3 Interview Strategies for Job Seekers with a Low GPA

Is a bad grade hurting your postgrad job search? These three strategies can help when you're asked to explain a low GPA.

Industrial Engineer, Career Blogger

Last Updated: May 10, 2016

I still remember it: my phone interview was at two in the afternoon. Excited and nervous, I ran home immediately after my classes and locked the door to my room to be alone. This was one of the dream companies every industrial engineer aspires to work for.

1:45 pm. I was walking in circles, practicing and anticipating the interview questions. I took a pen and a book to make notes. I checked my phone network connection. You can imagine all the fancy things that I did.

The call came in at around two and started off extremely well. Calm and confident, I was able to answer the questions methodically. I could tell the hiring manager was impressed by my speaking abilities and at this point, I was assertive about getting a positive response from the interview.

But I didn’t get the job.

Why? Because of that question. He asked me about my GPA—my low GPA. I panicked and started to freeze a bit since I didn’t have any answers. I mumbled, frazzled, and now I know I screwed up. Because of one question. The GPA question, or GPAQ. I wanted to change this.

Let’s face it—a low GPA sucks. There is no sugar coating to it.

According to a survey,

  • 43% of companies have a GPA threshold
  • 42% of companies said 3.0 was the common threshold

But here’s the interesting part…

  • 91% factor the interview process in their final hiring decision
  • Only 25% thought GPA was an important factor when reviewing an applicant

Still, who doesn’t want a high GPA? A low GPA can really put you down, and it feels embarrassing when you’re faced with such questions. I was once in this category too. The truth of the matter is, your GPA doesn’t evaluate your true self or your capability to do X type of work at a company, nor does it measure your worth. And all the “Just Stay Confident” slogans seem good on the surface, but not in reality. When you are asked the GPAQ on interviews or when you need to put it on your résumé or even when you talk to recruiters or hiring managers, you need to have an acceptable answer. 

Here’s good news: GPA matters less and less as you advance more and more in your career. For example, I was asked the GPAQ at a startup I worked for when I was a recent graduate right out of college. But when I was interviewed at a company after having some experience, that question was buried deep in my interviewing sessions.

So, what do you do?

The average applicant’s response: “I mean what can I do? Nothing! I guess I’ll be fine working for a smaller company with a less pay. At least I will have a job.” (This was my response earlier too.)

A top performer’s response: “I know this can be one of the factors that might jeopardize my chances of getting a big job. What can I do to improve from here?”

Everyone goes through some sort of struggle. It's normal. The point to learn is how we can up our chances strategically.

I want to share with you three strategies that you can implement to overcome the GPAQ fear. It will or won’t work depending upon how you tackle it. I have done it. I have seen my friends do it too, and it has worked extremely well.

But before we start, I want to make a couple of ground rules that are pretty obvious, yet I find so many people forget:

  1. A high GPA is definitely critical, and there are many companies who weigh on it heavily. For example, Deloitte’s on-campus recruitment only invites students with a high GPA cut-off.
  2. Never lie about your GPA. Repeat it with me: never lie about your GPA.
  3. These strategies aren’t the “Don’t put GPA on your résumé”–type tactics. I believe these are plain magic bullets that may—but also may not—work for you.

All right—let’s get to it.

Technique #1: The problem-to-solution (P-to-S) approach

This is one of my favorite strategies that you can basically apply anywhere—college, work, relationships, family, etc.

I explain this in detail on my blog, but to give you an idea, the P-to-S approach tells you to introduce a negative and close it with a positive.

It’s similar to one of those emotional conversations where at the end you say, “It’s okay; everything will be fine.”

In the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, one of the psychological experiments is to have a backup plan ready. For example, if you fail on a given project at work, provide a backup plan to your manager and the action steps for it. This is very persuasive.

Similarly, if you have a low GPA, some of the things you can try (after acknowledging your GPA) are:

  • Identify which classes you did extremely well in (Algebra? Geometry?)
  • Explain if there was an upward trajectory in your grades (freshman to sophomore year, basic to advanced classes)
  • Show proof of a relatable project you worked on (maybe a group project where you got great results)

This way you persuade someone that even though you didn't score well in one area, there are many brighter elements to focus on.

Technique #2: Do root cause analysis and find out the culprit

This is a great methodology I learned as an industrial engineer. It’s called Root Cause Analysis (RCA).

In a nutshell, this is a problem-solving method to find out the root cause of a problem. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you get caught speeding (I hope you don’t!). Let’s do RCA in action here:

Got caught speeding. Why? Late for work. Why? Woke up late. Why? Alarm clock didn’t ring. Why? Batteries were dead. Why? Forgot to replace them.

See how we calculated and found the real reason? Similarly, often times, our GPA is let down by either one assignment or an exam or that one element. Your job is to find out which one it was. Do a quick RCA to find out what the main culprit was.

Let’s try with GPA in focus:

Low GPA. Why? Got low points in second semester. Why? Scored badly on the calculus midterm. Why? Didn’t know how to solve two questions. Why? Didn’t remember two mathematical equations.

You don’t need to be fancy, even a handwritten analysis as shown below can work.

Root cause analysis 

In the grand picture of getting a job, forgetting just two equations is minute if you’re able to make the employer understand. Think about it :

  • Do you care more about a small stain or the overall car performance?
  • Do you care more about a door lock not working slightly or the look of the complete house itself?

See the point? Great. Now, find this culprit and articulate why it shouldn’t be as valuable as the job itself.

Technique #3: The cover-with-lid technique

Do you remember the last time you were late meeting up with your girlfriend? Or when you had to cancel dinner plans with mom? I’m sure you gave a valid reason with a compelling story.

Similarly, you can use the same principle here. Remember, employers are humans too. They want to listen and understand your story if you provide a justifiable reason.

The cover-with-lid technique tells you to provide compelling stories and demonstrate areas where you have scored well. This may sound similar to the P-to-S approach, except that in this case:

  1. You do an inventory of all the noteworthy things you did and not just the relatable ones
  2. You run not just academic but also any personal examples you have or can share

For example:

  • Did you complete a personal project that got results? Make a note.
  • Were you part of some volunteering organization? Mark that down.
  • Did you score well in any other class? Good. Jot it down.
  • Volunteered for a cause? Great. That works too.

The next step would be to tie this up with your GPAQ. So, let’s say you walk into an interview and you get the dreaded GPAQ. Let’s see two scenarios here with the scripts:

Average response: “I have X GPA because I scored low in my second semester. It was tough out there with a load of assignments and projects, but still I got to learn a lot.

Better response : “Actually, I scored low in this particular subject. However, to push myself more, I worked on a project on ABC topic. So, even though it wasn’t comparatively a good academic experience, it was definitely a great professional experience where I got results X and Y and also made a network to work with in the future.”

See which is more compelling?

And interestingly, employers usually prefer a grad who worked 20 hours per week with a 3.2 GPA rather than someone with no experience and a 3.8 GPA.

Last but not least

I’d like to give some closing points:

  1. Don’t come out as someone who makes excuses or lies. We know how this person is. He gives you spammy reasons why he didn’t perform well. He provides reasons which seem inexcusable—“I had too many assignments and work” (oh no!)—and after this, he blames the company for not hiring him.
  2. Be strategic in your approach. An average person blindly applies to every job he comes across. A top performer knows which type of companies fall under what categories of GPA.
  3. Remember: even a student with a 2.8 GPA can get a job in a big firm, and even a student with a 3.8 GPA doesn’t always get a high-paying job.
  4. Finally, your GPA may land you an interview, but not the job.

Good luck!

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