The Return on Investment for Good Grades

Young woman with books balanced on headI’m not a good student. This came as a shock to my high school graduating class, many of whom assumed I was valedictorian when I actually ranked somewhere in the 40s. I lost my scholarship after my freshman year of college due to a combination of bad professors, working too much, and not knowing how to study. And as I began work on my master’s degree, I realized something new about hard work and good grades.

It isn’t worth it. When I was younger, I got mediocre grades because I didn’t care. I cared a lot about learning, but I didn’t feel the need to jump through hoops to prove what I knew. During my post-graduate work, I had a new reason, which was that working hard to get a better grade simply didn’t buy me anything.

The amount of effort to earn an A rather than a B was significant. On any given assignment or paper, I estimated it at a 5 to 1 difference; work to earn an A might take 10 hours while a B would take only 2 hours.

During undergraduate studies, we can pretend that the extra effort results in honours that will look good on a résumé and lead to a great job. The myth that good grades lead to greater respect often continues past graduation, but it doesn’t generally play out. The reason is that the time taken to get good grades results in an opportunity cost.

Often, getting the best grades takes extra time, which means you’re not spending time networking, reading about other subjects, or resting so you can be more creative and focused. The limitations imposed by spending so much time chasing a 4.0 GPA are too great.

From my perspective, there’s insufficient return on investment (ROI) for perfect grades. Whether I graduated with honor, with great honor, or with highest honor, it made no particular difference. My degree didn’t get me my job, and it’s not likely to get me a job in the future. And someone who graduated from the same program with a perfect GPA isn’t likely to be ranked above me.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of résumés and applications when interviewing people. Seeing a good degree on there peaks my interest, and having one is valuable. But I’m looking for demonstrated experience more than anything else, and so are the people and companies I work with.

A degree is often what you need to get in the door. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is, and there’s no denying that. I’m glad I got an education and graduated because that piece of paper is essential. But who and what you know, and more importantly what you have done, is what gets you through the door and into a seat.

For a similar perspective, read 3 Reasons Why Bad Students Get Good Jobs. I wouldn’t characterize the issue that way. It’s not that bad students get good jobs. It’s that people who recognize the lack of ROI for being a good student are probably also smart enough to evaluate the ROI for other actions, and they invest their time accordingly.

I got decent grades while pursuing my master’s degree. But I spent a fraction of the time some of my peers did, and used the balance to read other books and articles about project management, attend professional organization meetings, and really think through how to apply and contextualize what I was learning. I think the end result was that I got more out of the two and a half years than the people who focused all of their time and energy on the approved curriculum.

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