When I first came to the University of Alberta, my approach to academic courses was “3.7 GPA or die.” Following a few weeks of courses, I upped the ante: “4.0 GPA or die.” You can probably imagine the pressure that I put on myself. And although that first year was for all intents and purposes a success, I came away forgetting so much of what was learned in class. Out of all the classes that I took, only a handful stuck with me. In fact, two and a half years into classes at the U of A, there is very little that I actually retain from my lectures. I remember everything from my Anglais 113, 328 and 429 courses, only because the professor in the first course was an outstanding educator and stand-up comedian, and the two latter courses were made up of just three students and an inspiring professor.
Don’t get me wrong, your grade point average is important, and you should do your absolute best to excel in your classes. Moreover, I am a strong proponent for the U of A to revise its assessment and grading system, so that it focuses on providing early and consistent assessment to students, and encourages professors to grade students based on their own professional judgment, rather than grade distributions recommended for each level of class (100, 200, 300, etc.). The main point of this post, is that I feel that one’s GPA is overrated.
Students with high GPAs, which to me is 3.5 and above, are often smart, and they tend to have a strong work ethic (this assessment is only based on my personal experiences.) This is completely anecdotal, but out of the many students with 3.5s and above that I know, they are usually adept at studying material, memorizing it and regurgitating it onto a piece of paper. These students also do well under pressure, which is to say, during exam and paper writing. These are important skills to have. As an employer, I might assume that a student with a high GPA possesses a certain level of self-confidence, and an ability to succeed under pressure, but I wouldn’t necessarily put too much emphasis on these traits.
That is because, from my experience, some of the most gifted, open-minded and creative people do not have 3.5+ GPAs. In fact, I would go as far as to say that most do not. I’ve known many students that fail miserably in their first year. University can be a big adjustment, and that first year can bring some tough marks along with it. But many of those students gradually rebound, and they peak near the end of their degree, in the third or fourth year. Not all high schools are the same in terms of university preparation. Although it is important to be consistent throughout one’s entire university career, I’d put more weight on success near the end of one’s degree, when students have had a few years to settle in, classes are small (relative to first-year lectures) and discussion is more intense.
Despite everything written above, my major point is this: I strongly feel that you will learn more by volunteering or working in the Students’ Union for Orientation, investigating as a journalist for the Gateway, serving as a leader in your faculty association, or even meeting consistently for coffee with different friends, than you will in most of your classes.
In my experience, there is absolutely nothing that compares to working in complex and challenging situations as a Vice-President within the Students’ Union. For instance, while organizing the Canadian Roundtable on Academic Materials, I read countless articles on the textbook and digital books industry – and learned a LOT. But as an organizer of a conference, you have to be knowledgeable in the content of the conference and work well with conference delegates. And that doesn’t even include recruiting speakers from across Canada. Not easy… As a student journalist, you might have to decide what content does and does not make its way into an article. Thirty-minute interviews are whittled down to two quotations. Moreover, you might ask the following questions: Are there legal implications to what I write? What counts as libel? Am I asking the right questions during an interview? These examples all require a person to think critically, and combine knowledge about a particular subject matter with soft skills.
There is no question that a student in the Faculty of Engineering has to be a competent Engineer. Similarly, if you are my doctor, then I hope that you aced those anatomy exams! We could both go on with many more examples. Nevertheless, my major argument is that your GPA only means so much. When I become an employer, I can guarantee that one’s GPA will be an important factor in hiring decisions, but it will be far from the most important. As a student at the U of A, I am impressed the most by my peers that show imagination and creativity in their thinking, and who are life-long learners. There is also no substitute for hands-on learning. Whether it is with the SU, the Gateway, as an undergraduate researcher or student in a co-op class, that is where you put theory to the test. Simply put, I will take a student with a 3.0 GPA and tremendous experience working creatively in challenging, hands-on environments over a 4.0 GPA with no practical and engaging experiences.
No matter what year you are in, I encourage you to make the most out of your short time on campus. Use these years to experiment, try new things and move out of your comfort zone. Study hard, ask questions, and shoot for a strong GPA, but make sure that you get out and volunteer as well. It is through your work with others, and in your failure and success within challenging and complex environments, that you will experience personal growth and leave university as a better person than when you started.