Beyond the GPA — Characteristics of a Leader

By Matt Fortier, Project Manager for GU Impacts

June 14, 2016

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview for GU Impacts. Usually my GPA disqualifies me from even being able to apply to programs like these at Georgetown.”

This was the powerful statement made by one of our 2016 GU Impacts fellows, Etana Solomon, a rising junior in the McDonough School of Business who is currently working to empower women in Mhaswad, India, with the Mann Deshi Foundation and Bank. This statement is powerful because it highlights the disconnect between what our education system traditionally values, and what we should be valuing.

In her interview, Etana painted a compelling picture of how she had struggled in her more structured, lecture-style classes and had thrived in classes where she had more room for creativity and individual learning. Moreover, in making these remarks, she demonstrated a high level of humility, self-awareness, maturity, and introspection — along with an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be challenged. In the remote region of Mhaswad, India, these are the qualities that are helping Etana thrive as she immerses herself in a new culture, challenges her preconceptions of international service and captures the story of the entrepreneurial women served by Mann Deshi.

Identifying the characteristics of an emerging leader and driver of change is a difficult task that requires a much more complex and nuanced approach than simply looking for lofty job titles on a resume and high GPAs — two things which the typical Georgetown student does quite well. With more than 200 student-led associations on campus, what 20-year old isn’t a CEO or COO these days? As Brandon Busteed of Gallup recently pointed out during his plenary last month at the Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute, the average GPA today is above 3.1. What, then, can a GPA actually tell us? That students can game the system and succeed within the sterile and structured environment of the classroom?

Leading companies such as Google already know this, as their SVP for People Operations, Laszlo Bock revealed in an interview with the New York Times that “one of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…” But what he went on to say was perhaps even more instructive: “academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment…You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

As the Beeck Center strives to identify, engage and catalyze the development of emerging leaders, we are challenging ourselves to look beyond standard metrics such as the GPA. There is no formula or silver bullet solution, but there are some key elements of our selection process with GU Impacts that we’ve found helpful:

  1. Motivation: Here, we are seeking the Why has this student applied? Is it to check a box and add another experience to a resume, or is there a more compelling story that reveals a genuine motivation to learn, step outside of one’s comfort zone, and be challenged with new experiences that are less defined than an undergraduate course?
  2. Integration: Following from the question of motivation, we are looking for a common thread that ties a student’s past experience with their proposed GU Impacts fellowship, along with anticipated connections and applications of the GU Impacts fellowship. The idea here is to focus on quality before quantity. How deeply is the student proposing to dive into the work, as opposed to skimming the surface and then moving on to check the next box?
  3. Behavioral Questions: Through asking consistent behavioral questions, including those that explore how students handle conflict, the roles they play on teams, and how they solve significant challenges, we can get a better sense of how they handle themselves in “real life” situations. Borrowing again from Mr. Bock, this also lends us insight into where students encounter conflict and what they consider to be challenging.

Ask anybody at Georgetown — faculty, staff or student — and you’ll hear about the highly competitive nature of the University, the bragging rights associated with “all-nighters,” and the intense drive to outperform one’s peers in every facet of curricular and extracurricular life. GU Impacts fellows are highly intelligent and accomplished, but they also recognize that success is not a quantitative measurement. They strive for their own definition of success, connected to their values and commitment to social impact. At the Beeck Center and through programs like GU Impacts, we seek to nurture and develop these future leaders because their commitment goes beyond the GPA and instead towards solving some of the most complex, systemic challenges of our time. Take Etana’s example, as she reflects on her experience midway through her Mann Deshi internship: “At Mann Deshi I am learning through experience, open dialogue, reflection, and creative work that aligns with where I want to be professionally. I am able to utilize what I am good at to create work that is not for a grade, but for a purpose.”

Originally published at on June 14, 2016.

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