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.

Ethics in the Job or Internship Search

Barbara Hewitt

We all know that the job and internship market is competitive, and as an applicant you want to make yourself stand out from the scores of other job seekers our there. You strive to put your best foot forward to increase the odds that an employer will select you for an interview. This competitive environment is heightened even more during on-campus recruiting, when lots of students, all in one place, are vying for the same interview slots. The pressure can be intense and it can be tempting to step over the ethical line and do things you shouldn’t to give yourself an edge.

Don’t do it! You are only as good as your reputation, and if you do things that are unethical in the job search you will come to regret it. The professional world is very small – people in the same industry often know one other (and talk to each other!), so burning bridges with one employer can ultimately have more far-reaching effects than you could ever imagine. (A couple of years ago, I spoke with a student who had a job offer withdrawn from an employer in London who found out that he was still interviewing with a different employer in New York, even though the student had indicated he had withdrawn all his applications. Even on different continents, things you might think an employer would never learn about can come back to haunt you!)

Here are just a few of the ethical issues that might arise in your job or internship search:


While you want to present yourself as positively as possible on your resume and in interviews, it is imperative that you are honest. Sometimes this is very clear cut. Flat out lying about your GPA, positions you’ve held, or specific accomplishments is clearly wrong. While such lies may not be caught by every employer you send your resume to, sooner or later someone will follow-up, asking for an official transcript, reference, or simply probing questions that you won’t be able to adequately answer. Keep in mind that the Career Services Office spot-checks transcripts and resumes, and if we find that a student has lied on his or her resume or altered a transcript, we immediately refer the case to the Student Conduct Office at Penn. Academic integrity is expected at Penn, and violations of it are treated very seriously. The consequences of such actions can be severe, including possible suspension or expulsion from the University.

While most students do not outright lie on their resumes, it is tempting to overstate accomplishments or your role in activities. Perhaps you were a contributing member of a team (but not really the “leader”), but state on your resume that you did indeed lead the team. Perhaps you overstated the size of a budget you handled for a student club, or the responsibilities you were given as a summer intern. As the recruiter questions you about the things listed on your resume, it will quickly become apparent that you did not, in fact, do all the things claimed. Once doubts are raised about one area of your resume, doubts will surface about all your other stated accomplishments. I once talked to a recruiter (an alum of Penn) who removed a student from consideration for a position because the student indicated that she was the president of an organization at Penn, while in fact the alum knew that the organization had co-presidents. Don’t let a similar situation occur because you have exaggerated something on your resume or in an interview.

Accepting an Offer

It is wrong to accept a job or internship offer, and then continue to interview for other opportunities in the hopes that something “better” (in your eyes) might come along. You would be outraged if you accepted an offer from an employer and then received a call a few weeks later to rescind it because the employer had “found a better candidate.” It is no different for employers. If you accept a position, you are expected to show up on the first day. Reneging on an offer seriously damages not only your personal reputation, but that of Penn as an institution. We have had employers in the past who have stopped recruiting at Penn because of students reneging on offers.

In an ideal world, you would have as much time as you need to consider an offer and finish all other interviews of interest to you. However, in the real world, things don’t always work out as smoothly as you would like. Most employers won’t wait indefinitely for you to respond to an offer and often will pressure you to respond quickly. (Please see our employer offer policy for on-campus recruiting.) Some employers may even ask if you would accept an offer before they officially extend it to you. In such circumstances, you may be tempted to accept the offer quickly due to the pressure, but you should ONLY do so if you are indeed committed to working at the organization. If not, politely ask if they could extend the deadline for you for a reasonable amount of time. If they won’t, you may be forced to make a decision before you would like….but you should not accept with the idea of reneging later if you receive another offer. Think carefully about what is at stake and whether you really want to work for such an aggressive employer. (When I received my very first job offer out of graduate school, the employer asked me to make a decision on the spot. I didn’t feel that I would want to work for such a manager and, although difficult, turned down the opportunity. Fortunately, a few days later, I received another offer from a place where I was much more enthusiastic about working.)

Holding Multiple Offers

As a job seeker, you may find yourself in a situation in which you have received offers from several employers. In this case, you should decline the offers you don’t plan to accept as soon as possible. The employers will appreciate your quick response so that they can move forward with their search and extend the offer to another candidate (perhaps even another Penn student!).

It would be unrealistic to expect all ethical dilemmas in the job search to be clear cut or easily resolved. The fact is, many situations are complex. The Career Services staff is here to discuss issues that might arise in the search with you. Come in and talk with us.

Telling The Story: A Narrative Approach to Interviewing

by Sharon Fleshman

Once upon a time — those words signaled the start of many stories that captivated us, particularly in our younger days. Whether it is meant to scare, delight, convince or teach, there’s something about a good story that can pull listeners in. As it relates to a job search, a narrative approach can be used to present your career interests and qualifications in compelling and creative ways. Consider the following tips for incorporating “story” into your interviews:

1) Prepare for the “Tell me about yourself” question. Indeed, your answer to this can set the tone for the entire conversation and should make clear why you are sitting in front of the interviewer. Don’t default to just stating “I’m a senior at Penn majoring in…” Trace relevant themes in your background. For instance, suppose you are applying to a position in international development. You may not have a track record in that field per se, but perhaps you can help your interviewer connect the dots regarding your international experiences. You should also identify the defining moments that helped you discern your interest in a given career. For the international development example, you could talk about what occurred during your travels that caused you to become interested in development work.

2) Make sure your stories illustrate relevant skills and accomplishments. Go through your resume and develop the stories that emerge from your experiences. Your stories should have a “plot” with a beginning, middle and end that speaks to the job description. A good way to structure such a story may be to start with the situation at hand, proceed with discussing the actions you took to address the situation, and then end with the result that came from your actions. This approach is especially useful for behavioral questions (“Give me an example of how you served a difficult customer”) or other questions (“What are your strengths?”) where the interviewer wants evidence to back up what you claim to be true. You may not know exactly what you’ll be asked, but anticipate the types of skills that employers seek. Prepare to address areas such as problem solving, teamwork, leadership ability, strengths, weaknesses, and working with difficult customers/clients. Whether you played a key role in increasing membership, improving operations, boosting morale, or strengthening your own performance, you can build a story around the impact you made.

3) Keep it professional and positive. Stories for job interviews should not sound like autobiographies as much as snapshots of experiences that demonstrate that you are a great fit for the position. For instance, discussing resolution of conflict on a team for a group project is likely better than reminiscing about how you broke up a fight between two housemates. Look for the most pertinent highlights from your previous jobs/internships, volunteer experience, study abroad, extracurricular activities and class projects. Also, make sure you maintain a positive attitude. Even if you have to discuss a negative situation, resist the temptation to cast yourself as a hero and others as villains. Stick with sharing what you learned and how you developed in the process.

4) Practice. Storytelling flows from the human condition. It is very natural for us to reflect on what has happened on a given day and “tell the story” to those closest to us. However, applying this tendency to the job search may not feel as natural, so it is good to practice with those who are willing and able to offer helpful feedback. Career Services counselors are available to help you with mock interviews.

Use of stories in the job search can also be applied (in a more concise way) to resume and cover letter writing, as noted in the book Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career, written by Katharine Hansen and available in the Career Services library. Using storytelling will not only help you to prepare well, but will build your self-awareness and confidence along the way to a positive “The End.”

Vampire Teeth and Other “What Not to Wear” items for OCR Interviews

By Claire Klieger

I guess the Twilight series had a more profound impact on college pop culture than I thought because earlier this week we actually found some fake vampire teeth in our waiting area at Career Services. (Sorry, if they were yours and you were hoping to claim them, I’m afraid they’ve already found their way to the trash). While it should be obvious that fangs are inappropriate interview attire (and I would think inappropriate to bring to Career Services in general—but hey, maybe that’s just me), students do often agonize about what is appropriate to wear to interviews.

Taking the "bite" out of interview attire.

As we enter into the start of OCR interviews this week, here are some tips:

1) Go easy on the “pieces of flair.” I once saw an interviewing guide that encouraged people to wear no more than 13 accessories, but I think even that is too much (frankly, I’m not sure I could even list 13 different types of accessories). Any jewelry you wear should be fairly subtle. Avoid overly large or dangly earrings and especially if you have a facial piercing, you may want to consider removing it for the interview. Essentially, you don’t want to wear anything that will distract from what you are saying.

2) Skin is not in. As popular as they may be at frat parties the world over, short skirts or low cut tops are not a good idea. Trust me ladies, those are not the assets you want to be stressing in your interview. Skirts lengths should be right around your knee and while you certainly don’t have to wear a turtle neck, use good judgment about necklines.

3) Know “the uniform.” What you wear to an interview depends a lot on the culture of the organization in which you’re planning to work. For more conservative industries like finance and consulting, this means wearing a dark suit, and ideally, for women, a skirt suit. However, for interviews with say….Polo Ralph Lauren, what you wear is a chance to highlight your fashion sense, which is much more central to your job. Similarly, for interviews at tech organizations that often have a more business casual working environment, you may look much more like a member of the team if you dress in business casual attire.

What you wear to an interview should be something that makes you feel confident, which, in turn, will help you come across that way to a recruiter. The best attire draws the attention to your face because ultimately, you want to remembered for what you say, not what you wear.

How (not) to talk about THE BAD TIMES

by Rosanne Lurie

If you are paying close attention to Career Services (and likely others) you have probably gotten the message that internships are the hottest ticket to a career.  Many, many Penn students pursue internships during the course of their time at school; and with great success, as internships often provide valuable experiences and connections.  But what happens when your internship was a dud?  What if your responsibilities bored you, were confusing or too hard, or your supervisor was a difficult or indifferent boss?

We know that supervisors who were not good managers, or work experiences that were less than positive, are a tricky subject when you are actively networking or interviewing.  How should you handle the topic of a difficult work experience while going forward in your job search?  Here are a few constructive approaches:

1)      What can you say about yourself handling a difficult situation, if the supervisor you had did not manage you the way you would have wished or the position was not a good fit?  How did you meet the challenge or do problem solving? What were you able to do to improve the situation?

2)      How have people in your network handled their challenging or negative experiences? Learning from others can help you manage your own take on your situation.  Here’s one person’s response to a bad internship

3)      When in a job interview, NEVER say outright negatives about your internship or blame your former supervisor for your troubles.  A prospective employer will assume you might be a difficult employee, or possibly speak about them negatively, and will not be inclined to risk hiring you.   Also, blaming others can indicate that you aren’t taking responsibility for your own actions.

4)      Consider carefully the qualities you would want in a manager. When you are interviewing, communicate this in a positive way.  “Once a project is explained to me, I can work very independently;” rather than “ I don’t like it when I feel like my boss is breathing down my neck.”  Be aware of which environments will help you excel.

5)      If you need a reference, but are not sure that a former supervisor will give you a good one, then ask another coworker to be your reference – someone who will speak about your accomplishments.  Coach them about which of your skills to emphasize – documents such as your resume and descriptions of jobs can help.

In sum, there are ways that you can respond to bad experiences that offer better outcomes than dwelling on them.  By managing your perceptions, evaluating your responses, demonstrating your skills when faced with challenges, and identifying supportive individuals to serve as references, you will sail forward in your career.

More advice can be found in these useful links: