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How I Got A Great Internship With Crappy College Grades

Your GPA doesn’t matter as much in the real world as it did in college–if you can make up for it. We talked to four people who did it.

How I Got A Great Internship With Crappy College Grades
[Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash]

Maybe there’s a great reason why your college grades suck–campus activism, a demanding job to help you pay tuition–or partying. Fortunately, you can still land an impressive internship with an unimpressive GPA. To find out how, Fast Company spoke with four people who did just that.

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Don’t Share Your Grades Unless Asked

For starters, don’t share your GPA unless you’re asked to. It’s by no means a required data point in the “Education” section of your resume.

Jay Ashe, a full-stack engineer at the tech-driven restaurant chain Cava, puts it bluntly: “Leave your GPA off your resume, but otherwise have an impeccable resume.” Ashe, who graduated in 2015 from the University of Virginia–“a school known for high achievers and high GPAs”–recalls having “a couple of really rough semesters and a couple of average semesters that kept my GPA well below 3.0.”

Worried he wouldn’t stand out, Ashe focused on making sure his resume was so immaculate that internship coordinators wouldn’t notice the omission. “Have lots of people read it over–not people you go to school with, but people who already have jobs,” he suggests.

Explain It Outright

If you do have to share your crappy grades, you need an explanation. Molly Hadfield landed two internships as an undergrad at the University of Kansas (KU) despite her 2.6 GPA. She remembers applying for “dozens” of internships and getting lots of rejections. But Hadfield, who is now the media relations director for the City of Topeka, thinks one reason she got her foot in the door was because she explained in her cover letter that she’d simply tried out a field and learned it wasn’t for her.

“I’m terrible at math, so those math and math-based science classes tanked my GPA. I then explained that moving into a major I was better at significantly brought up my GPA,” Hadfield recalls. “I wasn’t accepted into the journalism school at KU because my GPA was too low, so I also had to explain why I wanted to get into broadcast journalism as a communication studies major.” But laying all this out helped Hadfield prove her passion and tenacity–accounting for her grades without making excuses.

“Some people just aren’t the best at school, or they don’t know what they’re strengths are yet,” she says. “I had to communicate to potential internship coordinators that this was something that I was meant to do, it just took me a while to figure it out.” And she could point to the data to prove it: After the switch, Hadfield was earning a 3.5 within her new major. “Once I figured out what I liked and what I was good at, my GPA went up.”

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Make Your Extracurriculars Count

For Esther Grossman, now a senior at Goucher College, “tailoring my own educational experience was worth way more than an idyllic GPA.” Soon after matriculating, she found herself “balancing mentoring for an after-school refugee program, reshuffling my classes in order to travel and volunteer, acting as a student leader on my campus, and working a full-time job to pay the rent.”

Keeping all these commitments was exhausting, and her grades understandably suffered. “My GPA squeaked by just enough to keep my scholarships,” says Grossman. By the middle of her sophomore year, she’d racked up an impressive resume of accomplishments outside the classroom and cold-emailed it to a staffer at the Malala Fund. They struck up a conversation about Grossman’s activism, which soon led to a summer internship offer.

“I grew in that role quickly and was given the opportunity to assist in their participation at United Nations General Assembly in 2016, and to return the following summer as a fellow,” says Grossman, who’s currently applying to graduate school. “It went on to be a career-changing experience and one that gave me eons more confidence and motivation than any A in a comparative politics class could.”

Go For Short-Term Internships First

If you’re having trouble landing an eight- or 10-week internship, Jay Ashe has a second tip: Try for something shorter. Ashe intentionally aimed for a three-week winter internship “to serve as my first real line on my resume,” since it lowered the bar for organizations to take a chance on him, and it worked. The following summer, he says, “I set my sights lower and cast a wide net,” strategically applying for less-competitive summer internships. Ashe wound up with not one but four internship offers, all of which offered solid experience even without the name-brand allure.

Change The Conversation

Eric M. Ruiz, partnership manager for Waze Carpool at Google (and an occasional Fast Company contributor), got his start as a Waze intern two years after graduating “from a state school with good but unspectacular grades” in 2012. “Before the interviews, I outlined each of the points in the job description,” Ruiz explains. “I tied back each one to work experience in order to communicate that I could handle the task. For example, when I was told that they wanted a candidate with strong writing skills, I pulled up my personal blog.”

“Ultimately, grades and GPA are just a filter for weeding out candidates.” Ruiz says. “So if you cannot pass this filter, then give your prospective employer another filter that you can pass.” This can be handy when you don’t have an explanation as compelling as Hadfield’s, but do have experience that predicts how you’ll do as an intern better than your grades do.

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“It’s like dating,” he adds. “If you want to impress a date but you’re scared of heights, you don’t go skydiving!”

Impress One Person

Bad grades are more of a liability for landing that very first internship than at any point afterward. But if you’re struggling to lock down that first opportunity, make like Grossman and catch just one influential person’s attention. That’s much the way Hadfield scored her first internship, too.

“I ended up going to my university’s career fair and talking with the news director at KCTV5,” she recalls. “After that summer, it was easy to get the internship at Time Warner Cable Metrosports, because I had recommendations from the people I interned for who knew people over at the other station.” But Hadfield believes the crucial factor was getting in front of that news director to begin with.

At the career fair, she says, “I was able to talk to someone face-to-face and show them that I was smarter than my GPA let on.”

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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