a story of how you've turned things around for the better in an honest way," she adds.

Whether your GPA is a shining example of human potential or a skeleton in your closet, it has a shelf life. Ryan Hunt says that grades matter most to employers for the first three to five years after a student graduates. After that, work experience and job performance in the real world drastically outweigh academic accomplishments. Just try to remember that next time finals roll around.

Sources:

"In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal," Adam Bryant, The New York Times, June 19, 2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html

Mary Haskins, Senior Vice President of Career Management Services and Practice Leader for Americas West Region of Right Management, Interviewed by the author on June 20, 2014

Ryan Hunt, Senior Career Adviser for CareerBuilder, Interviewed by the author on June 18, 2014

Janet Jones, Director of Employer Relations at Rutgers University, Interviewed by the author on June 20, 2014

"The Multi-Generational Job Search Study 2014," Millennial Branding, May 20, 2014,
http://millennialbranding.com/2014/multi-generational-job-search-study-2014/