After teaching for almost 30 years, I have come to accept that not every student will earn a good grade in my courses—to me a good grade is an A or a B. This was a bit tough for me to deal with when I first started teaching, because I had naively assumed that everyone wanted to get a good grade. I had always “gone for the A” in college (even with a busy work schedule), why wouldn’t my students too. Some students may be in a real bind as far as good grades because their ability to devote time and effort into my courses is limited by job responsibilities, military service, or by personal difficulties (including mental issues). However, there are a number of students whose lack of motivation and willingness to give their maximum effort in my classes is driven by a view that grades are simply unimportant. This latter group of students includes those who think about “Cs for degrees” or may even feel that getting a D and just passing one of my courses is OK.
In my world, what is a bummer about the students who choose not to strive for high grades is that they probably can get good grades, but something is standing in their way. If these students think that grades are simply unimportant, are they correct? It is my opinion that these students, for the most part, are incorrect and that earning good grades in college is worth pursuing. Let me add that in taking this position I am not saying that having a higher GPA means you are a smarter person. Of course, many factors will impact your GPA over and above your intelligence.
Let me offer 4 points in support of my thinking that good grades matter:
1) If you want to pursue a doctoral or professional (MD, DDS, Nursing, PA, PT, or OT) degree good grades are critical. As I have talked about in other places (careersinpsych.com and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/careers-in-psych), these programs are only taking the best of the best. Thus, your college grade point average (GPA) carries a lot of weight. It is possible to have a relatively low GPA offset by high scores on your entrance exam (e.g., GRE, MCAT, GMAT). However, selection committees (fair or not) will typically view a relatively low GPA in a negative light.
2) For certain jobs, especially high-paying jobs, good grades can be a “tie-breaker”. That is, if you have a 3.7 GPA and another job applicant has a 2.7 GPA, all things being equal, you will likely get selected for the job. Now I can hear some of you saying that “all things being equal” hurts my point because no job candidates are exactly the same. I agree. Nonetheless, grades are likely to be a part of the job selection equation, along with other characteristics like job skills, leadership qualities, ability to work with others, creativity and experience. My point is simply that grades can make the difference between candidates, and that it is better to have good grades than not. I will add one other point about certain jobs. Your GPA may be critical when you are looking for your first job out of college, but the value of your GPA may diminish over time–work experience may then carry the day.
3) If you get good grades in what are perceived as tough courses, this can work to your advantage. This does not mean that everyone should be taking a lot of difficult science and math courses in college. You just need to be aware that selection committees for graduate and professional school (possibly even certain jobs) will look at your transcript. Therefore, it won’t hurt that you took some science and math courses and did well in these courses. Keep in mind that those individuals making a decision about your future want to be sure that you were not taking a bunch of “bunny” courses to inflate your GPA.
4) High grades can open up various opportunities for you in college. Let me give three quick examples. First, there are a number of scholarships that open up while you are in college. As you can imagine, these scholarships are not going to students with low GPAs. Second, it is typically the case that faculty will choose students with the highest grades to work in their lab or conduct other research. I am one of these faculty members. I look for the brightest and most motivated students to join my lab; high grades help me determine which students to select. Is it possible that I have missed a “diamond in the rough”—a student with high potential but low grades? Of course, but I feel over the years high grades have been a good indicator of productive research assistants. Finally, when it comes times to securing letters of recommendation you will probably have a better chance of having a faculty member write you a letter if you have done well in school. Moreover, the stronger your academic record, the better your letter.
In closing, I want to reiterate that grades are not everything. You may have qualities (e.g., leadership skills, creativity) that can overcome poor grades. In addition, I do not want to discount the importance of networking or experience in helping you move forward with your career. Finally, good grades require a lot of time and effort. The cost of high grades may be a loss of some sleep and social time. Still, in the end I feel the benefits of good grades outweigh the cost. Good luck!
Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.