“GPAs don’t really matter.”
Maybe you’ve said that when confronted with the fact that writing a term paper in two hours is an awful idea. Or maybe you’re one of the elite cadre of students that actually has a good GPA and you say that to console your friends. We hear it all the time, sometimes in the same conversation, and conclude it over and over again. GPAs don’t really matter. Clearly.
The GPA is a terrible way of capturing our skills and intelligence, we repeat to each other for basically the whole duration of our degrees. It doesn’t allow for any of the intricacies of why we turn in our assignments late, or how some drama in our lives botched an exam. Some courses are way too difficult, and the grading for others is too unpredictable.
It’s also completely irrelevant for job hunting. If we manage to make it through our degrees with nothing but a good GPA, we are behind our classmates who have gathered years of experience in the quasi-workforce of volunteering and internships, not to mention the students who do co-op.
At some point, most of us have come to these conclusions. Real life isn’t analyses of Middle English literature and exams on protein metabolism. It’s critical thinking, working with people, and connections. Years of actually dealing with other human beings and problem solving are worth their weight in gold.
We also have to take some time away from our studies to have a life. So of course we can’t spend our whole experience at SFU studying.
But the issue is that, in a lot of ways, our GPAs do matter a whole lot.
I’ve met people who have lost out on scholarships because the Cs that made up their degrees didn’t stack up.
Whether we like it or not, the more time and energy we put into our studies, most of the time that translates into a better GPA. One more night of studying those muscle diagrams or French vocabulary will cement more of that information into memory. There are some students who seem to have been born with that understanding, and shut themselves into their rooms to brute force their way through their courses. Barring bad luck, they do really well.
They’re missing out on the life they could be having outside, though, right? Well, sure, they are. But because of the increasing prevalence of university education, just having a completed degree is mattering less and less. For the same reason that having real-world experience matters, a good GPA will speak for you. Those high numbers convey that you’re hard-working and smart — or enough so of one to compensate for a lack of the other. It’s almost like a way to store up time well-spent and hopefully reap the benefits later.
I’ve met many people who have used their high GPAs to get the attention and training they want and rightly deserve. I’ve also met just as many people who have lost out on scholarships and entrance requirements to professional degrees because the Cs that made up their degrees didn’t stack up. There are awards that are given to graduate students that still look back at your undergrad grades and weigh them really heavily; my mediocre GPA from my undergrad is still haunting me, even though I’m in my third year of my PhD.
That being said, there are many reasons why our GPAs don’t always carry us to victory.
There are countless ways for us to spend our time at SFU, let alone the rest of our lives. Clubs, not-for-profits, and conventional work eat away at the hours we have to spend, and that sometimes means we just don’t have enough time to study properly.
There’s also a seemingly endless supply of bad luck that manifests in tough courses and apathetic professors. Just passing some courses feels deserving of a medal of honour, but the D on our transcript says otherwise.
The good news is that a good employer will want to know the whole story.
A great GPA doesn’t matter if we can’t remember a damn thing from our education because we only got good at cramming rather than learning.
A crappy GPA doesn’t matter if we’ve spent our time getting meaningful hands-on experience.
Sure, some programs have arbitrary standards that are altogether unforgiving of people who hit their stride late in their degree, but in general, we can find that out beforehand. If we know what we are aiming for, we have a much better idea of how to spend our time. It’s also fairly unlikely that the rest of the academic world will stop using the GPA to determine our capacity for success, as oversimplified as that is.
There is no clean answer about what kind of balance you should strike for your GPA, but it is guaranteed that our GPA carries some consequences. If we have an awful GPA, we’ll have to explain it. If we have a great GPA, it will speak for us.
Our time at SFU is an incredible series of opportunities to meet inspiring people and learn inspiring things, so we should really examine what it is we’re trying to take away from it.
Our careers and the rest of our lives start here. Give them a solid foundation.