One of the biggest stressors when you’re in college is your GPA—that pesky little number that seems to carry so much weight.
When you’re stuck in the library at 2 a.m., cramming for that final, it’s easy to wonder to yourself, “Does my GPA even matter…how much will it actually affect my future?”
That’s a valid question, and the answer is far from straightforward.
In order to get at the answer, we first have to drill down into the specific questions buried within this broader concern—in other words, what does “future” actually mean? Future job, future income, future success, future happiness?
Let’s say it’s all of those. To find the broader answer, we need to dive in, piece by piece, and investigate how GPA affects all these different aspects.
GPA and Job Prospects
Often the most immediate question from admissions consultants to college students is, ‘‘What’s your GPA?’’ and this gets a lot of them thinking, “How important is my GPA and does it determine what kind of job I can land after graduation, and the kind of career I can build?”
There are a few important pieces to this.
Certain industries and companies care more about grades than others.
Some extremely competitive roles and very desirable employers do use GPA as a way to quickly shrink the applicant pool; these are companies like investment banks, consulting firms, accounting firms, etc. According to a recent survey of more than two hundred employers (mostly big companies) directed by the National Association of Employers and Colleges, 67 percent of companies said that they veiled candidates by their GPA.
However, the dynamic is different outside of these popular, highly coveted positions. Small employers and startups generally care much less about GPA.
Even in the companies that screen by grades, GPA is neither a deal-killer nor a guaranteed golden ticket.
There are two important caveats to the point above: First, even for the companies that screen by GPA, a low GPA is not necessarily a deal-killer, especially if you can explain it. Maybe you had a rough freshman year and then bounced back, maybe you had to work full-time to support your family. Second, while a strong GPA will make you a competitive applicant, it won’t take you all the way there. To land the most coveted positions, you’ll need more than just a stellar GPA.
3. Your GPA matters most when you’re applying to that first job after college.
While your college GPA does often matter when you’re trying to secure your first job after graduation, it generally matters less and less the further out you get from school. After your first job, your work experience tends to matter much more.
GPA and Income
Often the next big concern after job prospects is income—does your GPA determine how much you’ll make?
As a trend, yes, as GPA increases, income tends to increase as well. According to a study by the Uppsala Center for Labor Studies, there is a strong, positive relationship between GPA and earnings for undergraduate students, with every one-point increase in GPA translating to about a nine percent increase in annual earnings.
However, there are a few exceptions to this trend. In particular, according toresearch by CivicScience, while those who had a 2.5 or lower GPA in college are the most likely group to make under $25,000 annually, 21 percent of that group makes more than $150,000 each year, which is higher than any other group.
GPA and Success
Now, how does GPA impact overall “success” post-graduation? “Success” is a complex idea with contested definitions, but let’s say for argument’s sake that “success” equals some combination of job, income, and level of achievement. We’ve already examined job and income above, so let’s say that “level of achievement,” involves grad school—i.e., how prestigious of a grad program you can get into, and how that sets you up for further career advancement.
In this area, it is more cut and dry: GPA does matter when it comes to grad programs, pretty definitively. Top grad schools generally look for strong GPAs, especially when it comes to those applying soon after college. Many grad schools even have a GPA cutoff for applicants, and many programs will list the average GPA of their incoming class on their website.
That said, there are ways to overcome a low GPA—through strong work experiences, meaningful accomplishments, impressive skills, and compelling reasons for the low grades.
GPA and Happiness
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there’s the question of whether a certain GPA predicts a certain level of happiness.
This is, of course, a very complicated question, but we can start by looking at some of the research. Generally, the data here is messy, but some research shows that there is in fact a correlation between GPA and happiness, with 16 percent of those with a college GPA of 3.6 to 4.0 saying they are “very happy,” while only 6 percent of those with a college GPA of 2.5 or lower answer the same. However, very importantly, those with a GPA of 3.6 to 4.0 are also the most likely to say they are “very unhappy,” suggesting that this dynamic is, predictably, very complicated.
While the data on GPA predicting happiness is messy, there is more compelling research showing that this dynamic works strongly in the opposite direction: according to some, happiness drives success, not the other way around. But that’s a discussion for another time…
Put simply, all of this means that your GPA will likely have some effect on certain aspects of your future, but it is far from a concrete determinant of your future success or happiness. So, get the best grades you can, but remember that having a less-than-perfect GPA doesn’t matter for your future good and successful life, just as having a perfect 4.0 doesn’t guarantee it.