Answering the Dreaded “Why isn’t your GPA Higher?” Interview Question

By Claire Klieger

Don't be tormented by your transcript.

This is the kind of question that most of us dread because let’s face it—we probably all have at least one class or semester that just didn’t go so well. In some cases that may be a mere blip in your academic performance and for others, it can be an all out bomb. Regardless, here are some tips to help you better prepare for such a question:

1)      Don’t divulge negative information unless specifically asked. Sometimes, a GPA or grade in course that really concerns you is not a big deal for the employer. If it is an issue, you are can be sure that the recruiter will ask about it so there is no need to volunteer negative information. You may think that by broaching the subject you will have a chance to explain the circumstances, but doing so without being prompted actually just shines a bigger spotlight on the potential issue. Take that C you received in a particular course. Especially if it’s in an unrelated discipline, chances that the recruiter may not even care but bringing it up on your own just draws attention to it.

2)      Avoid the blame or comparative game. When you try to displace the fault you not only come across as someone who complains (and may even be seen as whiney), but you also never know when you may inadvertently insult someone. For example, I regularly hear students in science or math heavy majors say to me, “well, if I had an easier major, like English, my grades would be higher.” What if your interviewer (like me) majored in English? I certainly wouldn’t have described the multiple twenty-plus page papers I wrote a semester or the probably thousands of pages of reading I did as an easy course load. Pointing fingers just doesn’t create a good impression.

3)      Take responsibility for your actions. Instead of blaming a bad grade in a class on your major, the curve or the difficult professor, ask yourself what was really going on.  Employers want to hire folks who can own up to their mistakes.  In particular, if you can focus on what you’ve learned from that experience so you won’t make a similar mistake again, you can alleviate employers’ fears about any potential “skeletons” in your closet.

4)      The best answer to a difficult question is always the truth, though you should consider your approach. What is real reason you had a rough semester? Perhaps you underestimated the time commitment of rushing a sorority or pledging a fraternity?  Maybe you got in over your head by taking three upper level classes in the same subject next semester? Simply state what happened without a lot of details or over explanations and then focus on how you learned from the experience, particularly if it allows you to focus on more recent positive events.

Example: “I struggled with adjusting to college life and didn’t manage my time as well I should have freshman year. However, since then, I’ve learned to more effectively juggle my responsibilities and prioritize and as you can see from my transcript, I’ve continued to improve each semester since then.

5)      Own your own story. Remember that interviewers are people too, who have made their own mistakes in life and are usually willing to overlook your own provided you have the right approach. It’s important to be comfortable in your own skin. If you are upfront and honest when asked a question without coming across as defensive you will project a self assurance that will put recruiters at ease.

Here is my favorite true anecdote from a few years ago: A student was hitting it off with a recruiter at an on-campus info session for a very prestigious consulting firm. However, her hopes began to dash when the recruiter asked her, “What’s your GPA?”  She could see that her response of a 2.76 made the recruiter’s face fall and so she said, “I can see that you’re disappointed,” and the recruiter agreed. The student lifted up her chin and said with a smile, “Let me tell you something. I’m the first person in my family to go to college and I am so proud of the fact that I worked hard enough to end up at Penn. I’m continuing to work hard here and I’m thrilled with my GPA.” Guess what? She ended up getting an interview.

Author: Claire Klieger

Claire Klieger is an Associate Director of Career Services for College of Arts & Sciences undergraduates. She earned her Ed.D. from Penn and did her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia. Fun Fact: Claire spent 11 years in the Middle East and North Africa.

2 thoughts on “Answering the Dreaded “Why isn’t your GPA Higher?” Interview Question”

  1. The points in this article are certainly good ones, but students may still be left wondering how to avoid saying negative things in response to a negative question and in trying to do so may fall into the trap of trying to shift blame. The truth is always the way to go in job hunting, but just how much of the truth and in which way? “I was pledging a frat freshman year and completely underestimated my ability to hold my alcohol. I showed up to the final exam plastered and was asked to leave by the prof because I couldn’t stop giggling.” is probably not exactly the way to respond.

  2. Hey Danni! Thanks for participating in our CS blog. If you’re a Penn student or alum, please note that we CS counselors are available to do mock interviews with you in person or over the phone. When practice interviewing with us, we are able to address your specific concerns and help you tailor appropriate responses to the toughest interview questions. If you don’t have time for a mock–or are an expert interviewee in every regard except handling those tough questions, you may also seek advice during appointments, walk ins, or via emails. While I’d rather not address the hungover and giggling problem in this blog–since we know it was only a hypothetical example anyway–my colleagues and I would be happy to discuss any and all questions on an individual basis.

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