Is an undergraduate 4.0 GPA worth the effort?

September 07, 2015

Short answer: no, probably not. But I think there is merit in digging a bit deeper into this question.

“Do you know why she only got the honorable mention?” my professor asked but did not wait for an answer. She then wrote “3.98” and circled it. “But you have a 4.0. You can become the first student from our department to win a Goldwater.” Was the 4.0 key? Who knows.

Many people graduate with 4.0 GPAs, so why do I have the delusion that my opinion is worth writing about? It is motivated by the sentiment that is echoed by many (including my PhD advisor) that undergraduate GPA is not an indicator of success in graduate school, and so it should not be a large factor in admissions. This makes total sense because the skills needed to excel in graduate research are very different than those needed to study and make good grades. It is also supported by (sometimes contradicted) literature [1].

While I would love to delude myself with the belief that undergraduate GPA is a perfect indicator for graduate school success, it’s obviously untrue. And so, I’ve reflected on if I could have spent my time in undergrad more wisely than ensuring I maintained a 4.0 GPA. So that leads me to (hesitantly) write my first personal post. 

1. How to 4.0?

If you (understandably) don’t give a shit about my test-taking strategies, please skip to part 2, for what I think is the more interesting stuff. However, I’m including Part 1 because it provides insight to my personal perspective, and it might be helpful for a young (STEM) student who’s reading. Caution: #humblebrag

People 4.0 in different ways, and I can only tell you my perspective as a non-socialite with undiagnosed academic anxiety at a state university with rampant grade inflation. I’m going to focus on tests because that’s the entire grade for STEM courses, other than the occasional project. As far as I can tell, I am an unusually good test-taker despite, and maybe thanks to, my anxiety. I think my strategies are best organized in list-form:

  1. Most important is test preparation. Unsurprisingly, I started studying early. I found it helpful to review my notes immediately after lecture, write down notes on anything I found confusing, and then address them later with the internet or prof. I found it mildly amusing when my roommate would declare that he has no homework and therefore had no excuse not to play video games and repeatedly complained about bad test scores. No homework assignment? Review time.
  2. I made a list of all the things I needed to review (e.g. 1. old exam, 2. lecture notes, 3. homework, 4. old exam again). I made sure I understood almost everything, performing subconscious cost-benefit and risk management analyses to optimally spend my time. If I didn’t understand something that I thought would come up on the test, I worked until I figured it out or at least memorized some clues about it.
  3. When possible, I was always absorbed in the material immediately before starting the exam. People would always give me shit, saying that I wasn’t going to learn any more information in the last few minutes. But what I was trying to do was to stay in the mindset of the material. Switching from the Electronics mindset to the Anatomy mindset required spending the intervening 15 minutes reviewing my single-sided page of “everything I think I’ll forget for this exam.” My goal was to sufficiently potentiate the neural networks that needed to be reactivated to access anatomical knowledge in the upcoming stressful situation.
  4. I finished fast. Usually in about half the allotted time. And then I went through it again. I reworked all math to look for calculation errors. When possible, I used a different method that I knew should give the same answer. I had marked each question with my degree of uncertainty in my answer and focused on those until I was satisfied with my best guesses.
  5. I strategically answered open-ended questions to get the maximum amount of credit possible. With widespread grade inflation at many universities [2], professors WANT to give high scores. I would often insert information that I remembered that was not directly relevant to the question being asked and then laugh at how little credit was taken off my score.

It’s a fuck ton of work to assure a 4.0, and I think it comes down to 3 main ingredients:

  1. Discipline. Being awkward, it is easy to avoid distractions such as parties. I also internalized the belief that TV and video games would not result in any life benefit. However I was neglecting to consider my other options for meaningful activities (see next section).
  2. Luck. Maybe you get a bad professor. Maybe one exam question is worth 10% of your final grade and it’s obscure. Maybe you’re sick or for some other reason in a suboptimal state of mind during a critical test.
  3. Academic intelligence. Needless to say, but the list would be incomplete otherwise.

But don’t just take my advice, Quora is a great resource [relevant post] , and there are countless other sites too.

2. Was assuring a 4.0 worth it?

I described in the last section that I spent an enormous amount of time assuring that my GPA would not fall. This time investment was considerably more than what would be required to most likely get a low A. So I could have chosen to slack off a bit, take my chances, and have a more active social life or some cool independent projects to show for it.

And this would have been a very rational decision. I commonly hear from profs that recommendation letters, research experiences, publications, and personal statements are all more important than GPA in graduate admissions. These documents examine skills that are more directly related to research (yet also more subjective), and so deserve higher weight. Similarly, when hiring software engineers, a well-established GitHub is much more valuable than high grades in comp sci courses.

This sentiment is ubiquitous on blogs and forums. Many argue that the small difference in GPA between 4.0 and 3.9 is negligible, and still others go further to say things like: “I don’t want a employee with a 4.0 gpa, with bad social skills.” It seems to be the consensus that there is not much extra value in the final few grade points up to a 4.0.

But if that is so obviously true: why are people even asking this question in the first place? Well, in many other metrics in life, the degree to which we feel impressed by a score is a nonlinear one (see figure). Everyone knows this. If a score is finite, there is extra perceived value for the absence of any flaw. That’s why no one cares about all of the 279-point bowling games and only the 300-point games. This is not to say that the difference between these bowling scores is comparable to small differences in GPA (note the arbitrary distances I chose for my plot). So yes, the difference between a 3.99 and a 4.0 is nontrivial because 4.0 is the upper limit.


Practically, most people with this concern are interested in if this grade point difference has any impact on their applications. And by following the logic above, I am inclined to say: perhaps. This was implied in terms of fellowships by the aforementioned department chair. Secondly (and still anecdotally), a colleague at Caltech echoed this sentiment in regards to (his limited knowledge of) that school’s admissions preferences. These profs explained that a 4.0 gives the impression that the student can handle whatever is thrown at him/her. A perfect record such as this is indicative of the student’s meticulousness and ability to avoid mistakes. It is possible that program admissions and fellowship selection committees have these ideas in mind when considering an applicant’s GPA.

However, I did not come across this sentiment in my blog- and forum-based research. I believe the reason for this may be because the sentiment that a 4.0 GPA is distinct from a 3.95 is an unpopular one to hold. First, it applies a nonlinear interpretation to GPA, and we find linear trends much more intuitive. Second, not many people debating this point had a 4.0 undergraduate GPA., so maybe they’re a little bit biased to think that having 0 B’s or 5 B’s is not an important difference.

OF COURSE: Since we cannot control for all factors (such as undergraduate program rigor), the correlation between GPA and future success can only be very limited. I am no smarter than anyone else because I have a 4.0 undergraduate GPA. In fact, it reveals a weakness of me-from-the-past…

I was not an exceptional youth. I did not read as a child/teenager, and I learned to be content toiling my days away playing video games until I got to college. I had no ambition to do anything remotely challenging or spend the effort to learn something new that was not required. Extracurriculars were minimal. I didn’t have an active role model who wanted to guide me on how I could invest in my future, and I had 0 good ideas, so I often wasted my time or gave into my instant gratification monkey

Therefore, when I began undergrad, all I knew to do to succeed was to do well in classes. So it was pretty straightforward to stay focused on that and maintain a 4.0. Somewhere along the line, I just assumed that a PhD was the next step, and so I continued collecting research experience and making presentations. Only rarely did I gather the ambition to go and do something on my own. Maybe I have above-average standards, but the point is: I could have done a lot more cool things. If I could go back in time 5 years and advise me-from-the-past, there are plenty of activities I would suggest in lieu of excessive studying:

So do I regret all the seemingly unnecessary effort I made to assure a 4.0 undergraduate GPA? I like how Alex summed it up, “I think getting >3.9 is worth it. Opens doors for a small window, producing dividends down the line.” If I didn’t have a 4.0, I may not have received the Goldwater, according to my aforementioned professor’s judgment. Maybe then I would not have gotten an NSF GRF. And then, it could have been more difficult to join an awesome lab. So… I don’t regret it. However, I am super interested in the alternate reality in which I made the other choice and did cooler things that would have been more directly valuable to my future.


[1] Weiner, O. D. (2014). How should we be selecting our graduate students?.Molecular biology of the cell, 25(4), 429-430.

supported by (laughably small N): Schwager, I. T., Hülsheger, U. R., Bridgeman, B., & Lang, J. W. (2015). Graduate Student Selection: Graduate record examination, socioeconomic status, and undergraduate grade point average as predictors of study success in a western European University. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 23(1), 71-79.

contradicted by: Burton, N. W. & Wang, M. M. (2005). Predicting long-term success in graduate school: a collaborative validity study. Educational testing service (ETS) report.

[2] Popov, S. V., & Bernhardt, D. (2013). University Competition, Grading Standards, and Grade Inflation. Economic Inquiry, 51(3), 1764-1778.

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