Grit over grades: insights from a university lecturer

Grit may be the biggest distinction between a good employee and a great one

Interviews can help determine a candidate’s fit, but it’s important to be strategic about your approach to the interview process. An excellent candidate may not interview well, while a less-than-ideal candidate may be excellent at persuading you to give them a shot. With the baby boomers retiring and recent graduates moving into their careers, finding the right candidates for your organization is as important a task as ever. 

First, a word about grades. I work with undergraduate students every day. Recent graduates bring something both valuable and dangerous to the interview process: their grades.  They have been formally assessed for years and most employers can gain access to those grades. However, grading systems, ideologies, expectation levels, and course difficulty are wildly different from one professor to the next.  The education system also places a lot of emphasis on talent, which is not the greatest predictor of success. Grades can provide insight into things like a student’s ability to consistently submit work on time, their reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, as well as their ability to follow instructions. However, grades don’t necessarily convey a student’s level of passion for a subject area, nor their ability to manage stress or work through tough problems. Grades also don’t provide insight to personality or strong character. In my experience as a post-secondary lecturer, I constantly see the ways in which grades don’t tell the whole story. Perhaps an excellent student recently experienced a family tragedy, which caused their grades to slip. Or a less-than-enthusiastic student is placed in a group with strong, engaged students and reaped the rewards of their hard work without having to contribute very much to the project. I’m not making excuses for underachieving students, nor am I undermining the outstanding students whose grades truly reflect of their abilities, however, I am empathetic that life is more than just school, and grades don’t tell the whole story.

Three questions to determine grittiness

Conversely, grit—otherwise known as stick-with-it-ness, determination, or the ability to follow through—has proven to be a very reliable trait for predicting success and it may be the single most important difference between hiring a good employee and hiring a great employee. Building on the work of authors Angela Duckworth (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance), as well as Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval (Grit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion, and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary), there are two parts to the grit equation: passion and perseverance. With that in mind, here are three questions to help determine the grittiness of potential candidates. 

In what ways are you continuing your education in this field, whether formal or informal?

This question helps determine a candidate’s level of passion for the field. Do they have a keen interest in learning more or do they believe their education ended when they received their final transcript? It’s not that everyone must show a desire to pursue an advanced degree; however, hopefully they want to stay current by reading news articles, blogs, watching videos, attending events and conferences, and generally remaining informed because they are interested. Without passion for the industry, it’s unlikely they will stick with it for a long time. 

Please tell me about a time that you experienced failure, either professionally or personally, as well as what you learned and how you came back from that failure.

Determining one’s resiliency, or ability to persevere, is an important step to determine a candidate’s overall level of grittiness. How do they talk about failure? Are they able to step back and see anything positive about the situation, including any learning opportunities? While everyone manages failure in their own way and in their own time, the ability to persevere and not focus on the negative is a good indication of grit.

Tell me about a project you worked on over an extended period of time and how you remained engaged. 

This is an especially insightful question because it helps determine both passion and perseverance. Ideally, the candidate will discuss a project in their professional field and hopefully they will do so with enthusiasm. Additionally, their response will demonstrate their ability to remain committed to a project even when it may have been difficult to do so. Throughout the interview, listen for other long-term commitments a candidate may discuss—whether in a job, a hobby, a sport, or volunteer position—that can support their ability to stick with a project for an extended period of time. Furthermore, keep in mind that not every project that’s started is worth following through, so you can ask follow-up questions such as: Describe a time you didn’t follow through on a project? Why? What happened? This may give you insight beyond grit, such as good common sense, strong decision making, and the ability to accept failure as part of the process. 

At the end of the day, there are a number of factors that make a candidate a great match with your company, not just grades and not just grit. Most experts can agree that having the competency, skills, and experience to perform the job are fundamental requirements to fill any role. Furthermore, attitude, passion, personality, and the ability to work well with others—also called fit—are other critical components in making hiring decisions. Just remember, an A in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean an A in the workforce.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.