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by Jayne J. Feld | March 10, 2009


So you've never made the dean's list. And until recently you thoughtmagna cum laude was a local fraternity house.

Bad grades will not necessarily doom you to minimum wage work. Butyou've got some explaining to do, say recruiters, university careercounselors and one retired millionaire who shared their thoughts onovercoming bad grades with Vault.

Talk a good game

"If you're not a super high achiever, you have to have a story," saysJulie Cunningham, manager of global college relations at Lisle,Ill.-based Tellabs. "That doesn't mean you make it up. But you have tobe able to say this is my background, this is who I am, and this is howI can fit in best."

Before you get depressed about your grade point average, it's importantto understand exactly when and if your grades matter, says Tim Luzader,director of Purdue University's center for career opportunities. That'sbecause in some career paths, such as customer service or marketing, a2.8 on a 4-point scale in a difficult major won't ruin your chances ofbeing gainfully employed. In other fields, particularly ininvestment-banking trading, a low GPA is a near-impossible barrier toconsideration.

"Frankly, a good number of companies really just aren't concerned aboutgrades," says Luzader. "In the course of your research, you should findout if grades are important. (If they are) then you need to take a moreaggressive approach to convincing interviewers that grades are not agood indicator of your performance."

Even at companies that place a high priority on grades, a high GPA isn'teverything. Good communications skills top a list of qualities employersare looking for from job candidates, according to "Job Outlook 2001," anannual survey of employers' hiring intentions as they relate to newgraduates.

"The interview is the place to show that," says Mimi Collins,spokeswoman for the Bethlehem, Pa.-based National Association ofColleges and Employers, which conducted the poll. "If you can't makeconversation and you can't make eye contact, that's obviously going tohurt you."

The Internet is your friend

It's vital, say experts, that students learn everything they can aboutthe company before an interview. "[Interviewers are] really unimpressedwith students who don't know anything about a company or position,"Collins says. "There's so much information relevant to companies nowthat there's no excuse."

Other prized attributes, according to Collins, include integrity,teamwork skills and a sense of the realities of the business world -skills that can be developed via internships.

~"In the end, talent is so hard to acquire," says James Guitterez,founder of San Francisco-based MagicBeanStalk, an e-business recruitingcompany that focuses on college and graduate students. "You don't haveto have the highest GPA in the class. [Companies] are looking for peoplewho can learn quickly and adapt to changes very well."

That said, elite consulting firms and investment banks want to seechart-topping scores, says Guitterez, a Yale University grad. He knowsbecause he spent the first semester of his senior year criss-crossingthe nation on job interviews.

"They're trying to qualify you," he says. "Academic achievement is goingto be key for them."

Still, even on Wall Street, there's wiggle room. Consider a Yale friendof Guitterez, who was so engrossed in organizing a national Koreanconference he practically never showed up for classes. The event was asmashing success: it attracted 2,000 attendees and generated $500,000.According to Guitterez, even though his friend's grades hit rock-bottom,he had no troubles winning over grades-obsessed interviewers.

"He was able to communicate business acumen [that] he had and hadlearned as a result of doing this, dealing with venders, managing theevent and housing all those people," Guitterez says of his pal.

Guitterez himself was taken to task during interviews at Goldman Sachsfor his 3.1 GPA when most candidates came in with 3.8 or 3.9s.

"One guy opened up my transcript and started going through every gradelower than a B," recalls Guitterez, 23.

Fortunately, Guitterez had a very good story: he was organizing eventsthat introduce students to new economy companies. He got the Goldman jobbut turned it down, along with other job offers, to pursue his ownbusiness.

"You have to articulate your strength in other areas and create goodstories to couch your areas of weakness," he says.

Cunningham, of Tellabs, says her company looks for at least a 3.0 GPAfor jobs in software, product development and chip design. But thatdoesn't guarantee someone a job.


Book smarts aren't everything

"We find that sometimes the person with a perfect 4.0 doesn't have someother qualities," she says. "Sometimes they're really well-rounded, butsometimes they've focused so much on academics that they haven'tparticipated in other activities that give them teamwork and leadershipskills."

For jobs in service areas, such as customer support or marketing,Tellabs will accept candidates with lower GPAs. Grades aren't the bestmeasure of interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate - soneeded for client-oriented jobs, she says.

For all jobs, impressive internships can compensate for otherdeficiencies, she says.

"We really look hard at internships," she says. "We'll take someone witha lower GPA if they've had some dynamo internships and experience."

However, a really low GPA, such as a 2.1, will "raise red flags," shesays.

"It's not that we wouldn't ever talk to someone with a GPA that low,"Cunningham says. "Did that person really not realize the importance ofthe GPA, especially in the field of technology where so much emphasis isput on grades?"

Extenuating circumstances, such as a death in the family or your attemptto stay in school following a car accident, are reasonable. You also winpoints for showing that you overcame a slump earlier in your collegecareer.

Tellabs isn't interested in SAT scores. But high-school accomplishmentssuch as becoming an Eagle Scout or qualifying as a merit scholar arestill impressive when applying for a first job, she says. By the timeyou move on to a second job, however, she advises that students drop allreferences to college stats, such as GPA.

"At that point, we want to start looking at you as a professional, not acollege student," she says.

Paul Hanlon, a retired businessman turned author and motivationalspeaker, has another take on a low GPA - it's inconsequential.

"There's been a lot of guys from the Ivy League I've fired," saysHanlon, who turned Folio Exhibits, a small unprofitableMassachusetts-based company, into an industry giant with Fortune 500clients such as Reebok, Titleist, Raytheon, Kodak, McGraw-Hill, andGeneral Electric. "They were too smart for their own good. What I'vefound [to be] more important was having a good heart. Your brain willfollow."

Told he was dumb his entire life, Hanlon had a C-minus average in highschool. He took two-and-a-half years to graduate from a two-yearcommunity college. At 22, he took a minimum wage job selling portabletrade show exhibits. He bought the company at 27 and turned it into amultimillion-dollar business before retiring at 39.

He says low academic achievers can still make it in jobs traditionallyclosed to them because of bad grades or diplomas fromless-than-prestigious colleges.

"If you want to get into Oracle as a programmer, get in as a papershuffler. Sooner or later you'll be recognized as a winner and they'llpromote you anywhere you want to go," he says. "A good employee is veryhard to find. Getting in is half the problem, once you get in, you haveto work very hard."


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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