Why Hiring Based on University Grades is a Deeply Flawed Process

Authored By

Ben Schwencke

Why Hiring Based on University Grades is a Deeply Flawed Process

Aside from interviews and résumé screening, academic requirements are among the most commonly employed selection criteria. This comes in many forms, but typically manifests either in a specific GPA or an aligned measure of achievement. The logic on the face of it seems sound, as we know that people who are smart, hardworking, resilient, and emotionally intelligent perform better in both education and in the workplace. However, does performance in academia actually translate into performance at work?

In this article, I will outline whether or not university grades can actually serve as a proxy for workplace performance, and whether they should be used to screen candidates.

The validity of academic achievement

We know from the extensive literature in the field of industrial and organizational psychology that the predictors of job performance and academic achievement are closely aligned. In particular, general cognitive ability, the ability to learn and solve problems, is the strongest predictor of achievement and job performance known (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998; Ian et al., 2006). They also found that the other major predictors of performance, particularly personality constructs such as conscientiousness, predict both types of performance comparably, suggesting indeed that academic and workplace performance depend on the same characteristics. Employee selection is fundamentally a game of predictions, and the stronger the predictive power, the better the quality of hire.

However, when directly correlating job performance and GPA, research shows weak associations between them (Roth et al., 1996). Similarly, the number of years in education, which is a useful proxy for educational attainment, showed weak associations with job performance (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). Lastly, other educational performance criteria outside of the United States show comparable levels of validity, suggesting a weak relationship between job performance and academic achievement in general (Pietro, 2017).

Although academic and workplace performance are both associated with the same characteristics, it doesn’t seem that academic achievements, and university grades in particular, are an effective predictor of job performance. Consequently, the evidence does not suggest that they should be used to screen out candidates in recruitment, being too unreliable a selection tool. But why don’t university grades predict performance in the workplace, and what should we do instead?

Why grades fail as a selection tool

Put simply, the problem with using academic achievements to predict job performance is that there are too many factors which influence academic achievement. Yes, cognitive ability and personality matter, but so do hundreds or even thousands of other factors, few of which matter to the workplace. For example, having effective teachers definitely helps improve academic outcomes, and that is entirely down to luck. Similarly, many students experience personal difficulties outside of their control during their studies, reducing their grades. The same can also be said about the leniency of exam and essay markers, which vary considerably from person to person, further adding unreliability to grades as a predictor. These factors reduce the relative impact of cognitive ability and personality on performance prediction, making academic achievement less viable as a selection tool.

Additionally, there is significant literature now around “Halo” and “Devil” effects, whereby more physically attractive students receive better grades than less attractive students, regardless of their actual ability. This significantly weakens the relationship between academic achievement and more meaningful performance outcomes. Despite teachers' best efforts to remain objective and impartial, humans are inevitably prone to unconscious biases, and academic achievement is particularly vulnerable here.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the whole underlying logic of using academic grades is unnecessary and flawed, serving as a middleman between the traits that matter and workplace performance. Ultimately, employers are interested in hiring smart and hardworking candidates, and those are the characteristics that matter. Why not, therefore, measure cognitive ability and work ethic directly using pre-employment tests, and bypass academic achievement altogether? In doing so, you avoid the pervasive unreliability and bias associated with grades, but actually measure the traits that matter directly.


Despite the fact that academic and workplace performance are underpinned by many of the same characteristics, academic grades fail as a selection tool in practice. They serve as an unnecessary middleman between the key drivers of performance and performance itself, and can be easily replaced with pre-employment tests. Moreover, for those already using pre-employment tests, you can simply drop academic requirements altogether without sacrificing any reliability. Not only does this make the process fairer, but it also allows you to expand the size of your applicant pool, helping you to reach candidates who didn’t perform well academically but would otherwise make great employees.

Ben Schwencke
Ben Schwencke

Ben is the chief psychologist at Test Partnership, with extensive experience in consultancy and research. He writes extensively on many topics, including psychology, human resources, psychometric testing, and personal development.