How to Explain Away Bad Grades

Your college GPA shouldn’t matter in most professional settings. But there are some circumstances where it counts.

Published: Jan 15, 2020

One of the things that seasoned business leaders will tell you is this: your college grade point average doesn’t matter all that much. 

That’s true for the most part. In fact, experts say that unless you achieved a perfect 4.0 or close to it, it’s wise to leave your grade point average off your resume entirely. But if you’re one of the 3.8 million college seniors getting ready to enter the workforce this year, your GPA could make or break you: according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, nearly 68% of employers said they screen candidates by GPA, seeing it as an indicator of future work performance. And, no matter what level you are in your career, if you’re applying for an MBA program or looking to work overseas, chances are you’ll need to dig up that college transcript as well. 

Nearly 68% of employers said they screen candidates by GPA, seeing it as an indicator of future work performance.

For those with less-than-stellar grades, the dread is real. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of ecommerce site Alibaba, admitted that with his poor grades, “it’d be almost impossible” for him to get a job at the company he founded. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s how to explain away your bad grades.

Show what else you have done.

If grades do come up in the interview, then “own it,” says Sean Carney, career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. There’s no point in hiding from the numbers, since it’s on paper. But don’t focus on it, either. Instead, think about why the interviewer brought it up, says career coach Jill MacFadyen. Are they worried about your work ethic? Have they hinted concerns about your ability to grasp complex concepts? Do they think you lack focus? Whatever the shortcoming, turn the conversation to what experiences you have or what else you did in college to put their concerns at ease.

Pursue a post-college certification.

For certain fields, the value of a certification is much more powerful than even the college degree. Now it’s all about “the nano-degrees,“ Carney says. Accountants want to see the CPA designation. There’s a plethora of different certifications that technology firms want to see, depending on your area of focus. Besides requiring it for employment, these certifications offer a second chance for you to showcase your seriousness when it comes to your chosen field. It will “negate” that low GPA, Carney adds.

Don't call attention to it. 

If you feel nervous about your low grades in an interview, there’s a tendency to want to attack them head on by mentioning it first. Don’t. If the interviewers care, they will bring it up. But even if they do, don’t “get flustered,” MacFadyen says. They’re likely bringing it up to see how you respond under pressure. Have a prepared answer, in case, and then turn that conversation back to what you’ve accomplished. That’s what they’ll remember most.

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