I am not my GPA
If someone asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? Maybe you would say something about your major, the sports you play, your friends, family or job. I doubt you would tell them what your grade point average is.
Every time you apply for a job, internship, scholarship, or graduate or medical school, hiring managers and admissions officers will ask you about your GPA. To them, your GPA says whether you’re a hard worker, whether you’re smart, and a whole host of other things. Your GPA will be used to judge how much you know and how well you did in college. That one number says many different things to many different people, and this openness to interpretation is what makes GPAs a bad metric.
While you are all familiar with GPAs and especially yours, let’s dig deeper. Your GPA is made up of grades from all of your classes. Each class is weighted by credit hours, so beyond the number of credit hours, there is no differentiation between classes. Your GPA is blind to the difference between Intro Psych and Orgo I, but you are certainly not blind to how much harder it is to get a good grade in Orgo. You also know of plenty of courses to pad your GPA.
Sometimes your grades do not reflect what you actually know. They reflect that you had three exams in two days or that they tested material that was not relevant. Your GPA is supposed to measure how much you learned, but even so, it in no way says what you learned. While people think it measures your ability to learn material, it really measures how well you can demonstrate this learning.
Many people learn how to demonstrate learning without actually learning. They can cheat, or they can just game the system. Dust off old tests, eliminate multiple choice, follow a study guide, and then take the exam, and, a few weeks later, forget about it all. This reinforces the fact that GPAs do not measure actual knowledge, nor ability to learn, but rather the ability to demonstrate learning. Of course, while having the actual knowledge helps to demonstrate learning, it is not always necessary.
The hiring managers and admissions officers do not want someone who merely seems to know their stuff—they want someone who actually knows their stuff. So when they use the GPA to cast a net for knowledgeable people, they are inevitably going to pull in some people who only seem to be knowledgeable.
Even worse, your GPA is going to be compared to GPAs from other universities where it might be even easier to demonstrate knowledge despite a lack of knowledge. Even if you matched course for course with someone, the grading and material covered is so non-uniform that the GPA is a bad comparison. Hiring managers and admissions officers do not know enough about each course to differentiate the GPAs, so they have to go with their gut on what the GPA means. This multitude of meanings makes the GPA almost meaningless.
Worse yet, there are plenty of offers that require a minimum GPA. By restricting the applicants’ GPAs, the offer is supposed to go to someone who will be better able to succeed; but it might be restricting people who would be best able to succeed. The GPA fails to account for extenuating circumstances, such as medical problems, family troubles and financial difficulties. People who have lived through trying times are often stronger from the experience and are thus able to bring their strength to that position.
The GPA is a poor predictor of success because of the many things that it leaves out, such as extenuating circumstances, different grading scales and different course difficulties. The GPA does not measure actual knowledge directly, but rather the ability to demonstrate knowledge, whether you have it or not. Restricting applicants solely based on GPA is so myopic that organizations doing so need to rethink their policies. All organizations would do well to think of what those few digits really mean and to ask questions. We as students should think about what our GPA really says and whether there is a better metric that could describe our knowledge and learning ability.
Brent is a junior in Engineering. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.