Grades At The Margin

Robert Farley offers a cautionary note about my advice that college students shouldn’t care too much about their grades:

From my experience on several graduate admissions committees, I can say that it is extremely difficult to apologize for low undergraduate grades. Outstanding GREs don’t do it by themselves, nor does work experience, military service, etc. Fairly or not, poor undergraduate grades suggest to the admissions committee that the candidate is lazy, unfocused, and unserious about the academic project. This is true even for a school like Patterson, which is focused around policy rather than academia. I suspect that a lot of smart undergraduates don’t understand that weak undergrad grades effectively lock them out of good graduate programs, even several years down the road from their college career.

Maybe so. My point, however, is that people make decisions about how to use their time at the margin and if what you’re interested in doing is becoming a writer then you’re better off spending your time on writing and publicizing things than on giving your term paper another round of edits. It’s quite possible that all things considered, the expected value of worrying more about your grades and less about your prospects of snagging an entry level writing position is positive. But if you really want to snag an entry level writing job, you’ll maximize your odds of doing that by focusing more on writing and less on grades. Traditionally that’s meant working hard at the school paper, these days there’s a more diverse range of new media enterprises that matter. This may well be a terrible life choice, but still it is what it is.

None of that, however, is to denigrates Jonathan Bernstein’s point that actually learning things is extremely valuable. Knowing more is good, but (again, at the margin) it has a somewhat attenuated relationship to grades.


Now of course if you’re honest with yourself you’ll realize that the schoolwork/writing margin isn’t the only margin at which it’s possible to make tradeoffs. When I was in school, I spent a fair amount of time watching Elimidate which is not an activity associated with any large future payoffs.