Why work experience in college is more important than your GPA

I gave a presentation two weeks ago to a group of 80 college juniors. Most companies recruit juniors in their Fall semester for summer internship programs so we were discussing everyone’s favorite topic: internships. Many were nervous about their upcoming interviews; others needed help with their resumes. I started the workshop by asking everyone, “What have you spent the majority of your time on in college?” and the most common answer was, “Staying on top of my classes.”

The average GPA in this group was a 3.54. 100% of students were involved in at least one student organization, with 84% involved in two or more. 80% had participated in a service project in the last year. 40% of the students were a part of a fraternity or sorority. 20% had work experience in college through internships.

These statistics are fairly common — many groups of students I have spoken with had similar experiences. And yet, I am always surprised to see college students, who are so concerned about getting good jobs after graduation, allocating the majority of their time towards their GPAs and not towards acquiring crucial work experience in college. Why?

Work experience in college proves to be more important than academic credentials

In December 2012, the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace conducted “a survey of employers who hire recent college graduates in order to understand employer perceptions of the role of colleges and universities in career preparation. 50,000 employers were invited to participate in the study.” The findings:

“Employers place more weight on experience, particularly internships and employment during school vs. academic credentials including GPA and college major when evaluating a recent graduate for employment.”

Yes, there are industries that consider GPAs more than others, but the study also finds:

“An internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume in their job search among all industry segments.”

Having served within the Recruitment and Development department at a Fortune 500 company, and now as an employer myself at Skillify, I know firsthand how much higher internship and work experience in college rank when hiring. I’ve seen resumes with a plethora of extracurriculars and service projects, but no work or industry experience. And when I’ve asked those students to articulate their transferable skill set from those experiences during an interview, many are unable to. There is nothing wrong with participating in extracurriculars and service projects — those experiences are very important. But if students are going to invest so much time in those activities, they should also be able to express the impact those activities have had on their learning and development. Those communication skills, the ability to communicate the value of your unique experience, are typically developed through experience in the workplace. So when GPAs are prioritized, students miss out on work experience in college that can help them in more ways than they realize.

I’m sure many of us have felt the anxiety or know people who are feeling the anxiety around securing a solid job upon graduation. Then why are so many students in pursuit of a high GPA and perfected academic resumes? And why do parents, who want job security for their children, pressure them towards prioritizing academic excellence during college?

The study asserts the following implication:

“Colleges and universities should view the working lives of their students not as a challenge, but as an opportunity, given the weight employers of all kinds place on experiential elements of a recent graduate’s resume.”

And I say the same advice is relevant for parents, educators, and students themselves. Working as a student is not a distraction. The college GPA should not be the priority. Re-prioritize to make time for internships and work experience in college. Allow for the opportunity to gain industry experience, not only because that experience is appealing to employers, but it also helps students validate their own interests.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with thousands of students, and I’ve noticed a trend. Working students tend to be more aware, and actually less stressed than students who are only focused on academic achievements. Students with work experience in college tend to identify mentors within the workplace, and generally feel more supported than non-working students. Working students are able to get feedback on their skillset, and understand their value. This allows them to define themselves beyond a test score or GPA, and helps employers also see them as much more than their academic credentials. These are just my observations, although I will certainly be looking for hard data on the benefits of work experience in college very soon. Stay tuned.