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I am teaching computer science undergraduates, who will most likely go to work in the software industry. They often ask me for career advice and I want to know what advice to give them. Specifically, suppose a student can choose between two elective courses:

  • Course A has a relatively low average grade (60-70/100), but during the homework assignments, the students build an industry-level project.
  • Course B has a relatively high average grade (80-90/100), the homework assignments are simple and not industry-level.

On one hand, course A lowers the student's average grade, so there is more chance the student will be filtered out based on a low average, even before the interview.

On the other hand, if the student does get to the interview stage, having a strong project to show is a big advantage.

I know that each work-place is different, but I would still be happy if there is a general rule-of-thumb to help the student decide: what is more helpful for getting a job in the software industry - a high average grade, or a strong project?

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    Please add a region tag, as the relevance of grades is not the same everywhere – David Aug 26 '19 at 10:29
  • There seem to be countries where you need good grades to get an interview. And then there is mine, where as an employer you are happy if you get an applicant from the same continent for software development. – nvoigt Aug 26 '19 at 10:57
  • Can you talk to the school about the grading scheme of this class rewarding students for taking less challenging courses and under-preparing them for the real world? This kind of situation is precisely the reason that grading curves exist. – pip install Monica Aug 26 '19 at 14:30
  • you need to look at why the grades are low for course A.... realistically if a student does the work and understands what he/she is being taught they should get 100% although I'll admit to a 97% once. So either they're not understanding or they're not doing the work. Both of which are not a student issue, it's a teacher and course designer issue. – Kilisi Aug 26 '19 at 15:44
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    @Kilisi Really? 100% marks are for people who really master the subject and perform brilliantly. You cannot have two thirds of the class with maximum score! – David Aug 27 '19 at 7:17
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I have never heard of anyone who was rejected because of having a slightly lower grade. Some companies may put a threshold in offers where they have hundreds of applicant, but once you get to the interview, having experience doing something similar to what's done on industry is something that will make a difference between you and the rest of the candidates.

Also, not every student will get "the average grade", so it does not apply as a criterion to everyone. Anyway, that 20-point difference on one single course will have very little impact on the overall mean. What's the chance of anyone being rejected based on that tiny difference?

Finally, getting a job is one thing, while keeping it and promotion through the ranks is a different one. Marks don't count there anymore, but relevant skills do!

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The context of my answer is having acted as a hiring manager for software-related positions in the US, at consulting firms and in industry.

There are certainly some employers who resume-filter purely on statistics like GPA. If you want to work for a firm that's an employee-mill and churns through large numbers of new recruits, optimizing your GPA will help get you past that filter. But it's important to remember that the initial filter is only the initial filter. Getting past a filter doesn't get you a job. Plus, in my experience at least, filters on grades are not common outside a very small number of very high-visibility employers who have no other way to sort through the thousands of resumes they get. Only a small portion of the workforce will be subjected to such screening. At typical employers, there likely won't be a hard filter on grades.

Regardless of the presence of a hard filter on grades, when evaluating new grads, the challenge is determining who can actually carry out real-world work and meaningfully complete projects. It's more or less assumed that having a degree means you have book knowledge - you know the concepts and you're familiar with the tools of the trade. However, the thing that actually matters in just about any real-world job is the ability to get things done. Being able to read and understand assignments, network with business people who don't understand technology, work with analysts who are there to help with requirements or testing, and so on - those skills come from doing actual work, not from sitting in a class.

To bring this back on topic for your question, it sounds like class A has a better chance of teaching those real-world skills. That is critically valuable. Students who can actually pick those skills up, and demonstrate them to potential employers, will have a huge advantage.

When I look at resumes for new graduates, one of the things I scan for is exactly the type of work you're describing for that class. New grads can emphasize these experiences by having a "Projects" section on their resume, or some other method of formatting or highlighting that work in order to present it in a style that shows what they've accomplished, versus just listing a bunch of class titles. Of course, you want to make it clear that it was class work and not real work experience, but resumes that highlight "industry projects" done during school easily stand out from the crowd.

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The context of my answer: I'm a senior developer / team lead, who has been interviewing a bunch of people for junior to intermediate position(s), and it was essentially up to me who will be offered a job (since they would be in my team anyway).

It really depends on who's the interviewer. If the interviewer is a senior developer (as IMO it should be), the focus will be on practical knowledge, practical tests on a computer or at least whiteboard. Grades and diploma won't mean much.

In my case... I really wasn't concerned about their diplomas and grades. I didn't even ask about that. I just gave each of them a laptop, with Visual Studio etc installed. Then I gave them a set of theoretical questions (for discussion and whiteboarding) and a set of practical programming problems - here's VS, make a C# project, do this task in it. Let's see if you can do it at all, and if you can, then how optimal and clean your code is.

If they know their stuff, they can do it. If they can't do it, they don't know it. And if they can do the job, what do I care about their grades? The company - the management above me - does not ask me about their grades; they ask me to get the project done. So, that's what I need the candidates to do.

If they cannot do their assigned tasks, their high grades won't help me at all.

Based on that, I would say that a course which has industry-level project(s) in it is a lot more valuable.

Of course, they may run into a situation where they're being interviewed by a managerial type without practical experience, and smooth-talking is more important. (Though even in that case, a lack of practical skills will create problems later). Or they might be interviewed by anyone who, having no real knowledge in his own right, uses their grades as the only means of differentiating them. That's wrong, it's bad for the company, but... it does happen.

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Based on the number of interviews that I have done over the years, including with many college students or recent graduates, I don't think that Class A would be a benefit.

The lower grade will lower their GPA, it will also lower their in major GPA. During the phases prior to the interview the only information that is used to decide who gets called for an interview is the information in the resume and the cover letter.

Unless the student can communicate that they took the class, and they had an awesome project, and I had a way to judge that project from the resume or cover letter; I don't see how it would help.

You also have to realize that even if they could do this via the resume, I am not sure that would be a way to separate that particular student from the other 20 colleges represented in the pile of resumes I am reviewing to decide which 5 applicants will get called, and which 5 might get called if I don't get responses from the first group.

Just a comment: If the average grade is in the 60-70% range and you taught at my kids college then nobody would take class A. Any grade in their major below a C or 73% in a class that was a prerequisite for another class would not help them, they couldn't count it unless they got a 73% or higher. If that class isn't one required they wouldn't want to take it with that high of a hit on their GPA. If it was required and they got the average score of 70% and now had to take it again that would mean that they wasted $2,000 on the class. Your course if required would be the one that washes students out.

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    This only applies to a grade-obsessed country/region. I can assure you than, in Spain, no recruiter even wants to know your average grade – David Aug 26 '19 at 10:30

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