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Why GPA Doesn’t Always Predict the Best Hire

June 19, 2014

I just finished reading a very interesting article about how to get a job at Google. One of the points made in the article is how hiring managers at Google don’t find some traditional factors, like GPA, to be very helpful in finding the best hires for their organization. If you are a hiring manager looking for recent graduates, you might find this to be a little worrisome, particularly if, like many, GPA has always been a key factor in your screening process.  What Google is doing may sound unconventional, but this is exactly the kind of advice Select International has been giving its clients for over 20 years. Let me explain a little bit more.

463230439First, think about why organizations may use GPA as a predictor in a selection process. If a candidate is a recent graduate, sometimes there is a lack of work or life experience contributing data points to help with the selection decision. So, hiring managers are forced to make decisions with the information that is available to them – like GPA.  School information does provide some data; it informs us about how well a candidate performed in school and the degree that was earned. But, we should be careful not to make assumptions about traits and abilities solely based on GPA.

GPA is an indicator of one’s academic success and ability to earn high grades in a structured school environment. When hiring managers see a high GPA they often presume that the candidate possesses positive traits like: intelligence, maturity, work ethic, dependability, self-discipline, and motivation.  These are very desirable characteristics that any organization would like its employees to possess, but, you have to ask yourself - how true are these assumptions?

Look at Both Sides of the Coin

Let’s use intelligence as an example. On the one side of the coin, can you assume that people with high GPAs are intelligent? Well, probably, but not necessarily (you’ll see why later). Now let’s consider the other side of the coin - can you assume that everyone with a low GPA is NOT intelligent? This is where GPA starts to fall flat. There are many people who are intelligent who do not (or did not) have high GPAs, for a number of reasons. Two researchers, Duckworth and Seligman[1], conducted a study on GPA and noted that intelligence and GPA were only moderately related to one another (r=.32) and that self-discipline was a much better predictor of GPA than intelligence (r=.67). What this means is that intelligence plays a small part in explaining one’s GPA, but other traits, like self-discipline, can override intelligence. When I think back to my school days, I can remember many people who were likely average in intelligence, but who, with hard work and discipline, received high grades.  I can also remember quite a few people who goofed off a lot and were pretty brilliant, but their grades didn’t show it. So, be careful not to make such a strong assumption about intelligence when you see GPA.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Ok, so let’s say that your candidate has a 4.0 GPA from a good college. You feel confident the candidate is intelligent. It’s also important to understand how that individual achieved high grades. Having too much of a good thing can be bad. There is a possibility that the candidate with the 4.0 GPA spent most of his/her time studying and over-preparing for classes and exams. This person could be – rigid, disagreeable, and/or overly cautious or perfectionistic. Possessing these attributes could lead to poor job performance –especially if the individual would be required to work on a team, in a dynamic environment with constantly changing priorities and tight deadlines.

Missing Competencies

Even if GPA did accurately predict the previously aforementioned desirable traits, it still doesn’t tell you about other important success competencies. Most organizations today, like Google in the article I mentioned at the start of this blog, want more than intelligence and self-discipline in their employees. Hiring managers want it all; and they should!  A hiring decision is the most important decision a manager will make in any given year. Making a hire based on one or two competencies is not the path to successful decision making and a productive workforce.  We want well-rounded employees who have strong interpersonal skills, are good team players, can be adaptable, show good judgment and have high initiative. None of these importance competencies are accurately measured by GPA.

Measure What You Want

Instead of making assumptions about candidates based on their GPA, measure the underlying competencies that lead to success in your position(s). To do this, find out what characteristics lead to success in your job(s).  Then, use validated assessment tools, like structured interviews and online assessments, to measure the things you want to measure. You can find out if candidates fit your profile for success regardless of their school performance. When you build a selection process incorporating well developed assessments, you don’t need GPA as a proxy for other characteristics. So, the next time you get an application or a resume with GPA listed, be careful not to make assumptions about that candidate, instead look for the things that matter and make a decision from there.

Are All Employee Assessments Alike?

[1] Duckworth, A.L., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.         

Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. Amie Lawrence, Ph.D. is the Manager of Product Development at PSI. She is an expert in the design, development and validation of psychological assessment tools. An integral member of PSI since 2000, Amie has led the development of numerous competency-based assessments, including online in-baskets, job simulations and motivational fit instruments.