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GPA: What Does It Really Mean?

• volume 2 • number 7

Recruiters scouting college campuses for future employees often limit their interviews to students who have maintained a certain grade point average (GPA). The assumption is that a high GPA represents outstanding academic achievement. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In fact, statistics indicate that although scholastic aptitude seems to be declining, grades are higher than ever. What's going on?

One problem is that there is no such thing as standardized grading. How well students do depends in large part on how lenient their teachers are - in other words, whether instructors are "easy" or "hard" graders - and on the kind of grading curve they use. And grading not only varies from one teacher to another, but from school to school.

In our seminar's we discuss the unusual grading practices at several prestigious universities. Although these nonstandard practices are not intended to be misleading, the fact is, they often are. One leading university, for instance, uses a 5.0 grading scale. Obviously, a 3.99 GPA from this school is not nearly as impressive as the same grade point average from a school using the traditional 4.0 scale. Yet an interviewer who doesn't know about the 5.0 scale can easily mistake a good student for a great one.

At another major university, students can opt to take any class but one on a pass-fail basis, making it technically possible for students earning an "A" in that one course to claim they have graduated with an "A" average.

Then there is the university that graduates every student, with the exception of those at the bottom quarter of the class, either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, while at a neighboring, equally prestigious school, no one graduates "with distinction."

It is nearly impossible for busy managers to keep track of all these academic shenanigans, particularly when the way GPAs are calculated can change as often as the weather. To add to the confusion, there are grading "trends." Right now, the tendency seems to be to inflate marks, often because of pressure from parents, school districts, or state boards.

Evaluators both inside and outside academia have long looked to the Scholastic Assessment Tests (SATs), to help them make sense of grading. These tests, which measure reasoning skills as well as subject comprehension, are impartially scored by the same standards. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that since 1987, the number of "A" students has risen from 28 to 37 percent, while the SAT scores of those same students dropped 14 points.

Yet even the SATs are not an infallible gauge of academic achievement. They are especially unfair to students from other cultures, for example, and to those for whom English is a second language. Furthermore, these tests measure only certain kinds of intelligence, neglecting important areas like creativity and artistic ability.

It seems clear that there is no test that can truly assess achievement, much less potential. Because of this, we strongly encourage companies to consider more than just GPAs and exam scores when they evaluate candidates. Students who have held part-time jobs, for instance, have demonstrated motivation and multi-tasking abilities - qualities that may be more important in business than a high GPA. In short, educational achievement should not be the sole criterion for deciding who to interview on campus.