Column: Advice to College Students

Life is About More Than Your GPA!!

By Patricia Chadwick

One of my most favorite pro bono engagements is with Elon University’s Love School of Business, which has been part of my life since my son matriculated there in 2012.

The dean of the business school, Raghu Tadepalli, encourages those of us on the advisory board to actively engage with students, particularly freshmen and sophomores, who are still in that searching mode and more likely to be open to ideas regarding careers, courses and strategies than seniors who already have one foot out in the working world.

Over the decades, I have observed that the “business” of hiring has migrated from one in which interpersonal communication was of uppermost importance – often an introduction from a respected source, followed by an in-person interview – to a system today that is deliberately detached from the human element. Many corporations – generally large and bureaucratic – post job listings with the caveat that only students “with a GPA of 3.7 or higher” may apply. Personality tests are often administered before a candidate even steps foot into the offices of the company, much less been offered a job. The process, it seems to me, is meant to be intimidating.

While students are powerless to change the process by which companies select criteria for hiring, they can benefit from putting that first job experience in perspective, and I try to lighten up the environment by sharing with them some thoughts, admittedly from an “aging baby boomer” but one who, for decades, has enjoyed mentoring young men and women as they enter the workforce.

I start my engagement with the students by posing a question: “Does anyone know the average college GPA score for CEOs in the U.S.?”  There is always silence and so I provide the answer.  “Less than 3.0.” Inevitably, a smile creeps across the face of a few students. I hope it also sinks in that there are lots of ways “to the top”.

Most of the students have yet to decide on their majors, but it’s amazing how many are toying with the idea of a major and a minor (or possibly even a second major) that are “kissing cousins” – hardly venturing from what seems safe to them or something they can master without stretching too far afield. I suggest that if their social life at the university is all about exploration, why not apply the same to their choice of courses? Becoming obsessed with managing their GPA misses the whole point of college – which is NOT about what job they will get at the age of 22, but what ideas they will bring with them to their life beyond college.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m far from espousing a laissez-faire approach to grades; rather, the effort is to inspire an intellectually fearless attitude toward taking risk when it comes to learning.

The basis of this exhortation derives from my own experience as a student of Economics nearly fifty years ago. While I found plenty of classes in my major to be both stimulating and valuable, others were truly dreary. What really livened up my scholastic experience was taking two courses that were far off the beaten path of economics, and both have added measurably to my fulfillment in life: Art History was one and the other was Political Philosophy: from Plato to Nietzsche.

I remind the students that when they leave job number one and find job number two, no one will ask them for their college GPA – it simply won’t matter anymore. 

Sometimes I get the question, “Is it okay to change jobs and how often can I move from one job to another?” My advice is that they should think of their career as a “circular staircase” – with each new position or new employer, they should be moving gradually upward and closer to their ultimate goal. 

A friend who heads HR for a financial services company told me recently that when he interviews interns and starting employees, he often tells them, “Your first job is all about finding out what you don’t want to do.”  What a wonderful way to engage with young professionals who are facing the intimidating corporate world.  I can’t wait to reiterate his words to the students at Elon University this coming fall.

Patricia Chadwick is a businesswoman and an author. She recently published Little Sister, a memoir about her unusual childhood growing up in a cult.

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