how to address screwing up in your past

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.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Sasha

    I can tell you from direct experience of being interviews with people who shared their psychological reasons – it can get very uncomfortable, very quickly. It risks getting into the realm of overshare. Use the example Alison provided and that should be sufficient. Where you want to be concrete and specific is how you have improved.

  2. Lily in NYC

    I’m surprised how many places still DO ask for GPA/transcripts, even for admin jobs (I see it with hedge funds, start-ups, government, law, finance, consulting, accounting, etc). My office does ask for grades- we actually lost a good candidate because my crazy former boss asked for his high school transcript. This guy had a degree from Yale with a great GPA, an MBA from Columbia and 10 years of stellar work experience. He expressed dismay after he was asked for the HS transcript and said it was a red flag to him and that he no longer wanted to continue the interview process. I was thrilled that he basically told my boss to shove it.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      That is awesome. Frankly, anyone asked for grades from college when they have a 1o-year work track record to look at should do the same thing. Grades are something you look at when you have no work record to look at instead — it makes no sense otherwise.

      1. Katie in Ed

        Agree to awesomeness. A high school transcript? Really?

        But education might be one of the few places where a GPA/transcript is a relevant measure of one’s skills. Every teaching job I ever applied for required some written record of academic competence – transcripts, test scores, etc. Certainly not everyone who gets good grades in his or her subject area is qualified to teach, let alone good at it. But I imagine many of us would be reluctant to hand our children over to a science class where the teacher got a C in physics and took pedagogy pass/fail.

        Also, for better or for worse, this might be one of those situations where the state has a minimum GPA requirement. I feel like I should know this for certain, but I don’t.

        1. Amanda

          Actually I think you are right that there are minimum GPA regulations set by the state.

          And I’m not looking to teach what my degree is in-there’s no teaching jobs available anymore for that subject. I’m interested in teaching ESL, which is much more in demand and doesn’t require a specific degree.

          Although this might be a moot point because I might be close to getting a different job offer which would delay the teaching plans for awhile…

    2. jmkenrick

      That’s great. I really hope that I get to a point in my career where I’m able to comfortably turn down opportunities like that when red flags arise.

    3. Anonymous

      Cool story.

      And if he got into Yale as undergrad with low grades in high school he must have been spectacularly brilliant, or very rich, or both.

      1. jmkenrick

        I would guess that he had fine grades in high school, but was turned off by the fact that the company was demanding something both irrelevant and time-consuming for him to obtain (becuase who carries around old high school transcripts?). When people place importance on irrelevant things, it says something about their judgement.

    4. Tasha

      Sometimes you can’t get high school transcripts as well. My high school shut down while I was in college. Yes some of my last year of grades are kept on record but I couldn’t get a transcript if I wanted to.

  3. PEBCAK

    Is the OP applying to a school? That’s kinda what it sounds like, but I’m not sure. If so, I would try to make a connection with an actual professor/admissions counselor/whomever is making the admissions decision and have this conversation in person. You frame it as “I’m interested in applying to X, and I want to talk to you about what it takes to be successful in this program”. When you go in, you address it in the way AAM suggests.

  4. Cindy

    Depending on the population of students you’ll be working with, you can also mention how your past informs your work as an educator. I was a slacker in college and that fact helped me a lot when I was working with “at-risk” undergrads–you have both more compassion and a better b.s. detector when you’re working with kids like you. Or you can say you’re motivated to reach students who have similar issues so they don’t slip through the cracks.
    I just finished education grad school, and there were a lot of very impressive PhDs who were screw-ups in high school or undergrad. Good luck!

    1. Erika

      +1 this. It goes back to the whole, “yeah, I made some poor choices, but this is how that makes me a stronger candidate, not a weaker one” thing.

      1. Jamie

        Add me to the list of people who are really glad I don’t have to explain my late teens/early 20’s to anyone ever.

        Seriously – if errors in judgment were an Olympic event I’d still be on a Wheaties box.

    2. LJL

      A friend was in a similar situation. Only once was he asked about his undergraduate grades (when he was applying for a postdoc). His response was that he was more focused on having a good time than on grades at that point. The interviewer asked, “well, did you?” When my friend said that he certainly had a good time, the interviewer laughed and went to the next question. And my friend got the postdoc. :-)

  5. Seal

    I was also a poster child for undergraduate screw-ups and wound up with a 2.8 GPA after taking 7 years to graduate. When I applied to graduate school a number of years later, I was required to have a fairly high score on the GRE due to my low undergraduate grades and may have even been admitted on a probational basis. Yet I managed to complete not one but 2 masters degrees with GPAs of 3.95 and 3.85, respectively, and was invited to join a national honor society, all while working full time.

    Same story, career-wise. When I started working full-time I was the model employee, but after a few years my work situation took a dramatic turn for the worse; rather than proactively addressing the situation I let my work habits slide and became a less-than-model employee. To this day I cringe at the actions (or inaction) of my younger self; I’m sure there are people who worked with me back in the day who will never think well of me. Fortunately, I managed to get my act together and have been able to forge a fairly successful career for myself. The few times it has come up in an interview or just with people who knew me or knew of me from that time period, I’ve responded with more or less the same answer Allison suggests. People are generally quite understanding about it; I suspect most people went through a “young and dumb” phase in their lives.

    Now that I’m a manager, one benefit of having gone through the “young and dumb” phase is that I know what to watch out for with my employees, especially those who are new to the workforce. I swear, trying to burn the candle at both ends is a rite of passage of sorts.

  6. Anonicorn

    If “geeze, I was 20” doesn’t cut it, maybe you could say something about lacking a sense of how your academic focus would impact your future as a professional, which you are now completely focused on and prepared to excel at. Etc. Etc.

  7. Erika

    As someone who both (a) made an incredibly stupid choice that resulted in a major arrest and loss of income about six years ago and (b) is now doing a lot of hiring, I would PREFER to hear more or less the example you gave.

    We all make dumb choices that sometimes, and sometimes you have to keep answering for them. But I would certainly rather hire someone who learned from their mistakes and poor choices and can explain how they’ve matured since than someone who stumbles through a pat answer about depression (not to mention that I might be concerned about a recurrence of whatever mental health problems they may have had resurfacing and influencing their work).

    Not to mention how terrified I’d be of hiring someone who explained their poor choices or work ethic by talking about how they’d been dumped. While it sucks and hurts, I’d hate to think I hired someone who would let that so grossly effect their work that they’re still talking about it five years later! :)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I had the same reaction to the bad break-up example — I’d be much more concerned by that answer than by “I made some bad choices,” in part because citing a break-up would indicate that the person thinks that’s a legitimate reason for everything to fall apart, and would make me wary about how they’d react to adversity in the future.

      1. Erika

        Exactly. Whereas, “I was young and dumb” is something I can relate to and allows me to ask them how they’ve grown since then.

  8. Amouse

    It’s so awesome that you recognize your mistakes and have gained self-awareness. I too was an early-20’s screw-up. Look at it this way: Now that’s out of the way and you won’t have some compulsive, wreckless party phase in your 40’s because you never experienced that earlier :-)
    Demonstrating how you learned from it and how you’re more focused now because of it is far more important in my opinion. I’m going back to school myself and I’m 29 now. I learned to look at it as a blessing that after dropping out of university after a year at 19 I actually know what I want to specifically achieve in what field and I have the money to not go into ten of thousands of dollars of debt now.
    Make sure you don’t internally punish yourself for the past, go forward and kick ass.

    1. Amouse

      oh and as people pointed out above, never assume the person to whom you are applying hasn’t made mistakes themselves. Thinking that way might help calm your nerves.

  9. Caitlin

    I think everyone missed this part of the letter, which explains why s/he has to go into specifics:

    I am applying for an alternative teacher certification and I am required to address my subpar undergrad GPA

      1. anonoposter

        True, but some in some states the criminal record would be relevant here as well. In my state, a drug crime, even something as small as a possession of a tiny amount of pot at 18 years old, would disqualify you from attaining public school teacher certifications.

        1. Erika

          When applying for most positions like that, they generally ask you during the application process about any arrests so they can weed people like that out (no pun intended).

          That said, most teachers undergo background checks as well, and I can’t imagine any company hiring anyone who lies on an application about an arrest that is then found during a background check.

        2. Ask a Manager Post author

          I might be misunderstanding, but I don’t think she has a criminal record — she was saying her question would also be relevant to people who do.

          1. Amanda

            Exactly Alison! What I was getting at was there are many mistakes people can make when they are young that they might need to explain and explain in a way that shows awareness while not making excuses. In my case, it’s GPA, in other cases, it could be something else.

  10. Coelura

    One of my references is a guy that had the unfortunate experience of working for me when I was a young manager. I moved on & he moved on, then about 5 years later I took a new position as a manager & discovered that I was going to be managing him again. He almost quit (and I might have in his place!). But he loved working for me the second time around because I had realized how HORRID of a manager I was & worked hard to mature & improve. Now he speaks to not only my skills as a manager, but also to the fact that I took the time & initiative to improve my skills. He’s one of my best references.

    Being less than perfect isn’t a problem. The problem comes about when you do nothing to change and just keep expecting a different outcome!

  11. Rob Bird

    It confuses me why GPA would even come up after five years. I know some employers use GPA as a qualification, but I am not sure why after this amount of time.

    1. Amanda

      This is an alternative teacher certification program, so kind of a cross between a work-study and a Masters program. Many of them have minimum GPA requirements. Some are really stringent-there’s one that will absolutely not consider anyone with an undergrad GPA of less that 2.5, even if it had been 20 years, they had incredible professional achievement and 4.0ed every subsequent Masters program they had done. It doesn’t affect me because my GPA is a 2.8, but I feel bad for people who can’t achieve what they want because they have no recourse for overcoming their GPA.

      I have never been asked for this in any other job, not even the ones I applied to right after college.

    2. JT

      In most cases because the people making decisions have a lot of candidates and are seeking something “objective” to make their decisions easier.

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, it’s ridiculous — it’s bad hiring, really. You might look at GPA when someone doesn’t have much work experience, but once they have work experience to look at, that’s what you look at. Someone not willing to do that and who wants to use GPA as a (very flawed) shorthand is just being lazy at hiring.

      1. PEBCAK

        I have done a lot of intern (summer before senior year) hiring, and while I wouldn’t hold a 4.0 against a candidate, I typically probe a lot more on post-graduation plans for the best of the best. Obviously, I want great interns, but I also want interns that are going to come work for me full time after they graduation. So, I think GPA is not a bad first cut when we have a stack of resumes and need to narrow it for interviews, but it sure as heck doesn’t tell the whole story, even without a lot of work experience.

    4. Anonymous

      Lawyers’ class ranks and GPA are often relevant because law schools grade on a curve. Therefore, those statistics measure how an applicant did relative to his/her class. GPA might also be relevant right out of college, and in harder science programs (where most students get C’s or B’s), a strong track record can establish work ethic. Other than that, I agree that GPA isn’t important. (As someone new-ish to the workforce who did well in a highly competitive field, I’ve listed mine, but will remove it in the next job search.)

  12. DA

    Does the same response apply when you ‘screw up’ by taking a chance on owning a business and end up losing it while in your 20s? I lost mine almost 18 months ago and I feel as though nobody wants to give me a chance working for them as a result.

    1. COT

      I would guess that some employers are wary of your situation because it was only 18 months ago–not years or even decades in your past like some of the other stories here. At some point this part of your life will haunt you less than it seems to now.

      You need to work really hard in cover letters and interviews to explain the skills you’ve gained and why you’re not the same person that you were back then. Don’t drone on about any past mistakes, though; focus on what you can bring to the future.

      Owning a business is inherently risky, even if you do everything right. Some hiring managers will understand that. Some might even appreciate your entrepreneurial spirit. If you lost the business despite doing a lot of things right, be sure to emphasize your successes and efforts, not the “failure” of having lost the business.

    2. Steve

      I interviewed someone in the same position last year and I actually viewed it as a positive. He had taken some money, bought a franchise and tried to make it work. It failed. First of all I respect anyone willing to put it on the line like that and second it shows someone who has had meaningful responsibility in the past. Be prepared to answer questions about what went wrong, what you learned and what you would do differently. We all make mistakes, it is what we take away from them that is important.

    3. Anonymous

      The other thing that people might be seeing is this is a person who is just looking for something sort term while they set up financing to do another cause anyone who starts a business that early in life without that much experience in the work world is going to do it again. (Not that that is bad, it would just be bad for the employer if you worked there a few months and left and they’d invested time/money training you etc.)

      It may be worth it to convince them (via cl) that you are actually interested in working for them.

    4. DA

      Lots of good input by all three of you. I clearly focus on the lots of good things I did/learned while in business. I also certainly screwed up a lot of things, but that’s what happens when you try and make a go of things. There were also external factors as well. At the end of the day, I learned a ton from my mistakes.

      It’s just trying to convince potential employers of this and that I’m not a bad person for trying to own my own business and it didn’t work out. I just get the feeling that some (not all) people are punishing me for trying to do something that they themselves would never try to do.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        DA, is it possible you’re projecting some of your own disappointment with what happened on to your interviewers? I ask because it would be pretty unusual for an interviewer to think you were a bad person for starting your own business — that would be a really odd point of view. What’s more likely is that they’re concerned that you’re going to have trouble adjusting to having a boss again, maybe still planning to start another business on the side, etc.

  13. Beth

    I have a lot of respect for an interviewee who can admit that they messed up and then speak to how they’ve moved on. Acknowledgement and overcoming show that you are willing to take criticism then change. Good luck OP!

  14. Katie the Fed

    What about when someone didn’t finish a degree? Like a grad school dropout – how would they list it in on their resume and should they discuss it?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      They should be prepared to discuss it, yes, but no need to bring it up proactively. I wouldn’t necessarily list it though, not if it doesn’t do anything to strengthen the resume.

  15. Neeta

    Wow, asking about GPA after 5 years seems extremely odd to me.
    I’ve only been asked about my marks when interviewing right out of college, with zero work experience. After 1 year of experience nobody cared.

    I’ve heard of lots of ex-classmates who didn’t do too well in school, but when it came to working they were top performers.

  16. FormerManager

    Funny think with GPAs….I have a really high GPA, graduated cum laude, went to grad school, got another high GPA. Yet, since starting my career I’ve been laid off from one job and “mutually separated” from another (since these jobs my career trajectory has improved).

    The husband with a lower GPA (he actually failed some classes) and no grad school, has been at the same job since he graduated. So there’s no guarantee that a high GPA means smooth sailing career-wise….

  17. anonymousworkerbee

    I am hoping for some feedback on a similar problem. I also had performance issues after not getting an increase in title/responsibilities I had been working very hard towards. I felt so discouraged and angry at my boss when things didn’t go the way I wanted that I totally slacked off in my job. Furthermore, I wasn’t that young at the time. I eventually left after being placed on probation as I had just had a child anyway and didn’t feel like trying anymore as it felt like a futile effort. I now want to re launch my career (in the same field) after an extended period of being a stay at home mom but am very worried as the field is very very small and everyone knows my old boss who is still in the same job. How do I handle this? I have reached out to him to say hello and have let him know I am looking to re-enter and he was nice on the phone. I did not ask for a reference as I am sure he would laugh. THe problem is everyone knows him and I have already had several interviews w/hirers who know him (and I did not get to a 2nd interview). Should I go back to him and discuss the past? Should I apologize to him ? He was not innocent either as he did a lot of stuff to undermine me but I realize that doesn’t matter and won’t help me find a job and get past this. I really regret my past behavior and view it as a huge mistake/total lack of foresight on my part. Do I tell him that? I feel very stuck and unable to move forward until I resolve this. Indeed I haven’t sent out any resumes and won’t until I figure a way through this mess. Any advice would be really appreciated.

  18. Liane

    I am applying to an alternate teacher certification program offered by my state’s Department of Education. Based on my experience, I do not think “Why is your GPA subpar?” is A Bad Interview Question in this case. I doubt it is part of an interview at all. In my state–Arkansas–candidates for the program I am looking at must have at least a BA/BS with a minimum GPA of 2.5. Therefore, I think it most likely that the OP’s program has a minimum GPA but also provisions for accepting candidates with lower GPAs, under certain circumstances. The OP’s comment, “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)” might be the list of reasons the state could grant a GPA waiver. If this is the case, explaining the GPA is necessary for the OP, if s/he wants into this program.
    AAM, perhaps you could make some wording suggestions for the OP based on this possibility?
    OP, I wish you the best of luck. If it turns out you cannot get into the program you’re applying for, there are probably other options, depending on your state’s laws.
    For example, in Arkansas, there are 3 routes to alternate certification for someone with a non-Education Bachelor’s. 1–The one I’m applying to, which gets you into the classroom almost immediately, with extensive training and support. 2–Going back to school for a Master’s in Education, then getting your teaching certificate. (The route taken by 1 of my teens’ best teachers.) 3–A district hiring you to teach a subject with a shortage of teachers and applying for a temporary certificate, which will almost certainly require progress in obtaining a regular certificate in order to keep it.

  19. ewo054

    I can say from personal experience, and what other managers tell me, the GPA issue only enters the picture for you first job in your field out of college. After that, companies only care to see if you hold the degree.

    If you hold a 3.8 by all means brandish it! But if your GPA is below a 3, leave it off (after the first job). It’s not being dishonest, it’s not calling attention to a negative.

    If asked, you can always brush it off with a positive response. “I really was determined to get my degree and I overloaded on courses for one semester, took on more than I could handle.” This also shows that you know your limits and are willing to accept them.

  20. Lily

    There were so many inspiring stories of people overcoming being dumb! Could we have a post with stories about people learning to manage?

  21. Anonymouse

    Another teens -thru-early 20’s ne’er-do-well here, who straightened up her act and has done more or less okay for herself. I agree with the general consensus here on all the relevant points and can honestly say that if I’m in a position to hire, I am likely to give the benefit of the doubt (and maybe even prefer) a candidate with a similar life path. Provided, of course —as has been said here— that the bad choices weren’t outrageously criminal, weren’t still obviously a problem, and that the disclosure of the whole sordid tale didn’t make me uncomfortable. I’d also add here that in many ways I’m glad I’ve had the life path I’ve had. One of the main reasons I’m glad for it is that it helps me filter out the unduly sanctimonious people in my life (in work, educational and/or personal life) and either avoid them or (if avoiding them isn’t totally possible) recognize that any relation they have to me is not likely to be a supportive one and not expect it to be so. Can’t change the past, all you can do is try to transform it into useful experience. It’s the way people can sometimes do just that which really shows their true strength.

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