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Overton: Skills over grades

BY JON OVERTON | OCTOBER 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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Academia often proclaims that it will transform you into a well-rounded, enlightened individual, then promptly strips away everything unique about you, averaging all course grades and TA-DA: You now have your very own grade-point average, the quantitative totality of your college career.

But honestly, that insanely high GPA for which many a studious student strives is overrated, unless it’s your sole source of happiness. Then by all means, get that 4.0. But there is a point for most people when the time spent studying your ass off could be better spent elsewhere.

A high GPA shows you’re good at school. You probably worked hard to get it, but what does it amount to? Congrats, you can fill in bubbles, memorize information, regurgitate it all in an hour, and show up for discussion section.

Still, grades matter to some extent. A 2013 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 78 percent of employers screen job applicants based on college GPA. On average and across virtually all sectors surveyed, the average cutoff was reported as a 3.0.

It can’t hurt to have a super high GPA, or so the conventional wisdom would tell you. Actually, it can hurt. Every moment you spend studying is a moment you could spend trying to improve a skill or doing work that employers care more about.

“Employers place more weight on experience, particularly internships and employment during school versus academic credentials including GPA and college major when evaluating a recent graduate for employment,” a nationwide survey of employers by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s “Marketplace” found.

Skills, which employers say job candidates so often lack include adaptability, spoken and written communication, and critical thinking.

I’m not saying that college has to be all about career development or that we should eliminate lectures and throw everyone into internships. Purely academic education is valuable in its own right, but with as much money as students (and their parents) are paying for college, they obviously expect a substantial return on their investment. Few of us have thousands of dollars to throw around willy-nilly.

Obviously, students are responsible for their own educations, but the higher-education system should try to help students acquire skills needed to be employable. This strange fetish academia has for the GPA does not benefit anyone — except for the university when it gets to brag about how “smart” its students are.

Of course to get into the best graduate school possible, grades are important, but there’s more to it than that: the infamous GRE, recommendation letters, and a really, really, really strong desire to do research. Even more than that, you have to be able to handle the insane amount of stress and work involved.

An info sheet about grad school from the State University of New York-Brockport summed it up nicely.

“You don’t know the answers; no one knows the answers. To a student who has been trained for four years as an undergraduate to regurgitate the ‘right answer’ on exams, this transition to not knowing can be really difficult.”

If the higher-education system really wants to make us well-rounded individuals, it should give us Shakespeare and the history of Rome but also remind us that sometimes there are more important things than getting that golden GPA.


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