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Getting Beyond the Resume to Predict Success

INTERVIEW EDGE • DEC 2013

American higher education has seen its share of controversy lately. First came the revelations about grade inflation at Harvard—a practice long suspected and recently confirmed by a university spokesman. Next, and more surprising, was the news that this year alone, nearly 70 percent of applicants turned away by Stanford University had perfect SAT scores.

Something is out of balance in an education system where some students are routinely rewarded for a less-than-stellar academic performance while others, who are equally talented, fail to get into top schools.

Unfortunately, these are not simply problems of academia—they follow students into the work world, too. That's one of the many reasons we have always advised corporate interviewers to go beyond credentials when making hiring decisions. Here's a closer look at why resumes don't tell the whole story.

What Grade A really means

It's hard not to be impressed by a Harvard grad with straight A's. Or at least it is until you know that the most common grade at Harvard College is an A and that the median grade is an A-minus. In effect, just about everyone at Harvard gets straight A's, including those who might be B students somewhere else.

Harvard professor, Harvey C. Mansfield, an outspoken critic of easy grading, says "telling students they're better than they are" has an adverse effect on academic standards.

That's true enough since Harvard isn't the only culprit; one study found that 43 percent of American college students now receive A grades, whether they deserve them or not.

Top-tier university rejects

On the flip side, Stanford University accepted just 5.69 percent of more than 38,800 applicants for the 2013 academic year, noting that thousands of "smart, talented, qualified" students had to be turned away—many with top grades and perfect SAT scores. Similarly, the University of Chicago accepted fewer than 9 percent of applicants and Johns Hopkins around 6 percent.

One explanation is that colleges are becoming more selective just as the applicant pool is expanding. The result is that many students who qualify for the nation's most prestigious institutions don't attend them. And that means that a new college graduate’s resume may not accurately reflect talent and ability.

Beyond the resume

If straight A's at Harvard and perfect SAT scores at Stanford don’t tell the whole story, what is an interviewer to do?

Here's what we suggest:

– Shift focus away from resumes and credentials and learn more about how and why a recent graduate excelled in their studies and relevant activities. To predict future performance, it's important to understand how a candidate's past experiences reveal competencies that match the requirements of the job. A myopic focus on test scores, grades, and degrees shortchanges both candidates and your organization. Notable college dropouts include Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. More recent examples include the founders of Facebook, Twitter, Whole Foods, and Jet Blue.

– If a new hire with top credentials fails in a new job because she doesn’t fit the organization’s culture or have the right motivation, try auditing and adjusting your selection process and training your interviewers.

We believe Effective interviewing!® is a learnable skill that leads to better hires and fewer scenarios where someone says, “Don’t blame me for hiring her; she was a straight-A student in college.” One of the key concepts of good interviewing is that it takes more than resume credentials to determine candidate fit and future potential.