I was asked whether employers are more concerned with an applicant’s grades in school or with their extracurricular activities.

Should one focus solely on school and try to get the best possible marks? Or is it better to create non-academic achievements and, with less time to study, be happy with lower grades?

What do employers prefer?

Grades Are Important

Grades are important when one first graduates. So whether you live in the library or barely know there is one on campus, concentrate on getting as good a set of marks as is possible.

When entering the work-force, you do not have much experience or technical skills. The company will have to train you and wants to ensure that you possess the ability to learn. One may argue that the better one’s marks in school, the easier it will be to absorb new knowledge.

I am not sure that I ascribe to that view, but many do.

If you interview with the “many”, the highest marks will be needed if you want the job.

When hiring inexperienced workers, employers need to use whatever comparisons that they can to make their hiring decisions. Grades may be the only benchmark that an employer has to compare candidates. If you have three Commerce graduates and one has substantially higher marks, that bodes well in the comparatives.

I tend to notice those that really excel in their schooling. If you received scholarships, awards for academic results, etc., then I take notice. Not necessarily because the award winners are smarter, but because they went the extra mile and were the best. Being the best at something indicates an inner drive and tells me that they will attempt to be the best in their work.

Attempt that is, not necessarily will. An important distinction we will consider below.

Grades Are Difficult To Compare

Rightly or wrongly, I lump the rest of the graduates into the same academic group. It does not mean that much to me whether you finished with an 82% average or a 72%.

Yes, 82 is higher than 72, but what does it really tell me? What about the graduate who takes Basket Weaving courses to inflate his overall average? Should I reward him over another who takes more difficult courses (and learns relevant information for her future career)?

I prefer graduates with lower grades, but who have taken electives more useful in the job.

I articled in Calgary, Canada. Calgary’s number one business is energy. In performing audits on oil and gas companies it would have been useful to have taken a course in geology, petroleum engineering, or something along those lines. I am certain the accounting firms would have been interested in students with some knowledge of the industry.

Also, how does one compare marks from two different schools?  Is it possible (or reasonable) to try and compare an 82 at A University versus a 72 at B College? At my university, we used a 9 point grade point average (GPA) system. At another school in close proximity, they used an 8 point system. In the US, a 4 point scale is common.

A 7.2 GPA may have a much different connotation depending on the institute.

If you graduate at the top or bottom of your class, you will be noticed. If you are in the middle ground, where pretty much everyone is, you will need other skills to land the job.

I think that holds true for most employers, especially in the professions.

As you progress in life and take various professional exams you will tend to see a simple “pass/fail” scoring system. No one ever asked me what my actual result was on the Chartered Accountant’s Uniform Final Exam. Nor my Chartered Financial Analyst or Certified Financial Planner exams. In some cases, I never even received a specific grade. Just a pass (or fail).

Grades Are Time Sensitive

There is a diminishing reliance by employers on academic grades over time.

10 or 20 years after graduation, university grades become very limited as a predictor of success. It is the same for professional degrees. The longer the time from receipt, the less reliance is placed on them by employers. There is a saying in most professions, “You are never again as technically competent as the day you passed your exams.”

I am a Chartered Accountant with over 20 years practical experience. Yet, it would be insane to hire me even as an Audit Senior in a public accounting firm. I would need a period of time to refresh myself on current audit techniques and could not be fully functional on day one.

How I did on my Chartered Accountants’ exams is irrelevant now. And I sure would not score the same if I had to write them this year.

Grades May Not End At Graduation

If the relevance of grades diminishes over time, how does one assess people years after they graduated or received their professional degrees?

When I interview experienced candidates (i.e at least 5 years practical experience), the interview itself becomes an exam.

I always ask hypothetical questions to ascertain the candidates’ current technical ability. People memorize concepts, so it is important to ensure that responses also require analysis.

The “grade” that a candidate earns will dictate if he or she merits a job offer.

I do not care how the candidate did in university or on their professional exams. That was years ago. I want to know today if they have the skills they say they do. And at what competency level.

Grades are important at the start of your career. But if you are not on the Dean’s List, I do not think it harms you to sacrifice a few points on your average and develop some strong extracurricular activities.

It might even help your employment prospects.

Extracurricular Activities

I think extracurricular activities are important in the hiring decision. Like grades though, over time their role in any hiring decision wanes to almost zero.

Activities Are A Time Management Indicator

One of the things companies look at is your time management skills.

In my final year of university, I spoke with a partner at one accounting firm. He told me they were not especially interested in the very best students. Instead, they wanted strong students who also had other things going on in their lives. Too often they found that top students had no interests other than school. In business, you need releases from work and you must have developed social skills when dealing with clients. Living in the library does not promote this.

Their firm found that some students were excellent because they spent 10-12 hours each day studying. When articling, you need to work a full day, then be able to study for only a few hours at night (in my day we had to pass 6 separate courses before being able to write our finals).

What he said made sense. Two of the best students I knew struggled in their articling exams. Simply because they could not digest information by only studying 3 hours a night.

Activities Should Be Relevant

While activities are important, they should be relevant to your career path.

I articled in Calgary, an energy center. To have a better chance at a job, it would have been useful to have found summer positions, while in university, with an energy related company. Any type of job would have given me some exposure to the industry and helped my knowledge. When being interviewed for the articling position, this would have been well received.

You could also work on projects or activities that allow you to gain some practical experience in the academic skills you are learning. These could range from university business competitions to helping with the bookkeeping in your condo association or community.

There does not have to be a direct correlation to your career plans for activities to be useful.

Language skills are always valued by employers. It takes time and skill to become proficient in another tongue. You might also develop cultural skills if you study abroad. I like Spanish, French, and German for business purposes, but any that you take is fine.

I would also add Latin into the group. In most professions, there are still many Latin terms used on a daily basis. As well, many languages are derived from Latin. So having a knowledge of Latin would improve your ability to learn other languages.

Sports, interesting hobbies, charitable work or being involved in your school are also options. Being a cynical kind of guy, as many employers also are, I do not put too much emphasis on these activities simply because you did them.

Activities Should Be Excelled At

It is not enough to simply participate. Most students are involved in various kinds of activities. Often with no other motivation than in padding the resume.

What gets you noticed is if you achieve a certain level of proficiency. That what you attained is something that most people do not have the skill and focus to achieve themselves. Further, that you were successful in your endeavors. That is equally important.

For example, achieving a high level in a specific sport, such as gymnastics. Being an expert in coin or stamp collecting. Or organizing a fundraiser for the local Children’s Hospital and raising a significant amount of money.

When I was in high school and university, I studied Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art. By the time I graduated from school, I was a 2nd degree black belt, a 3rd level referee, and an instructor. Having the discipline to develop these skills and attain the success that I did were always discussed in interviews.

Activities May Also Be Unique

If you have not excelled in any of your extracurricular activities, all is not lost.

Consider finding new activities that are not done by many people.

In my case, Tae Kwon Do was not something many aspiring accountants learned. Even if I had not become proficient, it would have been a good conversation starter during interviews.

Doing something unusual may also cause the interviewer to see you as a unique person and not just another applicant. If you can make the employer remember you (in a positive way), that is a key to success in the job hunt.

A Swiss lady I know earned her doctorate in Japanese studies. A born and bred Swiss, she fell in love with the Japanese culture and started studying in Switzerland. Then she moved to Japan to get her advanced degrees and improve her language and cultural skills. Her knowledge of Japan was not relevant for the job, but after reading her resume I just had to meet her.

Her story was so interesting, she ended up with the job.

She got the job offer in part because she was able to differentiate herself amongst the pile of resumes I received. Getting through the door is a key first step.

Tomorrow I will explain why she received the job offer.


Grades are important in the first few years after you graduate from school. Primarily because employers have few other ways to assess you as a potential employee. So focus on achieving above average academic results.

If you have a chance at academic honours, I would concentrate on attaining them. Employers will recognize and appreciate awards both now and in the long-term.

If you have extra time or need to give yourself a non-scholastic advantage in the hiring process consider adding relevant and/or unique extracurricular activities to your resume.

Besides enriching your life, they may give employers another tool to assess your potential.

Try to focus on areas that require special skills and/or effort on your behalf. Even better are activities in which you have been successful.

Like with our Swiss lady, we will look at why this is important tomorrow.

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