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Business Commentary When hiring new grads, employers should ignore grade point average

Scott Stirrett is founder and CEO of Venture for Canada, an organization that connects graduates with learning experiences at startups.

Canadian employers continue to face the lowest unemployment rates in 40 years, and more than 41 per cent of Canadian firms indicate difficulty filling job openings. From my experience working with hundreds of Canadian small businesses, many, but certainly not all, Canadian firms continue to screen out job candidates who are recent grads based on grade point average (GPA), even when significant research demonstrates that GPA is of limited value as an indicator for whether a job applicant will make a good employee.

Given the tight labour market, Canadian companies are losing out on high potential talent by using academic performance as a criterion for hiring and will benefit from discontinuing this approach.

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Significant research demonstrates that GPA is of limited value as an indicator for whether a job applicant will make a good employee. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s former senior vice-president of people operations, grades “are worthless as a criterion for hiring,” and there is no correlation at all between GPA and job performance except for brand-new grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Mr. Bock argues this is because the skills required in postsecondary are very different and that one becomes a fundamentally different person upon entering the work force.

Not only is academic performance largely irrelevant as a hiring criterion, a New York University study of 10,000 students in the United States, Canada, Germany and Qatar found that students with lower GPAs reported innovation intentions that were, on average, greater than their higher-GPA counterparts. The researchers speculate that this may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their postsecondary environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates, all of which “might really benefit innovation, but not necessarily [one’s] GPA.”

The authors of the report also argue that grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts, whereas innovators tend to be driven by intrinsic motivation, which can be defined as “an energizing of behaviour that comes from within an individual, out of will and interest for the activity at hand.”

Individuals who are more intrinsically motivated also appear to have enhanced longer-term career outcomes in general. For instance, a Yale study of more than 11,000 West Point cadets found that those who entered West Point because of internal motivators were more likely to graduate, become commissioned officers, receive promotions and stay in the military compared with those who entered because of external motives.

While GPA is of limited value in the hiring process, attending postsecondary is correlated with enhanced earnings and there are many benefits of receiving an education. I am not saying that there is no value in attending postsecondary and working hard in school; rather, I am arguing that GPA, in and of itself, is of limited value as a hiring criterion.

If academic performance is largely irrelevant when assessing job candidates, what should employers use to screen applicants instead?

According to the Business Council of Canada, the top skills that employers are looking for in entry-level hires are collaboration/teamwork, communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical capabilities and resiliency. When screening the job applications of recent grads, employers should assess the extent to which candidates have the skills, character traits and aptitude needed for a role. Rather than GPA, hiring managers should consider a recent grad’s work and extra-curricular experiences.

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Participating in work-integrated learning (WIL), which can include apprenticeships, internships, co-ops and participation in hackathons, significantly increases a student’s job readiness and career outcomes upon graduation. For example, a study commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that recent grads who participated in work-integrated learning earn 24 per cent more than individuals who did not complete a form of WIL.

Moreover, employers often place too much emphasis on a candidate’s academic background while ignoring the candidate’s extra-curricular contributions. At Venture for Canada – where we accelerate the careers of entrepreneurial youth by providing experiential learning opportunities at innovative small businesses – many of our highest-performing participants held leadership roles in student organizations, which can include being involved in varsity athletics, student government, entrepreneurship incubators and campus journalism. Consequently, we completely ignore GPA when deciding who to select for our programs.

As I reflect on my own career, my extra-curricular experience, which included writing op-eds for The Georgetown Hoya and interning at several startup non-profits, prepared me far more for my career than my academic course work.

Employers need to focus on assessing the relevant aspects of a recent grad’s job application. By using GPA to screen candidates, companies end up ignoring recent grads’ more relevant WIL and extra-curricular experiences, thereby losing top talent and limiting the career progression of many of Canada’s young people.

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