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The problem with grades: Why your academic transcript won’t matter to employers

Wing Kuang

Tue Jan 10 2017


A few months ago, I received a call from a worried friend studying biomedicine.

“I’m not sure if I am able to be an excellent doctor,” she said. “My grades are so bad while others are doing so well!”

Despite my best efforts to reassure her, she was afraid of her performance and wept on the other side of the phone. She told me she averaged a score of 76, an admittedly good result, but by her own standards it wasn’t enough. As we continued talking, she considered transferring into a different faculty to keep her dream of working in a good hospital alive.

Of course, her story isn’t entirely unique as the pressures of academic performance weigh heavily on the minds of all students. For international students, particularly those from Asia, the expectation to perform well in their studies can sometimes be greater than their local peers. But do grades really matter?

Looking beyond your grades

While good grades can lead to better possibilities, they should not have to be your sole evidence for future success.

Employers value skills and experience more than anything. In 2015, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a non-profit based in the United States, cited teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving and communication (both with people within an organisation and outside of it) as key competencies employers look for in graduates and applicants. University work often requires students to work in groups to reach an outcome, but practical experience working in a team outside of academia is still far more valuable.

Meanwhile, in their handbook for international students’ employment, International Education Association of Australia stated that “Australian employers need a diverse and sustainable talent pool to fuel innovation growth” and thus look to international students not just for their grades but to help employers and businesses “remain competitive in a global economy.” International students might not realise it but one of their key skills is being able to speak in two or more languages, something Australian employers might need if businesses wish to expand into foreign territories.

The IEAA also listed the personal qualities of international students that employers benefit from, including maturity and independence, resilience in workplaces and cross-cultural understanding. None of this deals with grades.

So why do students still place a burden on themselves over grades?

Numerous factors contribute to international students’ attitude towards grades such as the large tuition fee that they pay as well as the competitive culture institutionalised across many Asian countries.

It has been well documented that international students pay a higher fee to study abroad but the generalisation that all international students are ‘rich’ or well-off enough to be able to pay that tuition is farcical. Not all international students come from wealthy families and for students who feel like they’ve become an investment to their parents — parents who’ve perhaps toiled long and hard enough to place trust in their child to study abroad and bring back a degree that can add value to the family — this can affect the mental wellbeing of a student during their studies. No one wants a bad return on their investment, after all.

Cultures where rankings determine status can also be detrimental to students. Survival of the fittest is how education is often treated across many Asian countries and as a result, students feel they must equip themselves enough to work harder than others. Carrying that mentality over to a western society where education culture is a lot less competitive may cause problems. Though a focus on studies is encouraged, placing too much emphasis on it can be damaging on the students’ psyche. Add to this that some students also work on a casual/part-time basis to help cover their cost of living and it can be hard for a student to feel like they’re at the top of their game when they have so many other things happening at the same time.

Final thoughts

Here’s something to keep in mind: some of the world’s most successful people didn’t finish their tertiary degrees like Apple’s late Steve Jobs and Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

That isn’t to say that you should drop out too. Education does indeed have an important place in society but students shouldn’t place so much emphasis on their grades. Scores aren’t the sole determinant for your future and shouldn’t dictate your success.

There are plenty of other opportunities for students currently worried about their academic performance to get ahead in their career by simply finding out what they can do outside the classroom. Maybe it takes the form of voluntary work or asking employers if they have any internships or placements available. You won’t know until you ask so don’t wait for employers to make an announcement or listing.

So during this break, if you’re still worried about how you went in your last exam, don’t worry too much. You’ll have several chances to make up for it in other ways. For now, enjoy this break period or find out what summer jobs you can take up before semester that might help you acquire some of those career skills you won’t find in the classroom.