• Acing midterms and finals is still the number one way to leave college with an excellent GPA. Exams are supposed to cover the most important concepts and skills that a class has to offer and reveal to what degree you’ve mastered all these concepts and skills. So why is it that test scores don’t necessarily give an accurate forecast of how good you’ll be on the job?There are several reasons, actually. There’s an incredible difference in the way “tests” are perceived in college, and in the world outside college. First, let’s get clear on what tests are supposed be: a yardstick to measure how much knowledge you have about some given subject at some given point in time. That’s pretty much it. Note that I didn’t say it was the final day of reckoning at the Crossroads, the day you must match wits with Satan himself about organic chemistry or Constitutional Law for the right to live the rest of your days above ground. It’s just a TEST to see where you are right now. And in the grand scheme of your life and career, “where you are right now” is very near the beginning.But the college system doesn’t treat you that way. It treats you – in every class, at the end of every semester – like you’re at the end of the line. Know everything by now, or else. Or else you’ll get a bad grade. And because of that, students go about their learning process differently. Instead of learning as many concepts and skills as they can for the long-term, they do something different: they start preparing for tests.If you’re a college student now or have been a student any time in the last 10 years, you know what I’m talking about. Rarely does a student (and I’m speaking for myself here, too) attempt to read, learn, synthesize and retain all of the material in every course’s syllabus. Believe it or not, that’s what most of our past generations of college students were expected to do – learn everything the teacher covered in a semester, because you never knew what was going to be on the midterms and finals when they rolled around.That almost never happens now. Most professors tell you what’s going to be covered on the big tests. Many will even review some questions from the actual test with you. Many will hold big review sessions during regular class hours – the class hours you’re paying them to teach you new stuff, not old stuff. Some will even GIVE YOU THE DAMNED TEST so you can go home and study it. That’s right – they give you a piece of paper with some questions, you go home and find the answers to those questions, you come back the next period and transfer those answers onto the same piece of paper, and voila – you get an “A” on the test.

      Now, many of you are undoubtedly saying, “Yeah….so?” And I probably would’ve said the same thing when I was in college – whatever freed up my time to drink more beer and meet different girls was fine with me. But my point here is different: it’s not to stop partying and start studying all the time – far from it. The point is, if you’re going , you might as well be studying something useful that you’ll remember, rather than 40 questions on a test that you’ll forcefully shove out of your mind once you’ve dropped the answer sheet on your professor’s desk.

      There isn’t too much professors can do about this – it’s simply the way the educational system is set up. The one remedy that’s sometimes available is the ability to take a class on the pass-fail system, rather than for a specific letter grade. I have long been a big proponent of pass-fail classes, and still recommend to any student to take a class pass-fail any time you can. But I’ll talk more about that later.

    • What are the possibilities? You have a low GPA — definitely leave it off. You have an average GPA — why include it? What does it add to your application? It’s strong — ok, but it’s still just GPA, and employers know that the stuff you did to get that GPA are very different from what you’ll do at a job. You don’t go to work from 9-10 and 2-4 on MWF and 12-3 on T and TH. Work is different. Exception — if you have a really, really high GPA, like summa cum laude high or a 4.0, maybe you should include it. There’s still a “wow” factor there, because the likelihood is your boss didn’t graduate with that high of a GPA, and it still impresses some people. That said, remember that most bosses know that your GPA doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good employee, worker, whatever. Worst, least knowledgeable person I ever had to work with was a 4.0 student, undergrad and grad school.Yes, but: Some students and parents (especially parents) think I hold GPA in low regard because I never had a very good one myself, and that I’m simply giving you the “I never had a good GPA, and look at me now!” line. Sorry, wrong answer. I was the salutatorian of my high school class with a 3.96 (we didn’t have those highfalutin’, five-point AP classes in Box Elder, South Dakota, thank you very much), and I got my B.A. in English with a 3.9. Am I bragging? Not at all – just telling you from personal experience that a high GPA means very, very little to anyone outside of your dinner table. In fact, let me punctuate this point with a final anecdote:One of the biggest regrets I have about my college education is dropping my French minor. I loved studying foreign languages, and to this day, I still do. But in the middle of my French III semester, I abruptly dropped the class. Why? Because I thought I was going to get a “B” and that would hurt my GPA. Let me be clear here: That decision was asinine beyond words. I cannot describe how stupid it was for me to do that. Never once, in the history of my life, has anyone asked me what grade I received in French III. Ever. But because of that choice, there ended my formal French study. There ended my quest to master that beautiful, romantic tongue – to saunter off to Europe and meander through France, Switzerland, Belgium, wooing lovely francophone girls into jelly with my rugged American exterior yet oh-so-cultured mastery of le francais.

      But thanks to my absolutely silly pursuit of few extra hundredths of a point on my undergraduate GPA, my French stinks. I’ve been to Montreal and Paris and stammered like a fool each time, relying only upon the locals’ goodwill toward English-speakers to get by (lots more of that in Montreal than Paris, by the way). Oh, well. I was in Paris on my honeymoon anyway, so I guess my wife would’ve put a stop to any lovely-French-girl wooing even if I could’ve managed some.

      Don’t be like me. Learn what you want to learn and forget about the GPA. You will never, ever regret it.

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