Do grades matter after graduation?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Do grades really matter after graduation? How do I not get too hung up on not getting As?

You need to ask yourself what are the grades for? We do not exist merely to score As, nor do grades grant us happiness or salvation. In other words, grades are not an end to itself. They serve another purpose. And we have to be clear what purpose we want it to serve.

If you say you want to pursue academia or graduate school, then for obvious reasons, the grades matter because it signals that you have what it takes to endure the rigours of grad school if you get accepted into a programme.

If you want to join the civil service here in Singapore, unfortunately the people who do the hiring are very obsessed about grades. It is used as a proxy measure for how hard you are willing to work and/or how brilliant you are. It is doubtful how accurate grades are to signal brilliant one may be, but certainly some organisations want to hire people who are willing and able to work very hard and be able to produce results. So this is something grades do indicate, and this is something the bureaucratic machinery of government requires.

That said, exceptions are made for exceptional people, but we usually only show case or exceptionality many years after graduation.

But the private sector is a different story. Most companies don’t care too much how you do in school. Why? Because academic grades are a measure of only one ability out of an infinite number of abilities out there that can add value to the organisation. Salesmanship, the ability to connect people, manage risks, and a whole host of people skills and street smart skills cannot be assessed in a university. And if you can demonstrate that you can add value to their organisation in these ways beyond grades, many private companies are willing to take you on and pay you handsomely for that added value.

If you don’t want to get too hung up on grades, focus on developing a backup plan or a few contingencies that you can tap on to help you get employed even if you don’t have fantastic grades. These are people skills, negotiation skills, marketing skills, public speaking skills, etc. These make you very marketable and you can always fall back on them to give you an edge when you try to seek employment. So if you don’t have the grades to impress, you have a set of skills that are highly sought after by many companies.

This is a common tactic employed in a field called: risk mitigation. Don’t bet your entire life on just grades. If you do, of course the pressure will be high. You’ll have a do or die mentality because it feels like you must succeed otherwise you’ll fail in life. But you can hedge your risks by developing many possible paths for success, and that also reduces the anxieties over failure. If one doesn’t work, oh that’s always that other backup plan.

I do want to emphasise the need to develop people skills and other talents. Many students have trained themselves to become excellent at studying, but they’re inept at everything else. Their high grades won’t save them or help them do well in the working world. And it saddens me that all that talent cannot be fully realised because they don’t know how. So it’s important to use the time now as a student to explore and develop a variety of skills while you still.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the big picture. A few years after you graduate, after you’ve worked your first job (maybe after your second job), no one’s going to ask how well you did in school after you’ve built a portfolio of your professional achievements which is your CV, and the array of talents, skills, and experience you’ve acquired over the years.

These are things that are way more long-lasting and worth the effort beyond just mere grades.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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