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Why I Don’t Regret Getting Straight A’s in College

December 5th, 2007 · 26 comments

Jon Dismisses GradesDebate

Yesterday, Jon Morrow wrote a guest post on the Brazen Careerist blog. It was titled: Why I Regret Getting Straight-A’s in College. It subsequently got picked up by Life Hacker, and, as you might imagine, has since been making the rounds.

In light of my experience with this issue, I want to offer a rebuttal. I don’t agree with Jon. But I do like his post. It is well-reasoned and rational — a perfect starting place for a polite, insightful debate.

Five Reasons Why Jon Regrets Getting Straight-A’s

Jon lists five main reasons why he regrets getting straight-A’s in college:

  1. “No one has ever asked about my GPA.
  2. “I didn’t sleep.
  3. “I’ve forgotten 95% of it.
  4. “I didn’t have time for people.”
  5. “Work experience is more valuable.”

For the sake of concision we can combine (2) and (4), as they both describe the same problem: good grades require too much study time. And we can also combine (1) and (5), as they both tackle the question of what matters when applying for a job. With these combinations complete, we can now tackle the main arguments in turn:

Argument #1: Employers Don’t Care About Your GPA

Jon argues:

I interviewed with lots of companies, received a total of 14 job offers after graduation, and none of the companies asked about [my GPA].

Grades are rarely discussed in job interviews. Does this mean they don’t matter? Of course not! Grades play a crucial rule in the hidden first step of the interview process: the resume screen.

When an organization has a competitive entry level position open, they are going to receive resumes from more candidates than they have time to interview. Accordingly, they perform a quick triage. Their focus: where you went to school, your grades, and, if relevant, work experience. If your grades are low, you will probably get tossed aside without ever being granted an interview.

The reason employers don’t bring up your grades in an interview is because there is no need. They already know your GPA. It’s a big reason why they agreed to interview you. Now it’s time to move beyond your marks and convince them you have the other skills necessary to be a good hire.

This reality does not just apply to investment banks and consulting firms. Almost any company that is hiring an entry level position needs some method of triage. This includes non-profit organizations. Do you want to save the world? Or join Teach for America? You better have a good GPA. These do-gooder firms are notorious for screening entry-level resumes on grades. (They get a lot of applicants, they can afford to choose the best.)

In short: a mediocre GPA will close a lot a entry level doors. Unless you are definite that you want a job in an industry that does not care at all about GPA (for example, the freelance writing gig mentioned by Jon in the post), you should think twice before drastically narrowing your options with a low average.

Argument #2: Getting Straight-A’s Devours Your Free Time

Jon argues:

Unless you’re a super genius, getting 37 A’s is hard work…I had lots of opportunities to build a huge network. But I didn’t have time.

This is an argument I hear frequently. It’s 100% false. It pops up so often because it is built upon the deceptively appealing logical fallacy of the false dichotomy. Jon implicitly assumes the following choice:

  1. Work 60-100 hours a week and score straight A’s.
  2. Work much less and score mainly B’s.

Faced with this choice, (2) is the obvious way to go. Working 100 hours a week in college would be terrible! But this dichotomy assumes that grades are mainly a function of how many hours you spend. As loyal Study Hacks readers know, this is false. Your grades are a combination of: how you study, your energy when you study, and time spent. Smart strategies for the first two can keep the third really small.

Case in point: I studied much less than most people I knew in college, but my GPA was higher than Jon’s, who, as he describes, was “obsessed” with getting an A+ on every assignment. Most students who e-mail me success stories, emphasize not just that their grades are higher, but that they are studying much less now that they’ve cleaned up their habits. The real choice is:

  1. Study with bad habits for 60 – 100 hours a week and get A’s.
  2. Study with good habits for much less time and get A’s.
  3. Study with bad habits for much less time and get B’s.

Faced with this more accurate choice, (2) becomes the best option. What Jon really regrets is having terrible study habits that ate up all his time. The goal of getting good grades is not to blame. Focus on being efficient to solve the problem.

Argument #3: I’ve Forgotten 95% of It

Jon argues:

I majored in English Literature and minored in Communication Theory…I spent all my time reading classic literature and memorizing vague, pseudoscientific communication theories. Neither are useful at all, and I’ve forgotten at least 95% of it.

College is not vocational school. Its mission is rooted in enlightenment thinking: By being exposed to great minds you become a better citizen of the world. True, you will probably never need to explicitly discuss much of what you read from the Western Canon. But there is a reason why we have been studying these books for the last 300 years. They equip you to tackle life. They add nuance to your understanding of ethics and morality. They complicate your view of the human condition. They change your reception of the signal of life experience from black and white to HD.

The same holds true for social science and physical sciences. You might not use a specific communication theory, but you have learned to view information flow in a more critical, nuanced light. Do you really think 18-year-old Jon is equally equipped to tackle life as 22-year-old college graduate Jon? Or did four years of exposure to the detailed thinking of smart minds perhaps facilitate some mental maturing — even if you didn’t agree with everything you learned.

In the end, however, I’m not qualified to provide a great defense for the liberal arts. For this, I should defer to those that have done so with informed eloquence.

Conclusion

I appreciate Jon’s thoughtful essay. We differ because of the following three observations that I hold to be true:

  1. For a large number of entry-level jobs, your GPA does matter.
  2. Getting good grades does not require you to work more than most students.
  3. Their There is a value to learning things that you don’t have immediate practical use for.

If you agree with these observations, then you fall into my pro-grades camp. If you believe them flawed, Jon’s conclusion will seem more rational. Either way, it’s nice to have the opportunity to engage in well-reasoned debate on the topic.

What are your thoughts? Do you regret trying to score good grades?

26 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Regret Getting Straight A’s in College

  1. Gyanish says:

    Great arguments! hats down…

    I’m currently studying to obtain straight A’s because the efforts I give off during college, the discipline and time management skills I acquire, the efforts I put in, the smart study techniques I develop are all important skills that will serve me off later when I’ll be working full-time. I highly doubt you will be able to invest that same amount of energy in your work if you were slacking in college.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    Gyanish,

    That’s a good additional point. College is a good laboratory to develop organizational skills that will serve you later. As you argue, these skills are harder to pick up later in life once you’re set in your ways.

    – Cal

  3. Rebecca says:

    I would add one place that grades will matter, even with experience. Graduate School.

    You may not know today that you want to get an MBA or other professional degree, but when you apply your GPA will once again matter. Yes, you can always find a lesser school that will take a lower GPA, but that has long term effects on your earning potential and your career path.

    The fact is that your life will change. You may say NOW that once you finish you are done for good, but as a 41 year old graduate student I can tell you that isn’t necessarily true. What you want, what you need to know and how you want to live your life will change over time, and the last thing you want is for your GPA to be the difference between changing your life and being stuck.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Rebecca,

    Great point. In fairness, Jon did mention that grades matter for graduate school. But it’s worth noting, as you do, that even if you don’t think, at 19, that you’ll go to graduate school, that might change at 40. That’s a real hard possibility to rule out for sure!

    – Cal

  5. I totally agree. People who dropped out of school recognize how much of a joke the public school system is. Now they’re richer than us. They could be bums and still be richer than us, cause they dont have any debt.

    -Diana

  6. Arman says:

    Masterful arguments! I love the post Cal … and you are my favourite blogger! I consider your argument #3 especially important for gaining the right perspective on why to spend time and effort studying various subjects, even though studying them may seemingly have “marginal impact” on the career. The time and effort spent contribute to the treasury of (let’s tentatively call it subconscious) mind, which ultimately shapes our perceptions and guides our actions. Therefore, the impact of studying various subjects at the college, and studying well I mean, does not only expand our career possibilities, but also our decisions and choices in life.
    I shall admit though, that I was selective in getting the highest grades in subjects that were interesting to me and the ones I considered important for my future career and employees, while maintaining reasonable status quo on less “interesting” subjects. This allowed me to have lots of fun and be the party animal. However, looking back I think that I should have put more effort, because whatever was my weakness back then I am paying off by more effort now in the graduate school.
    Keep up your fantastic work. I am looking forward to buy a copy of your book early 2008.

  7. Durp says:

    Your priorities for company resume selection are way off. From my experience work experience ALWAYS comes first. Second is grades, but even then employers tend to care more about the GPA for your major.

    I agree with your number 2, but that only works in certain majors. In others such as the design majors or computer science the difference between an A and a B can be 20 hours or more.

    And number 3 applies to those who don’t get straight A’s as well

  8. Study Hacks says:

    Durp:

    It’s unclear to me how much relevant work experience a recent college graduate can have? Sure, it helps to intern in the industry during an off-semester. But everyone can do that.

    In terms of number 2, I was a computer science major. A good proportion of the 50 straight-A students interviewed for my second book were science or engineering majors. It’s definitely possible to do well without eating up all your free time!

    I agree with you on 3. But I think Jon was using it as an excuse to stop trying in class…

    – Cal

  9. Dan says:

    I’d have to agree with Jon. I got a 3.0 in college. As for the first point. My first job after college was to be a marketing manager and I was put in charge of a major program. Now with that being said, the time that I saved by not studying as much (and I definately did save a lot of time), I applied to build up a fantastic resume upon graduation. This was MUCH more valuable than my peers who had a 4.0.

    I agree that getting a 4.0 is not a waste because even though you don’t remember it all you are more well rounded, but I feel that I have the same problem solving and learning ability as someone who did get the 4.0

    All in all, I much happier that I had more fun, did what I wanted, and got the 3.0 Worked out much better in the long run since I got the best job out of all my friends.

  10. Greg says:

    It’s hard to take seriously a piece on the value of education when they use the wrong there/their/they’re:

    “Their is a value to learning things that you don’t have immediate practical use for.”

    How about “There is a value…”

    If your GPA is over 3.0 you should put it on your résumé instead of being asked what it is later.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    @Dan

    I think the key assumption here is that getting a 4.0 has to require working a lot more. I don’t doubt this was the case for you, and most people, based on their study habits. But, as we discuss on this blog, by changing study habits, it’s actually possible to get close to the big four-oh without a significant increase in time spent.

    @Greg

    I have to write these pretty quickly. But thanks for noting the error. I agree on placing the GPA on the resume. My understanding is this expected.

  12. Rob says:

    You’re assuming the person doesn’t already have good study habits. If they do, a person with good study habits aiming for B’s is still likely to be spending significantly less time than someone aiming for all A’s. Your argument is that good study habits means aiming for A’s won’t kill you, but that really varies from school to school, major to major, and class to class. For example, a valid argument in my school for a Biomedical Engineering major was that a student with bad study habits studying for 60 hours will probably flunk out, while a student that studied for 60 hours with good study habits will probably get B’s. Getting straight A’s, and believe me, no one got straight A’s, would easily require 100+ hours and a little bit of luck and genius.

    Same argument can be made against your 3rd argument, that 22 year old college Jon that worked hard is more equipped than 18 year old Jon that didn’t go to college. Of course he is! He’s four years older for god’s sake. Hopefully however, 18 year old non-college Jon also didn’t sit on his butt for four years. When he hits 22, he should have learned something in his own way. True, it’s unlikely that he’d been in the same environment as the college boy, but history has shown that people have done great things in those four years instead of college. This we see all the time… where little naive sheltered 22yr old college Jon knows a lot less about real life than 22yr old non-college Jon who made good use of his four years.

  13. rhiannonsmum says:

    It is true. I work for an employer and for many entry level positions we not only look at the GPA, we require copies of transcripts. We also look at ACT and SAT scores. We use those as a first level of rejection or acceptance for an interview time slot. It is common practice for on-campus interviewing.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    @Rob:

    Science majors can be more time consuming. But I’ve worked with students at the most demanding majors at the most demanding schools in the world, and observed that with the right habits it is definitely possible to get great grades while working less than your average peer. (Though, of course, the hours of work of the average student at a school like MIT will be more than the work of an average student at the Sam Houston Institute of Technology. But relative differences seem to make more of an impact on quality of life than absolute differences.)

    To your second point, let me clarify. In my reasoning, 22-year-old college graduate Jon is better equipped to face the world than 22-year-old “spent 4 years in a job that doesn’t require a college degree” Jon. But you’re right. It’s debatable. And certainly, the properly motivated young man can do better out in the real world as compared to the wayward youth who burns out in the frat basement for four years. But the type of personality that would do great in four years on his own would do even better if also given access to the intellectual resources of a college campus.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    @rhiannonsmum:

    Thanks for the insider insight. For reasons like these, I think Jay has to give his straight-A performance I lot more credit than he would like for the amazing crop of job interviews he scared up.

  16. apteryx says:

    Data point: At places where I’ve worked, we’ve never looked at GPA, not even for screening. We look at stuff like what you did and what you’re interested in and whether we’d like to work with you.

    However, these have generally been interesting places to work. I can’t say this first-hand, but I think dull places (like big corporations and the government) tend to give much higher weight to low-bandwidth proxy measures of a person’s competence, such as GPA or what school they went to. There’s a famous essay on how to get into grad school that says that the better the grad school, the less they pay attention to stuff like GRE score and GPA, and the more they pay attention to interesting projects you did of your own initiative, like cut class for a month to pull off a cool research project of your own.

  17. apteryx says:

    I’m in grad school now and teaching an algebra class. I asked the students how long they’re spending on the homework. I didn’t check this out in detail, but it looks like the C students spend the most time on their homework (~45 minutes), and the A students the least (~15 minutes per day).

    The idea that spending more time is the way to get higher grades is just factually not true.

  18. apteryx says:

    I agree so strongly with the idea that college is not vocational school: definitely, it’s the mission of the Enlightenment, and it’s about improving your receptivity to the signal of life! Wow, I have never heard it stated so clearly and succinctly before.

    And yet, how many people have actually *learned* much from college courses? The packed schedules and focus on grades lead most people’s academic experience to be one of superficial study, doing the minimum amount of work to get past each exam, forgetting it all right after the exam, and months of general brain-scramble. It’s not a good environment for the mission of the Enlightenment. Probably a fair amount of the reason for that is the heavy use of college as de facto vocational school: “you need good grades to open the door to good employers”.

    I believe there’s hard research that says focusing on grades or other extrinsic rewards (like money) actually makes people learn less, when creativity and in-depth knowledge are involved.

    Focusing on grades is itself the problem, probably a big part of why Jon Morrow remembers so little of what he studied in college.

  19. Study Hacks says:

    And yet, how many people have actually *learned* much from college courses? The packed schedules and focus on grades lead most people’s academic experience to be one of superficial study, doing the minimum amount of work to get past each exam, forgetting it all right after the exam, and months of general brain-scramble.

    I agree, there does seem to be a gap between the benefit college *can* serve, and how many students actually use it. An interesting question is how one could close that gap? Just to throw a thought out there, but this perhaps something that could be partially addressed in admission policies that could somehow (accurately) select for true intellectual curiosity. How one might going about doing that, well, that’s another question…

  20. Natalie Euley says:

    I really believe that grades are necessary. I am a CS major right now, and I have a programming job. You know how I got it? “I see that your GPA is relatively high, and you have a minor in Mathematics along with your Computer Science Major. We really need academic people in our workplace- most come from a working, hands-on background. If I hired you, could you show some of us the theories and logic behind these things instead of simply what to do to make it work?” I said yes, and that was one of the answers that got me my job. Also, my ultimate goal after college is to get a job at one of the top companies in the Silicon Valley- hopefully Google. GPA is a standard for them. If your GPA is below a certain point they won’t even glance at the rest of your resume. I know because I’ve been there when it comes to applying. I also plan to get my future company (hopefully Google) to pay for my MBA. What college is closest to Google? Stanford. Even if Google accepted me with a low GPA, there is no way I could get an MBA at Stanford with a low GPA. A high GPA is absolutely vital to my career. I code in my spare time, so I have a portfolio. I have a job. I have a high GPA. That’s all I need for the rest of my college career until I graduate. Also, I had to go to academic counseling in order to manage my time properly. Guess what? It worked. I study efficiently now and I am not quite so stressed. Students need to understand that there is a right and wrong way to accomplish the same task. Anyway, my point is that GPA matters more than anything for someone with a career path like mine. I read the article that this one responded to- it’s meant for people who are not majoring in academia. I’ll tell you what, though- my formal education has not helped with my job very much. Mostly the research I have done on my own has been much more necessary and helpful. But, what I have learned in school has proved necessary for programming tasks other than my job, like hack-a-thons. I find it rather ironic, but whatever. Regardless, whatever anyone says, my GPA is the literal key to my future. They say GPA doesn’t matter in college. But to a certain extent, it matters more than anything.

  21. Brandon says:

    So, I’m twenty-five years old, a sociocultural psych major, and I just finished my first semester of college with a 4.0. It feels great, won me a scholarship grant, and I’m gunning for serious grad-school time so it definitely helps in that regard. I don’t study much either, but I study effectively. Including class-time (on a FT schedule), I typically pull 40 to 50 hours per week of school-related effort. I studied infinitely more in the class that actually relates to my major.
    I am healthily obsessed with my G.P.A., because it is the quantitative value given to my level of education. I am also obsessed with knowledge in general. I agree wholeheartedly with the author that learning things which are not immediately practical is valuable in the extreme. I think it was John Newman who wrote of Knowledge for the Sake of Knowledge. These are wise words. The point is to educate yourself, and to actualize, so that you can be the best version of yourself possible. A more broad Renaissance-style education also better prepares an individual to tackle more varied obstacles in life, and to generally mesh into multiple levels of social and societal interaction.
    In short, I agree. I read both articles after Googling something about grade-points. They were listed sequentially in the result links. Haha.
    Fair days, pleasant nights!

  22. ag says:

    As long as you have a 3.0gpa or higher, you can get into a good graduate program. 2.75 gpa for law programs with less tuition fees in Europe.
    I got into New York University graduate school with 3.2 undergrad GPA . I used to have a 3.6gpa but then i took a programming course and failed. Oops! My graduate program gpa is higher and a different field(international law).
    and no one asks for graduate school gpa in interviews, they just see work experience and school name on my resume.
    Some employers are less likely to be impressed if you go to a no name school but some are impressed by the city and state you went to school in. For instance, creative companies love that I studied outside the continental u.s. I have perspective which non of their current american employees have!
    My undergrad university is not an ivy league or even top 100. However, i still got into a top 30 national tier 1 graduate school. I still get noticed by google, facebook, discovery channel, etc. not because of my grades but because i have a good work ethic, how i analyze, solve issues, previous work experience, and references. Where I have been and how i got there is much more interesting than a GPA.

    I hate the idea of working for someone else. I will use the tools resources at NYU to start my own company. Its also a great way to connect with other students who are interested in becomig their own boss instead of depending on someone else for a paycheck just so you can slowly pay off student loans in 30 years. Ridiculous!
    If you can, raise your kids in Europe(Norway, sweden, denmark, netherlands, belgium,scotland) so they can go to school for free. They will thank you later.

    I was one of those people considering law school and its great if you want to make a difference while working long hours, but there are other ways to contribute to society without spending 12 to 16 hours in a day living your life just working.

  23. Rebecca says:

    This is obviously a really old article, but it’s truly timeless and I appreciate it. I personally very strongly feel that education is highly undervalued in society today, and Jon’s article only perpetuates that.

    Getting A’s isn’t necessarily important because of your GPA and future jobs, although that certainly is a plus if it works to your advantage. For me, getting A’s is important because it means that I understand the material, and I’m not half-assing it. I don’t want to understand only parts of biochemistry…I want to understand it, period.

    When people say “I don’t remember what I learned in school”… I think in most cases if a person was faced with a problem in which he/she would need to utilize an application they “forgot”, it wouldn’t take much time to quickly re-educate themselves and remember it….especially if you are studying regularly in school and getting A’s. Once things are stored into your long term memory, they’re pretty much there…the main issue is how you recall it.

    That brings us to the point you made about studying smarter. Part of studying smarter entails using several different methods of remembering and understanding material instead of just one; for example, if you simply read the text and don’t go beyond that, you’re not doing yourself any favors. Employing visuals, experiments, analogies, etc. are all great ways to not just study for A’s, but to remember something long-term AND be capable of recalling it later. It’s much more likely, say, if you are able to attach a mental picture to a piece of information, that you will be able to recall the information correctly than if you are mentally unable to associate that data with anything else.

    I personally believe that a person’s attitude has much more to do with the quality of education they receive above all else. I’m sure there are (always) exceptions, but if a person is simply trying to remember information to past tests to get through college to get the job, that person is going to have a WAY different outcome (as far as what they can remember later and how they use it to their advantage) than someone who is not simply using college to get a job, but to also learn as much as they can for the sake of truly wanting to learn!

    There seems to be a severe lack of passion for learning overall.

    Anyway… in conclusion, I will leave with this…. something (which, I remember!) that I learned in my first semester of college… an excerpt from “An Essay on Criticism” by Alexander Pope:

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
    and drinking largely sobers us again”

  24. Rebecca says:

    excuse me, typo ** PASS tests

  25. Cameron says:

    I could agree more – I want straight A’s because it will show how much I really care about this. I am going for computer science so am taking math and programming. I am going for game design and I dont have the know how to create games yet but still want to work hard in this and have something to show for it
    I am in my four semester and have straight A’s so far
    But as I go on my courses will get harder and harder so hopefully my pre reqs prepare me, but I like to programm (which uses math like opengl uses 4d vectors which in used in linear algebra) on my own time so hopefully that prepares me as well. When a young apprentice finds his master (in the karate movies) he goes to the master to learn a skill – i am going to school for that reason
    I want to write really good code
    And being around CS PhDs who test what you can do is a great way to do so.
    Thanks for the great article showing good grades DO matter
    And your right the reason they dont ask your GPA is they already have it. The only reason Jon was sitting in the interview chair is because he had straight As – if he didnt they would even look at his resume.

    Plus i am going to UCSC which is near silicon Valley – so the professors there have insight to the industry

    Hey to the author – you kind of lost me with this can you tell me what you meant by saying this: because it is built upon the deceptively appealing logical fallacy of the false dichotomy.

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