I Wish I Had Known: Marks Matter

It really hurts me to say this, but here’s the truth: your marks matter.

There’s nothing more amusing to me then someone who says that, although they don’t have a 3.0+ GPA, I shouldn’t worry; they’re street smart. 

As someone who has done his fair share of interviewing and screening applicants, let me share the truth with everyone: marks matter. You can be as ‘street smart’ as you like, but unless you are applying to work on a corner slinging ‘rocks’, then I need someone who is actually smart.

I Thought it Was All About My Pitch/Personality

I think what I am about to say is pretty common among most people in college/university. We were all so confident in ourselves, in our abilities and in our potential to add value. We had no idea how many people felt exactly the same way – and how many people would be applying to the same position as us.

I thought that if I could get in front of the person interviewing me, then I could sell myself well enough; show enough ambition and dedication to get the opportunity to prove myself over the course of an internship. In reality it wasn’t that easy, in fact out of the whole applying/interviewing/taking an offer process, getting the interview is probably the most difficult step. The thing is, there are just so many people applying. It’s impossible for a recruiter to take a close look at every applicant to find the diamonds in the rough. That’s why they set GPA thresholds – it’s not that they think anyone with a GPA below 3.0 (out of 4.0) is unintelligent, it’s just that they need some way of dwindling the application pool – and marks just happen to be the best way.

Having poor marks is also a compounding curse. If you get low marks in your first year, it is INCREDIBLY hard to reverse the trend. If you get a 70% average your first term (bare with me on this advanced math), you will need to get 90% in your second term just to finish with an 80% – which isn’t even all that good. Turn a couple 70% terms into your first two years, and it will be almost impossible to graduate with anything over an 80% average.

Here’s the other side to the argument too: having great marks will in no way hurt you. To all those people who tell me they are ‘street smart’, it’s a lot easier to teach someone to be ‘street smart’ then to teach someone to be… actually smart. No one will ever refuse you an interview because you have a stellar GPA – it just won’t happen.

I Wish I Had Known Marks Were the Greatest Door Opener

When you apply for a job, the standard submission package (at least for your first job) is usually a cover letter, a transcript and a resume. The recruiter at any particular company will get – let’s guess – 200 of these packages. The process goes like this:

Step 1: Print them all. Quickly check GPA/transcript/school, past work experience (for high profile placements/well known and firms), and any accreditations (if applicable). Throw out any who don’t make the cut. On a stack of 200, this will yield maybe 40 in the ‘further inspection’ pile.

What they don’t check in step 1: Just as important, no one in this step will check: your cover letter story, the clubs you are in, your job babysitting your neighbours kid, the excel course you took on campus, or your interest in fine art.

Step 2 (if you make it past step 1): Here they will recheck your transcript (this time, instead of looking for reasons to take you, they are looking for reasons to toss your resume – any marks that jump out as exceptionally poor), scan your cover letter briefly, and weigh your work experience. This will yield maybe 10 packages.

Step 3: Read through your cover letter, pick through your transcript, and check out the rest of your resume. Chances are if you made it this far, you’re getting an interview.

A few key insights: only a very few number of people get their cover letter actually read – so chances that someone gets to hear your story is slim to nil if you don’t have good marks. Second, (this one hit me hard) it doesn’t matter how involved you were on campus if you don’t have good marks – it’s a non sequitur.

Here’s the thing: when you are applying to job’s in university (summer internships, coop placements, etc.) you have a very good chance of getting an interview just because you have good marks. You don’t need to send around email’s, work your network, and struggle to just get a foot in the door – interviewers will flock to YOU! I wish I had known how much easier marks would have made the process. So, when you find yourself sitting in your dorm room, telling yourself that you don’t need good marks to land your dream job – think again, because you might be able to get the job without them, but it will be A LOT more work. To get to the top floor, the elevator and stairs will both take you – it’s just a matter of preference on effort levels required.

Two Caveats: Not the End All Be All + A Select Few

Not the End All Be All: Marks are not the end all be all. This is how I see it: having great marks won’t land you the job you want, but it will make getting the chance to interview for the job you want a lot easier. On the other side of that, having poor marks won’t prevent you from getting the job you want, it will just make it much harder!

Now, here is a deep dark secret (somewhat): I graduated with an 8.14 GPA (out of 12) – not exactly distinction worthy. However, I also landed a dream job working in NYC. The thing is, it required insane amounts of work. If I had taken all the time, effort and labour I put into getting that first internship at RBC, then turning it into a fulltime job, I could have had a 12.0 several times over. However, because I was preoccupied with other things the first year of my university experience, I didn’t have that option. To get the internship alone at RBC I must have called 300+ people, literally anyone who would talk to me.

The purpose of the above paragraph is not to toot my own horn but to make it clear: not having great marks won’t close all doors to you, it will just require several fold more work to get an experience that would of otherwise been easier to obtain.

A Select Few: for a select few, marks are 100% irrelevant. You know what you want to do, and you have the guts to pursue it. You have no desire in taking a dream job, because you are out to create your dream job: you are an entrepreneur. Don’t worry about this lesson, because it doesn’t really apply to you!

If I Could Go Back

If I could go back, I would have re-ordered by priorities. First, marks are king – do that well, and until you are doing that well, don’t worry about ‘beefing up’ your resume in any other area. After that, take one on campus organization, and do it really well. After that, join an on-campus organization that requires competition and public speaking (i.e. something like Debate, Model UN or a case competition). After that, take any extra courses you can to separate yourself from the pack. If you have all those things accomplished, you are a shoe in to get any interview you want – getting the job, however, is still up to you!

Blair Livingston’s Blog


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