Experience vs. grades: What will get you the job?

Illustration by Andrea Vahrusev.

From working in retail to having my own creative freelance projects, I have always held a part-time job during the school year. However, what I expected to be my side hustle working as a digital marketing intern this summer and taking leaps in my professional career turned into an almost full-time gig. Not only was I presented with the opportunity to continue working at my summer job into the current school year, but I was also offered the chance to work on a number of creative projects at Ryerson. By the time September came along, I had committed myself to four jobs along with a full course load in what is shaping up to be one of my most challenging academic years.

I was excited to continue my internship, start my new jobs and begin working on the creative projects I’d lined up – a podcast that had been a passion project of mine, a book in the works and a writing gig. When I decided to sacrifice my grades to gain experience in my field, I faced a major internal struggle. I knew that my grades were going to fall slightly with less time and energy available to dedicate to my schoolwork. I’ve learned, and am continuing to learn every day, that this is okay. In fact, learning to balance my studies with working in my chosen field is a necessary step to improve my success when I decide to apply for jobs post-graduation.

Wharton professor Peter Cappelli says that “work experience is the crucial attribute that employers want, even for students who have yet to work full time.” Leading employers cite internships, work experience and extracurricular activities as the most valuable attributes they look for when hiring recent graduates. In addition to the value that prospective employers place on having practical experience, gaining work experience throughout your academic career will give you the chance to apply what you learn in the classroom, gain insight into your industry or even decide that it’s not the field you want to work in. This happens, and was actually one of the reasons I switched my major from English to Creative Industries halfway through my degree.

Despite the emphasis on experience in the job market for recent graduates, this is not to say grades don’t matter. Achieving high grades can be a good indication of how well you grasp the concepts taught in your classes, which will help you acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in your future career.

My previous retail and freelance experience didn’t actually land me my digital marketing position; rather, it was mostly the result of my grades. One of the benefits of being a Ryerson student is having access to industry leaders, business owners and professors with experience and connections across industries. Taking note of my academic achievement and interest in the material, my social media studies professor Hamza Khan recommended me to one of his close connections who, at the time, was seeking a digital marketing intern. Along with his recommendation, Khan also hired three other high-achieving students from the same class for his own venture, believing that their outstanding grade in his class indicated that they possessed both the technical skills and determination to add value to his team.

So are grades more important than experience? The key is learning to balance the two. Experience is a great supplement to school and can help you build on what you learn in the classroom, but good grades can potentially lead to opportunities as well. This balance looks different for every student: some prefer to work during the summer months and focus on their academics during the school year, while others choose to hold part-time jobs at the same time. By determining both your professional and academic goals, as well as the amount of time you can realistically commit to achieving them without overworking yourself, you can find a balance between grades and experience to improve your success post-graduation.