GPA Isn’t Everything: What to Look for When Hiring Recent College Graduates

October 28, 2015

Grade point average is slowly going out of style in the world of hiring.

In fairness, despite popular belief, Google still uses them when hiring recent college graduates. But, they don’t use them at all when hiring anyone a few years removed from college. And, dozens of other companies have declared GPA an almost worthless statistic.

Now, the question is: If you get 200 resumes for a single job opening – mostly from college graduates – and you don't focus on GPA...what do you look for? At least GPA is an easily quantifiable number that could be used to quickly screen candidates. If you throw that out, how can you narrow that list from 200 to one?

Well, at Talent Connect Anaheim earlier this month, LinkedIn put together a diverse panel – a CEO, a college dean, and a longtime recruiter - to answer that exact question. They came up with four key things to look for in a recent college graduate that signals they will make a good employee, aside from their GPA.

They are:

1. Quality over quantity on their resume

Robert Stacey, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, says he sees a lot of students “who know how to stuff a resume” by joining as many extracurricular activities as they can.

That doesn't impress him.

Instead, what he suggests is looking for people who have a few activities on their resume, but a lot of success in those activities. For example, somebody who became the president of a club, or started their own club. Someone who became captain of a sports team. Someone who spent years volunteering at once place, and had some real achievements to show there.

Those people are much more likely to have the passion and teamwork skills that organizations are looking for, as opposed to people who are signing up for clubs just to say they signed up for clubs, Stacey said.

2. A passion for something that began at a young age

Christian Juhl, the CEO of Essence, a digital advertising agency whose biggest client is Google, says his favorite question to ask a candidate is what their first job was.

He doesn’t mean their first job out of college or the first job they’d list on a resume, but their first job ever. For example, Juhl said his first job was selling lizards he collected in the second grade to his fellow students as a way to make money – a clear sign he was a born entrepreneur.

People who are passionate about something exhibit that passion at an early age, whether it be through a job or through some activity, Juhl said. If he has someone who has spent a lifetime doing what the job they are applying to do in one form or another, he knows he has a winner.

3. Attended a college or university that challenges its students

Stacey also recommends looking at the college a recent graduate came from, and checking to see how that college fared against other colleges with similar demographics.

Specifically, he recommended hiring college students from universities that outperform their demographics – meaning, they do better than what their trend data (average SAT score, high school GPA, etc.) suggests.

Why? Because that means those students attended a rigorous, challenging institution that has a history of getting the most out of its students. Those same people will bring that energy and rigor to your organization as well, and ultimately be stronger employees at your company.

4. Most important of them all - they are mentally agile 

Annmarie Neal, the Chief Talent Officer at Hellman & Friedman, said the most important thing she’s looking for in any candidate is mental agility. This means people who can quickly wrap their minds around new challenges and come up with innovative solutions.

How do you screen for mental agility? Well, Warren Buffett looks for the same thing and asks people questions they aren’t prepared for or has them do presentations on the spot with limited amounts of information. The goal is to find out how able a candidate is of thinking through new ideas and evolving in a fluid market place.

Making sense of it all

Just for clarification, you shouldn’t necessarily disregard GPA when hiring. It's still a worthwhile number – particularly for people just out of college – and gives insight into how a person performed over the course of a two-year or four-year span.

That said, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and there are many people today who have strong GPAs. The hard part is separating those people to determine who has the intelligence, the passion and the grit to excel at your company.

The four factors listed are other signs you can look for in recent college graduates to see if they will truly make a great employee. After all, the goal is not to hire a great student – the goal is hire someone who will flourish at your organization.

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