Opinion: GPAs should still matter, but for right reasons

USA TODAY

This story ran in USA TODAY College on March 1, 2013.

Between club meetings, Greek events, community service and sports practices, students hardly have time for class anymore. Solid hours of studying dwindle to cram sessions, and it seems academics take a backseat to extracurricular activities. But when things get tough, students don’t always fall back on hard work. This is the age of grade mongering.

The overextended student is too often honored. He or she prioritizes schoolwork beneath most commitments, only taking a break from using Facebook in class to ask what will be on the next test or how many pages a paper needs to be. Yes, there is something to be said for participating in a wide variety of enriching extracurriculars, but not at the expense of academic success.

Outside activities may create well-rounded adults, but they also create shallow ones.

That’s why now is not to time to devalue the GPA, or to forget that grades still matter. Undergraduate admissions are already holding less in store for high school averages, citing inconsistent rating systems and methods of calculation. But graduate admissions officers are not yet on board, and current students should remember that.

A solid academic progression is key for graduate admission officers, said Amanda Barth, director of MBA admissions at the College of William and Mary. GPA is definitely taken into consideration, she said, as is a student’s ability to demonstrate rising levels of academic success.

That might sound like good news for the stretched-thin student who still manages to scrape good grades together, regardless of knowledge retained. But what many forget is it’s about more than numbers on a transcript — it’s about actually learning something.

Scott Jaschik, editor at Inside Higher Ed, said graduate admissions are about grades in context. Lots of colleges have easy majors, he said, and a good admissions officer is going to know that. And according to him, even if a GPA alone is not helpful anymore, it is still looked at alongside transcripts and course loads. So finding a way to get solid grades won’t cut it — officers can tell if busy students are simply trying to get by.

But good grades shouldn’t be the real indicator of success. Understanding material and engaging with coursework is what leads to stellar recommendations, which some say are the make-or-break part of an application. Learning to research, question and grapple with academics is the purpose of higher education, and while a letter grade can barely prove how well a student has done that, it’s the only system in place. That doesn’t give students the right to manipulate the system hoping to get good grades, they should still put in hard work, and respect the outcome.

If students really want to succeed in graduate school, they should drop a club or two and hit the books. A good GPA doesn’t tell the full story, but it sums up a few chapters.

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