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Should I list a low GPA on my Resume?

Posted by James M on December 4, 2008

I’ve gotten a few e-mails lately regarding putting a low GPA on your resume as well as a ton of referrals from Google searches on the topic so I thought a post addressing it was in order.  Ok, let’s not waste any time!

Table of Contents:

  • What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume
  • What about just putting my major GPA on my resume
  • Arguments for listing your GPA
  • Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Additional Blog Posts to help with a low GPA:

What will happen if I don’t put my GPA on my resume?

In most cases the recruiter will probably assume you have a low GPA.  Think about it, if you had a 4.0 is there any doubt you would slap that achievement front and center under your Education section?

How low will they assume your GPA is?  Well obviously that depends on the recruiter, but I think typically they will assume your GPA is somewhere between a 2.5 and 2.9 which is where, in my experience, most GPAs lie on the spectrum when they are not listed.

Rest assured all recruiters have seen many resumes without a GPA and have had to ask follow-up questions to obtain this information.  Therefore each recruiter will bring their own bias about what an unlisted GPA implies for a particular candidate.

What about just putting my major GPA on my resume?

The question of whether you can exclude your cumulative GPA in favor of your major GPA on your resume is a tricky one.  It is true that most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative GPA, however many may still require that you provide your cumulative.

In addition, major GPAs are more relevant for graduating students than those seeking an internship.  With graduating seniors a major GPA represents two years of continued in-depth work with increasing focus and difficulty as one moves from 300-level classes to 400-level classes (from Junior-level to Senior-level).  A major GPA for a college junior is usually made up of just a handful of classes which makes it much less relevant.

By listing a major GPA you may entice a recruiter to have follow-up communications to determine your overall GPA at which time you can begin an engagement about why your other relative merits should outweigh your GPA.  On the other hand there is the chance they will need your cumulative GPA to process your application and won’t have time to contact you to obtain that information.  More on that in a bit.

Of course this is all under the assumption that your career of choice is in the field you majored in.  Simply listing a major GPA if you are a career changer won’t do much for you—who cares about your Forest Management GPA if you are trying to go in to Construction Management?

Many of the arguments I provide in this article regarding the discussion of a no GPA vs. a cumulative GPA strategy also apply to a cumulative GPA vs. major GPA placement.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you want to solely put your major GPA on your resume, however I strongly recommend a dual strategy of placing both GPAs on your resume as in:

* Communication Major GPA: 3.41, Cumulative GPA 2.94

That way you highlight your major GPA while at the same time playing it safe if a recruiter wants to see both.  Let’s discuss some more argument for listing your GPA and then follow it up with some counter arguments about why it might be better not to list your GPA.

Arguments for listing your GPA

I think the arguments for listing your GPA differ depending on whether you are applying in person or online.  First, I’ll talk about in person applications and then online submittals.

In Person Applications

If you are applying in person there are really two strategies representing two different schools of thought of career consultants.  The school of thought I subscribe to is that you should list your GPA, and there are five main reasons I believe in it:

1.  Recruiter Assumptions – By using a resume with an unlisted GPA, the recruiter will almost always assume you have “low” grades, defined, as we talked about above, by their experience working with students who don’t list their GPA.  So the recruiter may assume you have a higher or lower GPA than is actually the case.  Either way this is bad for you—if they assume your grades are higher than they are it will be a let down when they find out your actual GPA; if they assume your grades are lower, you are going through the application process with an unnecessary handicap.

2.  Peace of Mind – Since no company is likely to hire you without finding out your cumulative GPA first, why not reveal it up front.  If you don’t, you’ll always have the fear in the back of your mind that when the recruiter does find out your GPA, they’ll kick you out the door.  I would rather go through the process knowing the recruiter is at least open to the idea that I am more than my grades.

3.  Minimize Recruiter Effort – I am a fan of making a recruiter’s job as easy as possible—I want my resume to be completely self-contained with all information easy to access.  Making the recruiter inquire about your GPA is one more thing they have to do.  This may not be a big deal if they are looking at one resume, but after looking at 100 in a matter of a few hours, it starts to get annoying.  You don’t want to be the brunt of a recruiter’s bad day.

4.  Recruiter Error – In addition, let’s imagine the recruiter forgets to inquire about your GPA or doesn’t notice it in the initial contact session with you.  Now imagine the recruiter has whittled the 100 resumes they spent two hours looking at down to 6 finalists.  But here’s the catch—they only have 5 interview spots open.  Given two candidates with similar experience do you think the chances are better that they will take the time to e-mail you and wait for your response, or simply choose to interview the candidate that has included all relevant information on their resume?

5.  Mitigation Techniques – There are a variety of resume techniques you can use to mitigate a low GPA on your resume.  See the links at the top of this article for more information on the technique specifics.

Online Applications

Submitting a resume that includes a GPA is even more critical when using an online application process.  Let’s talk about why.

1.  Difficult Engagement – During a career fair, company information session, or interview it takes a matter of seconds for a recruiter to inquire about your GPA and solicit a response.  When submitting online, the employer no longer has that luxury.  At a minimum, they have to take time away from what they are doing and give you a call or send you an e-mail.

In the best case situation you pick up their phone call or see their e-mail right away, but what if you don’t?  You could easily find yourself playing a game of phone tag and at worst the recruiter might get frustrated and give up.  And what about your e-mail, what if you are out of town or simply don’t check your e-mail for a few days?  This back-and-forth communication is all a waste of time at the expense of not only you, but also the recruiter.

2.  Busy, busy, busy – During a career fair, company information session, or job interview, the recruiter is able to carve out some one-on-one time and really spend a few minutes addressing your candidacy for the position.  In an online review process, that same recruiter may be sifting through hundreds of resumes trying to find an ideal applicant.  The only way to stand out in this case is on paper, and that means having a complete and well-flowing resume that doesn’t require the recruiter to do anything but read.

3.  Online Applications – Many online applications contain text boxes or drop down menus where you are required to list your GPA.  In this case not listing your GPA becomes moot point.

Arguments for NOT listing your GPA

Although I do not subscribe to this school of thought, there are some valid arguments which I’ll try to represent fairly.

In-Person Applications

1.  Recruiter Prejudice – Listing a low GPA subjects you to the subconscious prejudice of recruiters who won’t be able to separate you from your low GPA.  Although most recruiters are good natured and are there to help, it is true that all people carry biases regardless of how hard they try not to.

2.  Recruiter Engagement – Not listing your GPA allows you to engage the recruiter when the subject does come up.  Once the recruiter asks you about your GPA, you’ll be able to instantly address the shortfall and provide a verbal mitigation describing how your other qualities outweigh your low GPA.  However, I feel that this same strategy can be used when listing your GPA.  There is nothing stopping you from obtaining all the benefits of listing your GPA on your resume and at the same time engage the recruiter during first contact.

3.  Alternative GPA – As I discussed towards the beginning of this blog post, sometimes simply listing your major GPA is enough to satisfy the curiosity of employers regarding your academic aptitude.   This is because most employers put a premium on your major GPA over your cumulative one.

4.  Much Ado About Nothing – Maybe all this emphasis I am putting on GPAs is just overblown.  Personally, I think your GPA is one of the biggest contributing factors to your hire with a particular firm, but I am just one guy writing a career blog.  It is completely reasonable and possible that you’ll get a recruiter that just doesn’t care about GPA.  Maybe they can identify with low GPAs and so they don’t ask, maybe they judge you by their rapport with you first and grades second, maybe they think previous work, internship, or volunteer experience speaks volumes more than your grades.  Whatever the reason, all recruiters are unique so the importance they place on your GPA is all relative.

Online Applications

Choosing a strategy of an unlisted GPA on an online resume is extremely risky.  Since you won’t be able to use the engagement strategy for unlisted GPAs I described above during the submittable process (as you can during a career fair or other recruitment event), you’ll have to hope you make it to the interview rounds where you can begin this discussion.  In addition, as I stated above, many online applications have a separate text box or drop down menu for you to list your GPA, so not listing it on your resume becomes moot in that case.

Well that’s it for today, I hope you found this post useful.  As always, if you have any questions feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Career Profile – Systems Engineer

Posted by James M on December 2, 2008

Systems Engineering is a fairly new field that developed out of modern large-scale integration projects like those at Boeing and other system integrators.  System Engineers generally work across multiple teams on projects involving integration of two or more systems and often perform so-called trade studies to evaluate several possible solutions to a technical problem.

One piece of advice I would give those interested in this field is not to focus too intently on the term ‘Systems Engineer”.  For example, in my old position I was part of a software group and held the job title of Real Time Software Engineer.  Even so, I didn’t written a lick of code in 3 and a half years and my work was best described as Systems Engineering.  Instead, you should focus more on the type of work you want to do and then find job descriptions that meet that criteria.

So for example if you look online at the staffing system of a particular company you may see a lot of openings for “Systems Engineer”.  In addition to those positions try looking at more traditional engineering job titles as well and delving more into what your day-to-day activities would be as you move through the hiring process.  This will probably involve asking the employer at the interview about how much multi-disciplinary work you’ll have the opportunity to take part in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Systems Engineers are often facilitators.  Because you work across multiple large and complex systems and teams of people, you can’t know everything about every system.  Therefore, a Systems Engineer often relies heavily on members of other teams and often acts as an intermediary to bring people from different teams together to find a solution.  Systems Engineers often end up specializing in a particular area (i.e. real-tme software) and over the course of a career eventually get to the point where they have medium depth knowledge of a wide range of technical areas.

The best Systems Engineers I know can balance not only the technical aspects of a problem but also the business aspects and the long term life-cycle impacts.  This is because the best technical solution doesn’t always imply the best solution from a cost, schedule, and risk point of view.

There are a few skills I notice good System Engineers having and they all revolve around the multi-disciplinary aspects of large-scale integration.  First, good System Engineers have a lot of experience with suppliers, subcontractors, and customers.  Knowing how to deal with a subcontractor when they are late developing a key item or negotiate with a customer when an important component doesn’t meet specifications is a very important skill.

Second, they know something about evaluation and testing and by association “selling off” a requirement to the customer.  When a contract is signed the goods or services provider signs a contract with the customer detailing the requirements of the good or service (these requirements are just one part of a larger contract structure).  At some point in time, these requirements must be tested to satisfy the customer that you are delivering what you promised (whether a requirement is well written is often defined by its testability).  Because System Engineers often work with requirements and requirements relate directly to testing, a good System Engineer is always evaluating how a particular technical solution will be tested.

Third, Systems Engineers know something about the life-cycle of a program.  When you deliver an aircraft to a customer, for example, that is not the end of the story.  The aircraft must be maintained and the parts, labor, and knowledge-base to repair an aircraft have to come from somewhere.  In addition, aircraft are often modified years after delivery as technology continues to improve.  Good System Engineers have the long term life of a product in mind as they search for the best technical solution.

Of course on top of these business oriented skills, a broad technical knowledge of a particular system is always required.  Usually this just comes with time and experience.  The best Systems Engineers I know probably have an average experience level of 15-25 years.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge required to be successful.

As far as the type of tasks a Systems Engineer might work on, I can try to give a fictional example that demonstrates a typical situation and the issues you might deal with.  Say, for example, a supplier is suppose to deliver a hydraulic spring for use in a landing gear, however you recently discovered the spring isn’t rated to the appropriate tonnage and you get tasked with figuring out a solution.  (These sorts of disconnects happen all the time–why would you choose a supplier in the first place if their product doesn’t meet your requirements?  A variety of factors lead to these surprising sorts of problems.)  One answer might be to work with the supplier to modify the spring.  But because the spring has to be re-egineered there is a cost and schedule delay to completing the landing gear module.  Maybe the supplier offers instead to sell you a higher weight-rated spring that it already produces, but that is a slightly larger size and therefore doesn’t connect properly with the landing gear wheel housing.

So what do you do?  There are a variety of possibilities.  Perhaps you work with the current supplier and help provide resources to re-engineer the spring to meet specifications.  Perhaps there is an adapter you can buy that will help the more robust spring fit with the already fabricated wheel housing.  Perhaps your company is frustrated with the supplier’s schedule delays and you decide to risk trying to find a new supplier that already has a spring that meets your specifications.  Perhaps you conduct a study to show that, although the original spring doesn’t meet spec, it nonetheless provides a safe landing gear for the customer.  In that case you may have to rewrite the prime contract specification with the customer and try to sell them on the idea.

Other things you’ll need to consider when searching for a solution:  spares–what happens when the spring breaks, how will the spares be supplied, how easy is the spring to repair when it breaks, is the supplier in danger of going out of business soon (this happens to many small companies), if so who will supply the spring?  Testing: if you choose the more robust spring and adapter, how will you test it?  Requirements–do any requirements need to be rewritten or can they naturally be interpreted to be independent of the spring selection.  Other technical teams–if you choose the new spring does it add extra weight to the aircraft that might affect handling?  What about aerodynamic affects during take off and landing?  Will the sensor and/or software that monitors the spring’s hydraulic pressure need to be modified?

You can see that these sorts of situations get very complicated very fast and for that reason can be exciting, challenging, and frustrating all simultaneously.  And I think the complicated nature of these problems lend themselves well to people who have both a broad technical and business background.

If you like those kind of problems, you will probably like Systems Engineering.  The caveat of course is to make sure you can get on a good program with good people around you. I know some Systems Engineers who do the type of work I’ve mentioned above and others who sit at a desk working with requirements all day compiling comments other engineers made into a spreadsheet (obviously much less glamorous).  Again, I think this goes back to trying to find a job doing good work and worrying less about having the title of “Systems Engineer.”

Let me know which career profile you’d like to see next by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at: collegegraduatejobs@gmail.com.

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Resume Tips – Discussing Number of Hours Worked

Posted by James M on November 14, 2008

Today’s resume tip is a very simple trick to help shore up your resume’s “Experience” section as well as your overall application.

The trick is simply to add the number of hours per week (or per month) you worked for those jobs you held while attending college.  For example, if you had a job for 6 months during your junior year of college, you would add an extra bullet under this particular piece of work experience.  This bullet would say something very simple like:  “Worked 20hrs/week.”

So your work experience section for this job might look something like this:

Stone Gardens Rock Climbing Gym                Nov. 2007 – Present
Kids Class Volunteer
Seattle, Washington

  • Taught a group of 12 children ages 7 to 13 basic climbing terminology, safety procedures, and technique
  • Monitored general behavior and safety of kids while in the gym environment
  • Time commitment: 15 hours per week

This particular sample job may or may not be placed on your resume depending on its applicability to your target position.  For this example let’s assume you are applying to a community outreach position where part of your job is mentoring children, so this work experience would definitely be applicable.

So why would we add the extra bullet detailing the number of hours worked per week?  Well, for one thing you are giving scope to your experience as I discussed in a previous post entitled “Resume Tip – Use Numbers.”  In short, working 5 hours per week is different than working 15 which is different still than holding a full-time 40hr per week position while attending school.  By providing this valuable information the recruiter will have some basis with which to evaluate the rest of your application, most importantly your GPA.  For example, I would argue that earning a GPA of 3.5 with no college job at all, while commendable, is not nearly as impressive as earning, say, a 3.2 GPA while working 35 hours per week.  So adding this piece of information helps to put your overall application in perspective and acts to give you a “pass” for performance that might be slightly lower than it would have been otherwise.

One last note.  If, by working during college, you were able to fund a significant portion of your college education (which includes living expenses other than tuition that might normally be covered by a loan) you should also mention this on your resume.  This can be either in the Summary of Qualifications section (which I’ll blog about soon) or by adding a bullet to the applicable job in the “Experience” section of your resume.  Here is an example: “Funded 60% of living and tuition expenses from Dec. 2006 to May 2008.”  This statement will have very broad implications for your overall application and will show a potential employer a variety of skills such as the ability to work independently, strong responsibility, multitasking, and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness to work very hard to achieve an important goal.

Although it may seem like a small thing, many recruiters I’ve talked to attest to the effectiveness of this tip.

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