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Do candidates’ grades matter?

The importance of grades to Canadian, U.S., U.K. employers

By Brian Kreissl

With the debate raging about the value of a university education, many people are also starting to question the importance of getting good grades. The debate centres around whether it’s more important to have solid academic results or work experience, part-time employment, extracurricular activities and good social skills.

While there will always be situations where high marks are important — competitive graduate programs like law, medicine or MBA programs come to mind — I believe academic results aren’t nearly as important as some people make them out to be. In particular, few employers seem to care much about academic results, especially after a candidate has several years of work experience.

Experience is pretty much always going to trump education, as long as the candidate has met the role’s minimum educational requirements. I also believe Canadian employers are generally less obsessed with graduates’ marks than their counterparts in the United States or the United Kingdom.

‘Class’ of degree important in U.K.

I remember as a recent U.K. university graduate being surprised how many organizations required either a first class honours or upper second class honours degree (2:1) to even be considered for their graduate recruitment programs. And some organizations had special “fast track” programs for those with high marks and less ambitious programs for people with lower second class (2:2), third class honours or pass degrees.

As a Canadian, it seemed odd to me companies would pigeonhole people like that (and be so open about it). But I suppose being concerned with one’s “class” of degree might even be an extension of the British class system in some ways.

As discussed previously, part of this issue likely relates to the fact very few working class Brits traditionally went to university or even considered it an option worth pursuing. Because of that, 20 years ago in the U.K. there was still at least some vestiges of the idea university graduates were somehow “elite” candidates (the idea having long since vanished in North America).

But there are some signs that’s changing, with more people in the U.K. attending university (in spite of massive tuition fee hikes in England) and evidence of somewhat lower standards, with more graduates obtaining first class honours degrees. Nevertheless, the recent comments of one U.K. advertising executive, while somewhat tongue-in-cheek, were refreshing in their candour.

According to Rory Sutherland, vice-president at marketing, advertising and public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather, there is no evidence to suggest graduates with top results make better employees, and in fact, the opposite just may be true.

Calling some top students “obsessive weirdos,” Sutherland asked in a column published in The Spectator about universities today: “Where are all the hippies, the potheads and the commies? And why is everyone so intently serious and sober all the time? ‘Oh, it’s simple,’ a friend explained. ‘If you don’t get a 2:1 or a first nowadays, employers won’t look at your CV.’”

He also jokingly suggested his firm’s recruitment advertising could ask: “Headed for a 2:2 or a third? Finish your joint and come and work for us.”

While I’m not condoning substance abuse or poor study habits among students — nor am I trying to stereotype top students as “geeks” or antisocial weirdos — Sutherland seems to have a point, especially working in a creative field like advertising, where “book smarts” don’t count for everything. All else being equal, I’m sure most employers would still prefer a candidate with high marks over someone with mediocre grades, but there is a growing realization grades aren’t everything.

Less importance on grades in Canada

Yet I suspect this is something most Canadian employers have known for a while. Rarely, if ever, have I been asked about my grades in an interview. Employers always seemed more interested in my experience — sometimes to my annoyance when my educational credentials were actually more impressive.

Even in the U.S. there was often a focus on graduating with a high GPA — preferably from an Ivy League university. However, that’s changing now too amid the growing backlash against higher education due to rapidly declining return on investment and skyrocketing tuition fees.

Perhaps that’s why Google recently announced it would be giving less weight to most applicant’s academic results during the recruitment process. That and the fact Google found academic performance had little correlation with on-the-job performance, as well as academia being a somewhat artificial environment.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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5 Comments
  • Re: Experience does not trump education
    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 3:43:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    I see where you are going with this, and it goes without saying, for example, that you can't simply learn something like brain surgery on the job (although medical training does have a certain practical component to it as well).

    Education is very important (as a lifelong learner, I actually believe very strongly in the value of education), but as long as someone has the basic educational qualifications to do the job, I still maintain that in the vast majority of cases, at least with respect to someone with more than a few years' work experience, grades aren't going to mean as much as work experience.

    I'm also not sure I agree with you that someone who graduated 20 years ago necessarily has skills that are outdated. My father worked in IT, and he was constantly having to keep his skills relevant and current by reading, learning on the job and taking the occasional course to keep up with new trends and emerging technologies. It's interesting to note as well that there are some top-notch software developers out there who are self-taught, proving that education isn't everything even in a field like IT (although it is admittedly very difficult to prove self-taught abilities to a prospective employer unless you truly are a "rock star" and can point to specific accomplishments).

    Many professions require continuing professional development so their members keep their skills current. And while some of the specicific technologies, best practices or buzzwords may change, the basics frequently do not. Even in the case of fields that are in a constant state of flux and are highly technology-driven, there is still a lot of value in having experience - as well as being trained in the latest tools, technologies and techniques. Therefore, education and experience are helpful. I just don't think grades are necessarily the be-all and end-all that some people make them out to be.
  • Re: Sending wrong message
    Wednesday, August 7, 2013 3:19:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    Good point, but I don't think that was actually the message I was trying to send out. I did say that, all else being equal, employers would still generally prefer candidates with better grades. The problem is, however, that all else is seldom equal.

    Wherever possible, I still believe it's in a student's best interests to get the best grades possible. However, if it isn't possible to have a perfect GPA, that's not the end of the world either. It's important to be a well-rounded person, not just with strong grades, but also with good interpersonal and communication skills, work experience and possibly extracurricular activities. Ten years after graduation, few employers (other than perhaps in certain fields like academia) will care about your grades, although it is possible that grades matter more when someone is just starting their career.

    Nevertheless, I wouldn't like to see Canadian employers adopt a system whereby only people with certain grades or classifications of degrees are deemed worthy of even applying. The application process needs to be more holistic than that, and focusing on high grades above all else could lead to employers overlooking potential star candidates.