A reader writes:
How do you address screwing up when you don’t have a good explanation? In my case, it’s a low undergrad GPA, although I think this question could also apply to work performance issues, past criminal record and many professional issues. I am applying for an alternative teacher certification and I am required to address my subpar undergrad GPA. I don’t fit into any of the “valid explanation” categories (working through school, depression, family troubles, health issues, bad breakup with high school sweetheart) and really, my GPA was the result of me being too easily distracted by college life and unable to keep focus on schoolwork. It was 100 percent my fault and I take full responsibility for it.
How should I address this? Should I just say, “My GPA was low because I was a lazy dumbass, but here are examples A, B and C of when I’ve demonstrated maturity, commitment and a strong work ethic in the last five and a half years?” Or should I really dig inside myself to come up with a more psychologically based reason for why I didn’t excel in college (there is a psychological explanation but in the end, it really comes down to poor choices I made)? I want to show self-awareness without coming across as someone who makes excuses and does not take responsibility.
Employers are much less interested in the specifics of why something went wrong in your past — especially your past 5+ years ago — and more interested in ascertaining whether it’s likely to happen again. In fact, getting into specifics generally isn’t good — we really don’t want to hear a candidate talking about psychological reasons for it, as sympathetic as we might be on a human level.
And honestly, enough people were screw-ups in their late teens/early 20s (I could be the poster child for that myself) that it’s enough to simply say, “I wasn’t making very good decisions for myself at that age, but you’ll see that my record since then is quite different,” and then move on to something convincing about how pulled together you are now. You do need to be convincing about that last part though — to be able to point to a record of achievement or at least reliability since then.
Plus, if you’ve been out of school five years at this point, you shouldn’t be getting asked about your GPA very much, and if you are, it should stop pretty soon anyway, at least in the vast, vast majority of fields. In your case, you’re applying for a teaching certification and that might be different, but I wouldn’t expect to run into too much of this in other venues, fortunately.