How Can I Steer an Employer’s Focus Off My Poor GPA During an Interview?

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Emmit from ITESM asks:

“At the beginning of my college studies, I had some personal problems that affected my classroom performance.  As I approached graduation, I did well in my courses, but unfortunately, I have a poor cumulative GPA. How should I handle this situation on an interview?”

Thanks for your question, Emmit.  This is not uncommon as I have heard this from a number of students who did not do well initially in college, but found their wings later on and finished strong.  Don’t let your GPA solely define who you are or let it determine the value that you offer to a prospective employer.

Yes, grades are important, but they are not the only thing that prospective employers consider.  A 2016 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey of over 200 employers found 3 candidate attributes ranking higher in value with employers than a candidate’s GPA.  The top 3 ranking candidate attributes include: (1) student major, (2) student held leadership position, and (3) student involvement in extracurricular activities/clubs.

Additionally, this same survey found employers value leadership, teamwork focus, and communication skills as the top 3 candidate attributes on a resume.  Knowing what employers in today’s job market value is powerful information.

Plus, there are many instances of individuals achieving great success in their careers after graduating with a less than stellar GPA.  Focus your efforts on communicating your value proposition to prospective employers during interviews.  This means that you’ll want to focus the conversation on highlighting what you can do to be successful in the job.  Highlight the skills, experience, successes that you possess or have demonstrated that are relevant to the targeted job.

Below are some specific suggestions of things you can do to land interviews and leave a good impression during an interview to advance the cause that you are the right candidate for the job.

Improve Your Resume

Make sure to put together the best possible resume as you market yourself in today’s job market.  This means you will want to review your current resume to ensure it is looking good, while highlighting your value proposition relative to any jobs you target.  Since employers look at numerous other factors to determine a candidate’s value, focus the resume to highlight leadership posts, campus involvement, academic major, and communication skills.  These have high impact value as indicated in the 2016 NACE survey.  Also, include relevant skills and successes to show that you have the ability to perform well in the position to leave the impression that you are a candidate worthy of an interview.

Follow Up on Job Applications / Resume Submissions

After applying online, most go into hope and pray mode as they hope and pray an employer calls them in for an interview.  Be proactive with employers by following up on all your applications.  If you are not being referred to an employer, the employer MUST receive, read, and value your application / resume before they will call you in for an interview.  If something fails along the way, then you won’t get the interview you desire.  Following up on your application can help you confirm that the company received your resume and find out any next steps or other valuable information.

Additionally, target market your value proposition to the hiring manager as well.  Research to determine who the decision maker is and craft a strong message to this individual highlighting how you can help them.  This is a great way to get your resume into the hands of the person who is making the hiring decision.  The first step is to apply through HR, then target the decision maker / hiring manager – the double-hit.  Utilizing this strategy allows you to be proactive, rather than passively waiting for a response.  It can make all the difference in the world to landing an interview.  Remember, you only need one job and the goal is to land more interviews.  More interviews equal a quicker path to earning the job offer.

Contact Your Career Center

Most colleges and universities offer career preparation services to recent graduates for at least a year after graduation at no cost.  Simply put, every student should leverage their career center as it is a student resource.  College career centers are staffed with knowledgeable, skilled, and credentialed professionals who can provide assistance in a variety of areas including resume review, interview skills training, job search strategy, and more.  Furthermore, they likely have a job site exclusively for current students and recent alums featuring jobs posted with the institution.  Set up an appointment at your earliest convenience.

Answering the Interview Question about GPA

The good news is that if you are asked about your lower GPA it means that you are on an interview and have the chance to compete for the position.  So, if the employer asks you, “Why do you have a low GPA?” or “What was your GPA?”, then answer the question honestly, but focus on how you’ve been doing most recently.

Let’s assume the employer asks you about your GPA, here is an example answer:

“As a recent graduate of ITESM, I finished with a 2.50 GPA.  I didn’t start out my college career particularly well, but once I identified the right major and career path, my performance improved drastically as I earned a 3.3 GPA in my major and over 3.0 during the last two academic years.  I learned better study habits and have a passion to do well.  Additionally, I have been involved on campus the last couple of years as I am an active member of two clubs including Club A and Club B.  I’ve even become the Club B Vice President during the last academic year where we grew our membership by over 20%. These activities have helped me learn some key skills related to your position including skill A, skill B, and skill C.  This is part of the reason I’m so excited to be here today with you.”

I think you’ll agree that using a strategy like this will allow you to take the focus off the lower cumulative GPA by showing that you’ve worked harder and gotten more involved on campus during the last couple of years.  This should be your focus along with highlighting the skills you’ve built that are relevant to the employer’s specific needs.

Practice, Practice, Practice to Improve Your Interview Skills

Having trained over 5,000 college students and professional-level clients, I’ve learned that most aren’t prepared to leave a good impression during an interview.  Candidates generally spend very little time practicing and preparing in advance of an employment interview with the goal to build the case that the candidate can successfully do the targeted job.

Simply put, practice is a critical component to performing well on an interview.  It is important to note that interviewing is a skill, meaning it can be learned and improved over time with practice. As with any other skill, the greater amount of time spent practicing will lead to quicker skill improvement and likely better outcomes.

Three recommended interview practice steps include:

  1. Create a List of Commonly-Asked Interview Questions: Put together a list of commonly asked interview questions and start with these questions.  S. News and World report has a list of the top 10 most asked interview questions so start with this list.  Also, include the difficult questions that they could potentially be asked during an interview. Job candidates need to identify their personal potential obstacles to success. Today, job seekers can‘t bury their head in the sand when it comes to obstacles to success. Some obstacles to success, or barriers to getting hired, might include lengthy (or prolonged) unemployment, numerous jobs in a short time period, credit issues (debt or bankruptcy), poor (or no) references, questionable background checks, or educational shortcomings. Allot significant time on how to handle these issues if asked on an interview.
  2. Write (or Type) Your Answer to each Question: Start by literally writing (or typing) your specific answer to a question.  This will help you formulate your thoughts and develop strong answers focused on highlighting the skills, experience, education, and success you possess that are relevant to the targeted job.
  3. Verbalize Your Answers: Writing out your answer is a great first step, but verbalizing it will help you remember it. The more you say it aloud, the better you truly understand how to effectively answer the question so you can sell it on the interview. In fact, as a job seeker dedicates more time to practice, they’ll be able to net down a longer script to the key talking points. A script may be hard to remember, however, remembering a few key points is easier. Once the candidate memorizes the core talking points, then they can fill in the details during a live interview.

Putting It All Together

Employers are looking for more than just a solid GPA.  In fact, employers like recent college graduates who are involved on campus in clubs and activities and have strong communication skills.  Obviously, highlight this information on your resume.  Be sure to develop the best possible resume with it targeted to the job to which you are applying with the goal of landing more interviews.

Practice, practice, practice to build strong interview skills, even before you start landing actual interviews.  This preparation will allow you to feel more confident and better able to articulate your value to prospective employers during live interviews.  You only need one job so put in the practice to position yourself to land the job offer you desire.  Don’t let a lower GPA stop your progress, Emmit.  Best wishes and good luck!

Here’s to your success,

Bob Nealon

About the Author

Robert Nealon

For almost 10 years, Bob Nealon has been a South Florida-based career coach, focused on training and coaching college students and professional-level clients to achieve success in their employment search campaign and careers. He has trained over 5,000 clients with strategies on how to best compete in today’s ultra-competitive market to land the job and advance their career. Currently, he is a career coach at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from Indiana University, a master’s degree in Sports Administration from Indiana State University and is a multi-credentialed career coach holding industry certifications as a Certified Professional Career Coach, Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Employment Interview Professional, Certified Empowerment and Motivational Coach, Global Career Development Facilitator, and Florida Certified Workforce Professional. He is an active member of Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, Center for Credentialing and Education, Florida Association of Colleges and Employers, National Association of Colleges and Employers, and National Career Development Association. Connect with Bob via LinkedIn and Twitter.

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