Some notes of caution on these sentiments from Matthew Yglesias…
Note that if you want to go to law school, getting good grades in college is probably important. If you want to be a writer, then writing stuff that’s interesting and getting professional writers to read it is important. I got the worst grade of my whole college career in Theda Skocpol’s class on American social policy, and that’s never stopped me from writing about American social policy—nobody’s ever asked or cared whether professors liked my essays.
Two things about that. First, as far as I can tell he’s totally correct about grades. They might matter for postgrad admissions, especially for those planning to go immediately after college. But mostly, they won’t matter very much in your life. My pre-grad school career consisted of working on Capitol Hill; I did a lot of job hunting (and wound up with two excellent positions over the four years plus I spent there), and as near as I can remember no one ever asked me about my grades.
From my experience on several graduate admissions committees, I can say that it is extremely difficult to apologize for low undergraduate grades. Outstanding GREs don’t do it by themselves, nor does work experience, military service, etc. Fairly or not, poor undergraduate grades suggest to the admissions committee that the candidate is lazy, unfocused, and unserious about the academic project. This is true even for a school like Patterson, which is focused around policy rather than academia. I suspect that a lot of smart undergraduates don’t understand that weak undergrad grades effectively lock them out of good graduate programs, even several years down the road from their college career. If you’re an undergraduate and you’re really quite certain that you’ll never be interested in graduate study or law school, then letting your grades suffer in pursuit of other opportunities may make sense. Doing so, however, can foreclose future options.