By Darren Johnson
Yes, in an optimal world, you will take a challenging curriculum, have a great GPA and graduate on time. But for most people, this combination is impossible.
It’s hard to take the 15-16 credits per semester to graduate on time while also getting great grades, especially if the coursework is rigorous (as it should be). Add to that that many students have to have jobs, especially at community colleges.
I used to be a bit embarrassed that my final undergraduate GPA was 2.67. But, looking back, I’m kind of proud of what I did in those four years. I double majored – one major, Pre-Law: Sociology, was a GPA killer, the other, English: Writing, I did well in – and finished exactly in four years, only having to take one summer course during my junior year (because it wasn’t being offered in my senior year and I needed it). I also worked grueling jobs – the most prominent of which was delivering The New York Times during early morning hours, seven days a week, including holidays. Looking back, graduation was a solid accomplishment, considering all of the work needed, and that I had no mentors, including parents, to help guide me.
Eventually, I went on to get an MFA in Writing and Literature and my GPA was nearly perfect (graduate school is less about the grades), so perhaps my 2.67 from before just showed my pragmatism, as the professor in the gray box above notes. If I didn’t get to read a book in my literature class during the semester, I’d just take the B-, having read the other six or seven books, and read the book I’d missed over the summer break instead. I guess the grade itself didn’t matter much to me at the time.
Did having a low GPA upon graduation have an effect on my future prospects? A bit.
I did apply to a few graduate Writing programs. Some liked my creative portfolio but the department director in a couple of cases expressed worry about my GPA. At least they wrote me personal notes explaining everything. So, instead, I worked on my writing and took a job at a newspaper. In the work world, especially in pragmatic jobs like writing for a newspaper, GPA doesn’t matter much at all. In fact, a 4.0 grad may be looked at skeptically. Remember, most managers were probably just average students.
Working in the field helps build one’s graduate school application, as, ultimately, getting a degree is about getting a job, so if your GPA is holding you back, get some experience in the field to compensate for the lackluster transcript. And, because I had taken a rigorous courseload, I was well equipped with the focus it takes to survive in the white-collar working world.
So, if I had to rate these in importance, from most to least, I’d put completing on time first, because each year you are not in the workforce you are losing out on college-grad-level income and relevant experience; rigorous courseload second (take hard courses that prove your smarts), and GPA third.
But, if you are looking to go straight into graduate school after a four-year college, I’d rate GPA and the strength of your major’s program at the top. Also, some fields, such as Engineering, where it is expected that you have mastered your subject matter, do require that you have a high GPA.
So, it definitely opens up more options for you to have a high GPA, but don’t let it deflate you if you don’t. Make your goal graduating on time regardless.