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Home » Career Resource Articles » Do bad grades mean you're doomed?

Do bad grades mean you're doomed?

Expert Suggestions on Preparation for Computer Based CAT-09

Do bad grades mean you're doomed?

by Jayne J. Feld

So you've never made the dean's list. And until recently you thought magna cum laude was a local fraternity house.

Bad grades will not necessarily doom you to minimum wage work. But you've got some explaining to do, say recruiters, university career counselors and one retired millionaire who shared their thoughts on overcoming bad grades with Vault.

Talk a good game

"If you're not a super high achiever, you have to have a story," says Julie Cunningham, manager of global college relations at Lisle, Ill.-based Tellabs. "That doesn't mean you make it up. But you have to be able to say this is my background, this is who I am, and this is how I can fit in best."

Before you get depressed about your grade point average, it's important to understand exactly when and if your grades matter, says Tim Luzader, director of Purdue University's center for career opportunities.

That's because in some career paths, such as customer service or marketing, a 2.8 on a 4-point scale in a difficult major won't ruin your chances of being gainfully employed. In other fields, particularly in investment-banking trading, a low GPA is a near-impossible barrier to consideration.

"Frankly, a good number of companies really just aren't concerned about grades," says Luzader. "In the course of your research, you should find out if grades are important. (If they are) then you need to take a more aggressive approach to convincing interviewers that grades are not a good indicator of your performance."

Even at companies that place a high priority on grades, a high GPA isn't everything. Good communications skills top a list of qualities employers are looking for from job candidates, according to "Job Outlook 2001," an annual survey of employers' hiring intentions as they relate to new graduates.

"The interview is the place to show that," says Mimi Collins, spokeswoman for the Bethlehem, Pa.-based National Association of Colleges and Employers, which conducted the poll. "If you can't make conversation and you can't make eye contact, that's obviously going to hurt you."

font class="text" The Internet is your friend

It's vital, say experts, that students learn everything they can about the company before an interview. "[Interviewers are] really unimpressed with students who don't know anything about a company or position," Collins says. "There's so much information relevant to companies now that there's no excuse."

Other prized attributes, according to Collins, include integrity, teamwork skills and a sense of the realities of the business world - skills that can be developed via internships.

"In the end, talent is so hard to acquire," says James Guitterez, founder of San Francisco-based MagicBeanStalk, an e-business recruiting company that focuses on college and graduate students. "You don't have to have the highest GPA in the class. [Companies] are looking for people who can learn quickly and adapt to changes very well."

That said, elite consulting firms and investment banks want to see chart-topping scores, says Guitterez, a Yale University grad. He knows because he spent the first semester of his senior year criss-crossing the nation on job interviews.

"They're trying to qualify you," he says. "Academic achievement is going to be key for them."

Still, even on Wall Street, there's wiggle room. Consider a Yale friend of Guitterez, who was so engrossed in organizing a national Korean conference he practically never showed up for classes. The event was a smashing success: it attracted 2,000 attendees and generated $500,000. According to Guitterez, even though his friend's grades hit rock-bottom, he had no troubles winning over grades-obsessed interviewers.

"He was able to communicate business acumen [that] he had and had learned as a result of doing this, dealing with venders, managing the event and housing all those people," Guitterez says of his pal.

Guitterez himself was taken to task during interviews at Goldman Sachs for his 3.1 GPA when most candidates came in with 3.8 or 3.9s.

"One guy opened up my transcript and started going through every grade lower than a B," recalls Guitterez, 23.

Fortunately, Guitterez had a very good story: he was organizing events that introduce students to new economy companies. He got the Goldman job but turned it down, along with other job offers, to pursue his own business.

"You have to articulate your strength in other areas and create good stories to couch your areas of weakness," he says.

Cunningham, of Tellabs, says her company looks for at least a 3.0 GPA for jobs in software, product development and chip design. But that doesn't guarantee someone a job.

Book smarts aren't everything

"We find that sometimes the person with a perfect 4.0 doesn't have some other qualities," she says. "Sometimes they're really well-rounded, but sometimes they've focused so much on academics that they haven't participated in other activities that give them teamwork and leadership skills."

For jobs in service areas, such as customer support or marketing, Tellabs will accept candidates with lower GPAs. Grades aren't the best measure of interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate - so needed for client-oriented jobs, she says.

For all jobs, impressive internships can compensate for other deficiencies, she says.

"We really look hard at internships," she says. "We'll take someone with a lower GPA if they've had some dynamo internships and experience."

However, a really low GPA, such as a 2.1, will "raise red flags," she says.

"It's not that we wouldn't ever talk to someone with a GPA that low," Cunningham says. "Did that person really not realize the importance of the GPA, especially in the field of technology where so much emphasis is put on grades?"

Extenuating circumstances, such as a death in the family or your attempt to stay in school following a car accident, are reasonable. You also win points for showing that you overcame a slump earlier in your college career.

Tellabs isn't interested in SAT scores. But high-school accomplishments such as becoming an Eagle Scout or qualifying as a merit scholar are still impressive when applying for a first job, she says. By the time you move on to a second job, however, she advises that students drop all references to college stats, such as GPA.

"At that point, we want to start looking at you as a professional, not a college student," she says.

Paul Hanlon, a retired businessman turned author and motivational speaker, has another take on a low GPA - it's inconsequential.

"There's been a lot of guys from the Ivy League I've fired," says Hanlon, who turned Folio Exhibits, a small unprofitable Massachusetts-based company, into an industry giant with Fortune 500 clients such as Reebok, Titleist, Raytheon, Kodak, McGraw-Hill, and General Electric. "They were too smart for their own good. What I've found [to be] more important was having a good heart. Your brain will follow."

Told he was dumb his entire life, Hanlon had a C-minus average in high school. He took two-and-a-half years to graduate from a two-year community college. At 22, he took a minimum wage job selling portable trade show exhibits. He bought the company at 27 and turned it into a multimillion-dollar business before retiring at 39.

He says low academic achievers can still make it in jobs traditionally closed to them because of bad grades or diplomas from less-than-prestigious colleges.

"If you want to get into Oracle as a programmer, get in as a paper shuffler. Sooner or later you'll be recognized as a winner and they'll promote you anywhere you want to go," he says. "A good employee is very hard to find. Getting in is half the problem, once you get in, you have to work very hard."  

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