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As an undergrad, my GPA was a 3.99/4.0. During one of the interviews for my current job, the interviewer asked "Why didn't you just round it up to 4.0?" My response was simply that I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I know that my resume shouldn't focus on my GPA, and it doesn't (it merely states "summa cum laude" and 3.99/4.0) but I wonder when, if ever, it's acceptable to round up my GPA?

The course that lowered my GPA was a graduate math course that I took as an elective for my undergrad math major and scored an A- in; on the one hand, it's an insignificant detail, and rounding 3.99 up to 4.0 seems like less of a problem than rounding, say, 3.6 up to 4.0. On the other hand, it's still rounding up your GPA, which seems like a mildly disingenuous practice at best.

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    Great question! I've had this question before due to similar problems. I have found it is a great conversation starter with recruiters sometimes. – enderland May 28 '13 at 17:51
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    I have never heard of an A- lowering your GPA at all, let alone lowering it to 3.99 – jmorc May 28 '13 at 17:59
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    @notmyrealname At my university, an A- was worth less than an A, and B+, B, and B- were all worth different amounts (same for C+, D+, etc.). Strangely, A+ didn't count for more than an A. Peculiar, isn't it? – John Bensin May 28 '13 at 18:02
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    I would advise against it. Its better to be told 'why dont you round it off', instead of running into decimal-point-correct people who will simply pick on you for this. – happybuddha May 28 '13 at 18:35
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    I don't remember my GPA. It is not listed on my resume. If someone asked, I would have to order a transcript to find out. I have not been asked in a long time. – emory May 29 '13 at 1:42
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I would say it is unethical to round your GPA. After all, they might want a transcript as part of the background check and what you have in your resume should match that. I would also be concerned about anyone who expected me to do so and wonder if they would be someone who I would not want to work for as they are likely to be unethical about other, more important, issues. Your mileage may vary.

  • This company requested a transcript as well, and I think every job I've interviewed for has requested one, which is where part of my discomfort in rounding stems from. The person who "expected" me to do this, albeit in a lighthearted way, was someone who held the same position I was interviewing for, so I took it with a grain of salt. That's a good point, though, and one I didn't think of. – John Bensin May 28 '13 at 22:27
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    I would agree with that but go on to point out that you earned a 3.99 but did not earn a 4.0. To me a 3.99 says I Am a real person who has a real life that doesnt have everything given to me. I know quite a few 4.0's that didnt do the work to earn their grades. – IDrinkandIKnowThings May 29 '13 at 13:45
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Executive Summary

If your GPA is 3.99 it is a corner case, and you probably shouldn't round. If your GPA is 3.29, just list it as 3.3 in most cases.

Common Sense Rounding

My personal belief is that rounding is the best way to present information if done in a common sense way. Unfortunately, as most things with numbers, common sense is anything but common.

Value of a Decimal

Let's say my previous job was selling Boeing Dreamliners. A Dreamliner sells for about $206.8 million.

After haggling with a customer about options and pricing, we come to a verbal agreement to sell for $207,126,436.82

When presenting to management for approval of the sale price, most of the time top management won't care about the pennies. If you say $207.1 million, you have left out $26,436.82 of the price. Realistically, it could be $49,999.99 different. On a $207.1 million purchase, $50k is 2.414292612264606e-4, or in easier to read terms, 0.02% of the overall price.

The more numbers you throw out there, the harder it is to process, and the more time spent looking at number the more important the details of that number become. This is closely related to Parkinson's Law of Triviality.

When considering rounding, consider how much "value" you lose (0.02% in the case of the Dreamliner) as a consideration for whether to round, and how much to round.

Round up with Caution

Humans are dumb with numbers. That's why prices so often end in .99. That's why we guess high when given a high anchor (and vice versa). One of the consequences of this stupidity is that we are a lot more sensitive than we should be when we move up a digit.

So always round up with caution when it will make the left-most digit bigger. If you run a coffee shop that doesn't deal with pennies (rounding up), for instance, then you're probably better off not pricing something at $0.96 or above, because a customer expecting a cup of coffee for under a dollar will likely be unimpressed when the total comes to $1.00. It's just a psychological sucker punch.

So even though rounding is generally good, even if the overall impact is minimal (2% on a cup of $0.98 coffee!), the psychological impact can feel bigger. When rounding, make sure you aren't going to punch someone in the gut with it.

Guiding Language

Let's go back to the Dreamliner example. I made 5 sales, average price of $206.8 million each. That's $1,034,000,000.00 in total sales. How can I best write this in to my resume?

First of all, I don't want to write out $1,034,000,000.00 and have the reader need to count commas to figure out how big of a number that is. I definitely want to round that to $1 billion (losing $34 million, or 3.4% of my total). So I could write:

Generated $1 billion in revenues

But there is an issue here. The reader may think I'm being tricky. What if I really only sold $950 million, and am rounding up? To make sure that the reader doesn't think I'm trying to mislead them, I should make sure to help orient them to make the correct assumption:

Generated over $1 billion in revenues

By doing this, even though I rounded off 3.4% of my sales revenues, I end up gaining somewhere between 0 and 4.9% depending on how they think I rounded (heck, they may even be generous enough to think I generated 1.09 billion and didn't want to add 2 decimal places).

Whenever presenting numbers that are rounded, do your best to do language that guides the reader in the proper direction to eliminate confusion and thwart number-sticklers who love pointing out any small little discrepancy as it gives them joy in the same vein as grammar fascists.

Know Your Audience

If you are applying for a job as a rocket scientist, you may want to value accuracy over ease of reading (maybe). After all, while ±0.02% may not seem like much, in many engineering fields that's utterly unacceptable. Same is probably true in accounting (I don't think Boeing would want an intrepid accountant taking that additional $26.4k off each airplane sale and putting it in his own account).

But when there isn't a specific detail-oriented audience, common sense rounding should serve you well.

Trust Your Gut

After you're done rounding, think about how you would feel explaining the justification behind your rounding. If you don't feel comfortable, then don't do it. For instance, if a job is asking for minimum 10 years experience designing widgets, and you have been working at a company for 9 years, 7 months, but spent your first 6 months working on cogs, you may take pause at writing "10 years experience designing widgets" since your gut tells you it's really close to 9.

So what the heck does this have to do with my GPA?!

So let's apply common-sense rounding to your GPA.

Rounding 3.99 to 4.0 is rounding to a single decimal place, giving a maximum difference of almost 0.05. On a 4 point scale, that is ±1.25%. No problem on that front.

But when you round 3.99 to 4.0, you are increasing the leftmost digit, which is a psychological sucker punch ("you implied you're perfect, but you're not! How dare you violate our trust?!").

If you are going to round then, you would want to round down to 3.9, but guide them in the right direction by saying >3.9.

In the end you are left with your original:

GPA: 3.99

or the Common Sense Rounding approach:

GPA: >3.9

Which is better? Well, both are 3 digits, and the 3.99 makes for an interesting conversation starter, as said by a few folks here, so I'd just leave the 3.99. But realize that this is a corner case, and in most other cases I'd advocate rounding up to a single significant digit (because honestly, what's the weight of a candidate with a 3.2 vs. 3.3 GPA? Will it really factor in to anything?).

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    the most interesting answer i could read all day for any question! – bharal May 29 '13 at 10:46
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Normally, I would say no. A 3.5 is really not a 4, but 3.99 makes you seem as though you're either:

  • pedantic (which might be useful for some companies) or
  • bitter

You still remember that one class and one professor that slighted you and one day you'll have your revenge. It makes interviewers wonder about your relationships with others and if they need to handle you delicately.

Personally, I would just leave off the GPA in this scenario:

Foobar University

B.S. Mathematics - summa cum laude

  • Funny that you should mention the pedantic/bitter signaling; an interviewer for a different firm asked me "what I messed up" when she noticed my GPA, and seemed satisfied with my (honest) answer that it was one of the most challenging courses my uni offered, taught by one of my favorite professors, so I at least avoided the bitterness angle. – John Bensin May 28 '13 at 22:26
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    As someone who had a similarly "why not just round up" GPA, this is not a good suggestion or at the very least all the rationale is not correct. I have had a LOT of rapport building conversations in interviews, at job fairs, etc, with recruiters/interviewers who always want to have a fun conversation about, "what class did you miss the 4.0 in?" – enderland May 28 '13 at 22:30
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    Tough call on "Pedantic." I can see where it can come across that way, but to be told by an applicant he had a 4.0 and then see the "3.whatever" on the transcript would set off alarm bells. I had a 3.97 GPA, and faced the same issues. Never did get a good answer down. I just got old enough that it didn't matter any more. :) – Wesley Long May 28 '13 at 23:39
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    +1 for leaving it off in favor of summa cum laude. GPA does not count for much in the professional world; focus your resume and interview time on how you can be an asset to the company where you are applying. – Steven Jun 25 '13 at 14:52

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