How much do coursework and marks matter in employment?

note: I made these back in 2017. I am going back in 2020 to update information. These are just guidelines, be sure to ask your academic advisors for concrete advice.

Marks matter… somewhat

Unfortunately marks matter to a lot of people/employers. University is usually a step above high school, so unless you prepared well or are just good, you will probably drop in marks. The inconsistency of high schools and mark inflation leads to oversized expectations and lackluster performances.

Even in the future, co-op employers value marks. I’m a firm believer in side projects and interests as a benefit to yourself both for fun and professionally, but as I get more into the co-op life, I experience three major elements that help for co-op (which may change in the future):

  • Work experience
  • Term (2A vs 3A vs 1B etc.)
  • Marks

There’s a few reasons why I think that marks are not necessarily a good indicator of a person’s intelligence or coding ability in general.

  1. Different course difficulties (math127 vs math 137)
  2. Different exams and prof, material changes and mark breakdown
  3. Doing poorly does not necessarily reflect a bad student, and the converse is not true either.

Different Course Difficulties

It should come to no surprise that different courses have varying levels of difficulty. Math 127 is math for science students and math 137 is math for math students. It is difficult to compare the two since you can’t exactly tell “how much easier is math for science students compared to math for math students”. There is no quantitative way to assess the differences. When an employer (or even a mark filtering bot) checks grades, it will most likely (unknowingly) penalize math 137 because it is a harder course, and will probably ascertain a lower mark. People who took an easier course such as math 127 will benefit since they took an easier version of intro calc math, and it boosted their average on their transcript.

Even IF, a human reviews the resumes and has a basic understanding of the Waterloo (or even OTHER university courses), it is near impossible to truly assess the courses in a fair way. Is a 80% in math 127 equal to 70% in math 137? It is so incredibly hard to tell when you also incorporate factors 2 and 3.

Different Professors

A lot of times different profs cover different material and there are different difficulty of exams. Since final exams account for such a large portion of the course average, the final exam mark is a huge portion of the final grade. Doing well in the course until the final tanks your mark in most cases.

As well, there is the problem of cheating on the final exam. Waterloo has groups like EasyAce, where they almost “predict” the final exams UW math exam questions offered to students ahead of time. These groups exist to try to have students pass/do well on exams by looking at old exam banks that are unreleased and charging students. (on top of being illegal)

Things like this discredit the integrity of final exams and final marks even further to a point where final exams may just be a guessing game or test of test taking ability more than just final test of the course knowledge.

Good Marks are not necessarily an indicator of success

Bad marks do no imply someone is a bad student AND good marks do not imply someone is a good student

As much as some may find this true, the terms of “good and bad” students is not that simple. The implication that a bad student cannot get good marks or a good student cannot get bad marks is false. A bad student can do well, and a good one can do poorly. It’s not necessarily always a question of character, but the circumstances in the courses. Due to personal reasons or other things you may fail a course, and failing a course never looks good on a transcript.

But looking back at the implications, a “bad” student can study last minute and get all the content they studied on the final, therefore passing with flying colours. The “good” student may study everything, but blank out on the final, doing poorly compared to the rest of the coursework. This is all an element of test taking, and the variability of professors making the exams.

Final Remarks

I think marks are very important in the traditional sense. They measure your knowledge of the courses you took to a reasonable degree. Translating the marks to outside world and basing candidates off of them, I’m not sure I entirely agree with, but it is one of the few forms of filtering that bots can achieve.

I shifted to believe marks are more important for co-ops because of this very fact. They aren’t great indicators of knowledge, but it’s a perceived metric that many people use. So until people find a different way to assess candidates from face value, I would say focus on studying and doing well in all your courses.