The phone rang and it was Brian. Brian, one of my best friends, had flunked Dynamics & Controls for the third time. As an engineer, tethering on the edge of scholastic probation, and limping along with a 2.3 GPA, expulsion felt like a foregone conclusion.
And even if Brian did manage to bring his battered GPA to shore, what employer could possibly want him? Most engineering students have some version of this worry. Is my GPA good enough? What will employers think? How much does it really matter?
I gave Brian garbage advice that day. Something about moving back in with his parents and teaching tennis lessons. 20 years later, there’s a Gen Z Brian out there that’s wondering if he has what it takes to land a good job in the industry. So Brian, to make it up to you, here’s my updated take on what to do with a bad GPA.
Does Engineering GPA Matter?
Sure it does. Yet it matters a lot less than most students think. And in many cases, an employer may even prefer a candidate with a lower GPA. Why? Higher GPAs naturally attract more competition amongst hiring companies. And as someone who made dozens of technical hires, the correlation between GPA and work success is spotty at best.
Most of the time, GPA gets you consideration for the interview. Love it or hate it, it’s the key through the door and usually nothing more. It’s worth understanding what GPAs unlock which doors.
No Limit Soliders (3.7-4.0)
Post a 3.7 and better GPA and almost every major corporation will take a gander. I’m talking mega-corporations such as Shell, Tesla, and ExxonMobil. Big corporations occasionally offer top-of-the-line pay but almost assuredly top-of-line benefits (401K matching, stock options, medical, and training programs).
Strong and Servicable (3.3 – 3.6)
B+ to A- GPAs occasionally allow admittance into the “show me the money” region, but it’s not a shoe-in. Anyone boasting a GPA in this region will get through most screenings and be seen as a high potential engineer for formal development programs.
Good, Not Great (2.9-3.2)
GPAs in this region generally don’t impress but don’t disappoint. The pool of potential employers tends to dwindle a bit as mega-corporation glances grow sparse. Most equipment providers are happy to interview and hire candidates from this region.
No R&D Please (2.5-2.8)
Right or wrong, consideration for technical roles generally diminishes significantly in the 2.5 to 2.8 zone. Engineering roles tend to be for less technical positions, and interested companies probably don’t possess blue-chip status.
What Exactly Where You Doing (2.0-2.4)?
It almost ranks as a feat to obtain a GPA in this region. Hiring managers remember college and all the filler courses like History and Calculus I and Chemistry that should have been a waltz in the park. “So..how exactly did you pull off a flat 2.0?” But you know what? You are every bit the same amount of engineer as the guy who dropped a perfect 4.0. So let the haters hate.
Your selection of companies diminishes greatly but a bad GPA isn’t a death knell to your hopes of being an engineer. I know an engineer who graduated with this type of GPA who didn’t even look for a job in the industry because he thought nobody would hire him. You simply have to get more unconventional with your job search. And unconventional sometimes can pay off very, very well.
How to Handle That Low GPA
Most people play the same game that everyone else is playing. Obsess over maximizing GPA, write nice cover letters, and stuff a resume with clubs and achievements that look good to others. These fish are swimming with the stream.
You? You are a salmon swimming upstream. There’s no red carpet unfurled before you. Have no shame in that low GPA. You will simply have to rely more on your mettle and develop salesmanship that top performers won’t. Dealing with low ball offers and waiting for the phone builds patience and creativity as you search for that contingency plan.
And when you get that interview, take a practical 3 step process to answer low GPA concerns – anticipate, direct the focus, and connect.
It’s no guarantee that a low GPA equals a direct question in an interview. But it will be seen. So expect that the employer has seen it and might have some concerns. Anticipate that by drawing first blood and bringing it up at the earliest possible opportunity.
In the movie 8 Mile Eminem’s character, Rabbit takes on Papa Doc in a rap battle. Rabbit speaks first by immediately naming all objections someone could possibly have against him.
I know everything he’s ’bout to say against me
I am white, I am a bum
I do live in a trailer with my mom
When I was pitching a potential client, I actually included a slide of why they should not hire my firm. It took any potential objections to my candidacy off the table and allowed me to swiftly direct the focus to a story I wanted to tell. The deal was sealed.
Direct the Focus
I once read a Reddit thread where the poster expressed concern about a low GPA and lack of extracurriculars because she was taking care of her ailing grandmother. The poster had genuine concern that she would be turned down from jobs because she “didn’t have the time to put into school and clubs.” I read that entire passage and simply imagined how that kind of heart and conviction would translate into the workplace. That type of person would be someone I would trust with hard ethical decisions, and not to maximize their own personal benefit.
If you spent spare time hucking lattes or building robots, spend some time talking about that project and how good you were at it. The much-maligned (and rightfully) so, “follow your passion” advice comes into play. That passion adds another layer to your training as an engineer. But you have to explain it in such a way that it connects to the job for which you are interviewing.
With the objections brushed aside and a great story being told, don’t forget to connect your talents and passion to the job in question. If your low GPA had to do with waiting tables, think about how building that skillset of customer service complements the Sales Engineer position at Bolts Unlimited. Don’t assume your interviewer automatically connects the dots from your other pursuits to the job role. That’s your job.
We’ve all met that person brimming with confidence. Doors open everywhere they walk and the energy they project radiates. Most people don’t think like that. They would rather dwell on all the reasons a particular job or status could not be theirs. Your GPA is not an indicator of brainpower or ability. It’s simply a loose marker of how well academia aligns with your interests. So walk in like you own the place, no matter what GPA you tote around.
Remember Brian, who sat a stone’s throw from expulsion? Brian skated through and posted a 2.4 upon graduation. The low GPA limited his opportunities but 3 months after graduation, he landed a good job at a wastewater engineering company. He’s since spent the subsequent 2 decades working in the process industry for the same company in progressive levels of experience. He’s now a VP at a publically traded firm, owns a baller house, and sits on a few governance boards. He buys my drinks when we get together. 2.4 GPA to $240k annually.
Not bad, huh?
Now go make it happen.