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On job trail, seniors sweat deflated GPAs

As seniors receive acceptance and rejection letters from employers, fellowships and graduate schools this spring, many wonder what role their GPAs have played in the process.

Some students fear that the University's new grading policy, which seeks to limit the number of A-range grades awarded, has weakened their chances of securing positions over students at other Ivy League institutions that continue to give out ostensibly inflated grades.

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University officials deny, however, that the policy has had a negative effect on students' prospects. On the contrary, they say, some employers and admissions officers are now treating Princeton grades more seriously, as more rigorous indicators of academic achievement.

Upon hearing of the policy, most fellowships, graduate programs and recruiters have said "bravo for Princeton," Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel said in a recent interview. She said most programs applauded Princeton for taking the leadership in fighting an intractable, national problem.

"In some cases, there have been explicit statements that 'Princeton applicants have done better with us this year because now we know that Princeton grades are real grades,' " Malkiel said.

Approved by the faculty in April 2004, the policy states that A-range grades should account for less than 35 percent of the grades given in undergraduate coursework and less than 55 percent in junior and senior independent work.

Since its implementation in September 2004, A-range grades in the humanities, social sciences and engineering departments have fallen sharply toward the target range, though most departments still remain above the target. Most natural sciences departments were already awarding about one third A-range grades.

Job recruitment

Before implementing the policy, Malkiel approached many employers and graduate programs to put forward the idea of a proposal to combat grade inflation and ensure it wouldn't negatively affect student applicants.

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The University then wrote a statement explaining the policy and mailed it to about 3,000 companies and programs in January 2005. The statement is also attached to all paper transcripts provided by the Registrar's Office.

Since then, many students whose grades have suffered have worried that peers in the Ivy League will have an edge in the job market, especially when firms are not in constant communication with the University.

"No way do recruiters take into account grade deflation when comparing GPAs on applications," said one senior operations research and financial engineering major, who, like several other students, was granted anonymity because of concerns that public comments about the policy might impact their grades or job prospects.

"I don't care if the dean sent out a million letters or if an explanation comes with the transcript," he said. "This of course puts Princeton students at a disadvantage when compared to other Ivy League applicants or anyone else for that matter."

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Recruiters from large firms that specifically target University students, however, claim that the deflation policy will not negatively affect applicants.

"We judged the grades relative to the group of applicants," Glenna Ryan, a recruiter for the consulting firm Bain & Company, said. "It was sort of a wash."

Ryan, who has led Bain's undergraduate recruiting at Northeast universities for the past six years, said that Bain sets out with a ball park number of students to interview from the University. This year, Ryan said they interviewed about 60 students on-site and made offers to about one-third of them.

"If comparing across schools, we would be aware of the different grading policies," Ryan said. "This may occur in subsequent interview processes."

Ryan also stressed that while GPAs are important in judging seniors' abilities to excel academically, their resumes, SAT scores and cover letters are meaningful.

Graduate applications

Career Services pre-law adviser Lyon Zabsky said the deflation policy will not harm students applying to graduate programs.

"I do not believe that the new grading policy has in any way disadvantaged Princeton applicants," she said. "Dean Malkiel has done a thorough job of informing law school admissions deans of the new grading policy and they offered great support for this initiative."

Career Services continues to send out a letter to all schools accompanying each student's University transcript that explains the new policy, Zabsky said.

Like job applications, a student's GPA is only one component of the application. "There are other factors, such as LSAT score and personal statement, that hold equal or more weight in the decision process," she said.

Zabsky's opinion is in line with that of the great majority of the faculty, according to a survey conducted by The Daily Princetonian in early March. About 73 percent of faculty said they are not concerned that the policy will affect students' prospects for jobs or graduate school. About 16 percent said they are concerned, and 11 percent had no opinion. The survey, which had 162 respondents, has a margin of error of seven percentage points.

One senior, however, disagreed, saying his application to a Cambridge graduate program this fall may have been negatively affected by the grading policy.

He said the policy contributed to his grades falling below Cambridge's required 3.8 cumulative GPA. "My first semester being graded under the new policies was my lowest GPA semester at Princeton," the student said in an email.

While he admits that multiple factors contributed to his rejection from the program, "it may have been due to my GPA, which was in the mid 3.6's," he said.

In later conversations with a professor and dean at Cambridge, he said they recommended he send a supplemental letter from a departmental representative emphasizing the effect of the policy.

"They doubted that the admissions office took [grade deflation] seriously into account, even though they were probably aware of it," he said.

Fellowships

Student acceptances into fellowship programs like the Rhodes, Gates and Marshall Scholarships have remained untouched by the deflation policy, said Dean Frank Ordiway '81, who advises students on graduate fellowships.

He said the Marshall and Gates fellowship administrators complimented the University on the policy and said they now took Princeton grades more seriously.

"When they saw these students with incredible grades, they noted it as even more incredible," he said.

Though lower grades mean that some students may not make program cutoffs, such as the Marshall's requirement of a GPA of 3.7, Ordiway said there will be no significant change for applicants' prospects.

Fellowship programs "are not looking for a technicality [with GPAs], they're looking for a guideline," Ordiway said. The programs are interested in considering all possible candidates, he said, not just the ones that have a specific GPA.

In the end, students hope that even if their grades have suffered, their academic experience will have been enhanced. "Hopefully departments are learning that they can, in addition to lowering the number of A grades, also improve the quality of comments professors and grad students give to students on their papers," Young Alumni Trustee Matt Margolin '05, who was USG president when the policy was implemented, said.

"It is important students be graded accurately in order for them to grow intellectually, but that needs to be accompanied by better quality teaching also," he added.

In tomorrow's paper: What are peer institutions doing about grade inflation?

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