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When I got my grades back for my first semester of college, I wasn’t surprised when I saw a three before the decimal point instead of a four. I was proud of myself. I’d chosen a tough school and allowed myself to be humbled. Still, this was something that I couldn’t remember ever happening before. So when I walked into my dad’s office to tell him the news, I was a little nervous.
He’s one of those parents who says silly things with every good intention. Many times he’s said that he’d love me even if I had failed out of kindergarten eighteen years in a row. I’ve always taken these words with a grain of salt, of course. I mean, he could make this exaggeration quite easily. I’d pretty much done the opposite of disappoint him all my life.
It’s stressful. Like I said, I expected my “perfectionist” image to be tested a little bit. I even expected it not to hold up. I knew that college would be much tougher even than an AP-riddled high school experience. The one thing I didn’t expect, though, was my dad’s response.
“Thank God,” he chuckled. Then, seeing my face, he added an explanation. “Sarah, if you had gotten a perfect GPA your first semester at Cornell, I would have been happy for you as your dad and proud of you, but… I’m an employer. And as an employer, I would have said, for lack of a better word, ‘Ew.’”
You’ll Understand When You’re Older?
My dad has been a school administrator (usually a superintendent or a charter school “CEO”) all my life. He has to deal with budgeting, hiring, and firing, and these experiences have given him a lot of wisdom, at least from my vantage point.
I’d seen posts on Reddit imparting similar sentiments to his. One person claimed to have been on a hiring committee and told the story of how her boss had picked up an application, skimmed it, and remarked briskly, “A 4.0 GPA? Skip him. He’s probably no fun at parties.” I guess I had just figured those people were trying to make nervous college students feel better about themselves.
But my dad actually works in the world of hiring people. He interviews teachers, principals, and coaches, looks at their applications. This helps him build teams whose success directly impact the success of students like me. He says that there are many things students like me think are a big deal in high school. But they really don’t ever become a big deal after that.
And I’m not just talking about standardized test scores and high school grades. Unless you were valedictorian of your school – and probably not even then – no one will care, after you get into college, what your high school grades were. They definitely won’t care what SAT Subject Tests you took or how well you did on them.
But it’s more than that: after high school, many places won’t even care about your college grades, let alone your high school marks. An accredited institution awarded you a degree in a certain area of concentration, and that’s just about all they need to know. They might also know that you graduated with honors or completed a double major, but rarely will they want to know anything about you to the third decimal point.
What does matter? Some of the stuff you were taught would get you into a good college could also land you a good job, or even a spot in med school. One of the most important things is extracurricular involvement. My dad says that he – and others in positions like his – would evaluate this positively. They’d take someone with a 3.4 and a full roster of extracurriculars any day over a 4.1 student whose only other obligation was a weekly career services appointment.
I ran that line by my dad, who has hired and managed hundreds of people. He affirmed it and said, “All we – and by ‘we’ I mean colleagues in a similar position – care about is that the GPA is above a 3.0. You should have a love of learning, not a love of grades.”
I loved that line. (Admittedly, I had told him that I needed sound bytes for my article.) But it’s true. Your grades should function as a reflection of what you care about – and that shouldn’t be the grades themselves, because that’s just redundant. It should be a reflection of your passions.
Taking Things Personally
Another reflection of your passions should be what my dad calls a “personal history.” He says that this can function in two main ways in the eyes of a hiring manager.
First, you might have loved science your whole life. You may always have been into computers, always tinkering, and you’re now looking for a career in IT. Your experiences and passions have led you to the job you’re currently seeking.
On the other hand, you might discover a passion in college you never knew you had. In this case, you should be able to explain this change of direction to your potential employer. Your personal history is the common thread that runs through your life. Grades and statistics are just blips along the line that give a brief and superficial snapshot but don’t say much of substance about progress or growth.
You’ve probably heard this before, but your degree doesn’t matter as much as your experience. Ideally a degree program would give you some of that experience, but the internships and jobs and volunteer opportunities you seek on your own time say a lot about your passion and drive.
So why should you care about this stuff as a college applicant? Because as a college applicant, you are necessarily working toward the future. Toward future you with future you’s goals, future you’s experiences, and future you’s wisdom and hindsight.
And future you, like future you’s potential employers and colleagues, won’t be bothered by all of the statistics you had to laboriously compile for college applications. It seems like a big deal now, but it really is only a stepping stone.
You should always try to do the best you can, of course, but not at the expense of creating a personality or a memory or a life experience. Your best can mean different things; it should be a balance of quantity and quality, showing both your versatility and your specialization skills.
Employers, my dad stressed time and time again, want to see failure. He literally said these words to me: “If you see an applicant walking out of college with a 4.0, your first impression is that there’s something wrong with them.” That might be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s a shocking reversal from what you typically hear about 4.0 GPAs.
As a high school student and college hopeful, you’ve had it basically drilled into your head that the qualities you present to those who care to see them can and should be quantified or listed on some sort of application whose template pretty much everyone can follow.
This can even be a point of pride. It’s geared toward fostering pride, for sure. You can place yourself into a percentile and see how you stack up. You can know that a 4.0 means you performed perfectly (although it really doesn’t mean that, does it?) and anything above a 4.1 means that you did an even better than perfect job. And isn’t that what you should shoot for?
Not if it means that you sacrifice your humanity. Hang onto your emotion, your vision, and your ability to fail and learn from it. Because in the real world, your job or career will be a series of small steps, little successes and (hopefully) even littler failures.
So you might as well get used to the way the world is now. High school has, above all, prepared you to have anxiety. I would suggest unlearning that habit as soon as possible. Learn to have fun, learn to embrace growth opportunities (which often look like imperfections). These are lessons that potential employers have already learned, so you might as well get a head start.
And even beyond all of that, knowing what the “real world” is like will hopefully take a bit of the stress off of current you, the anxious college applicant. It’s not that what you do now doesn’t matter – it does. It’s just that certain things matter more than what you thought were the ultimate concerns. And learning this truth is what might matter most of all.
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