The 5 A’s for your low GPA:
1. Assess your GPA (2:40)
Is it really low?
I define a low GPA as one that is .3 on the U.S. 4.0 scale or more below your target school’s average GPA for accepted students. This information can usually be found in the posted class profile and sometimes in U.S. News rankings. An alternative definition, which also works in my book, is a GPA that is below the target school’s 75th or 80th percentile, if you have that information.
Let’s take a look at either these definitions and discuss what’s good and bad about them.
Either of these definitions is relative to the schools that you are targeting. So if you have a 3.3 and the average GPA of the entering class is a 3.3, you do not have a low GPA. However, don’t tune out yet. If you have that same 3.3 and the schools you are aiming for has an average GPA for accepted students of 3.7+, as do several medical schools, Stanford Business School, a few law schools, and other graduate programs, then you have a low GPA. And you should definitely listen in to the rest of this show.
While I like this definition, I also have to issue some warnings and caveats.
• Admissions is about much more than GPA, as you will see later in this show. You cannot look at any one number and focus exclusively on it.
• By focusing on the average, the definition doesn’t reflect the impact of trends in GPA or extenuating circumstances.
• It doesn’t reflect the impact of diversity and non-academic experience on how schools view these numbers.
• Doesn’t reflect how far away you are from the average. A little below is less of a problem than a full point below.
The elements that are not included in my definition – really the fuzzier aspects of admission and the flaws in my definition– provide opportunity for those of you who may have a low GPA and still want to attend the program of your dreams. They allow you to show that your GPA doesn’t define you or your capability.
2. Analyze the cause(s) of your low GPA (6:19)
• Did you have a hard time adjusting to college so your GPA took a hit your freshman year, but improved every year with your landing on the Dean’s List for the last two years and having a 4.0 the last year?
• Did illness or circumstances beyond your control cause a drop in your grades for a specific period of time?
• Did you declare the wrong major and have poor grades in that major until you realized your true calling? Then you started to excel.
• Were you working part-time to support yourself or did you have a major sports commitment in order to qualify for an athletic scholarship?
• Did you start out strong, maybe earning a 3.9 during your freshman year, but then lost your motivation? Did your grades drop steadily so that your GPA average during your senior year had declined to a 3.1? This trend is a red flag even if the overall GPA is a 3.4 or 3.5.
The list above presents several causes in order of difficulty in overcoming them (easiest to hardest).
The causes of your low GPA – as well as how low it is – will influence how you deal with it and how much effort you must expend to mitigate it.
3. Address your low GPA (8:10)
The basic goal in addressing your GPA is to show it isn’t an accurate reflection of your ability, to show you are capable of much, much more.
There are two basic steps to make that case:
1. Ace your test. Whether it’s the MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, GRE or whatever, you need a high test score. The test score indicates you have the raw talent and aptitude for your chose field.
2. Take classes in your chosen field and earn A’s in them. For some of you that means a few classes. For others it could mean a masters degree. Pre-meds and those in healthcare may want to consider a full post-bac program for academic enhancers. (See accepted.com/82 for our podcast on “All Things Postbac.”) For future MBAs, aim for A’s in business-related classes. For law school applicants, you could take a few undergrad law classes or classes that require writing and analysis. Regardless of degree goal, you want to show that you have the self-discipline, study skills, and motivation to apply yourself and excel in an academic setting related to your chosen field of study.
I sometimes like to say that the test score indicates you have the head to succeed and the grades indicate you have the derriere to succeed. You need both.
How many classes should you take? Well that depends on how bad your GPA is relative to your target school’s average as well as how much time has elapsed since you graduated. If there is a big gap between your GPA and your target school’s average, you may want to enroll in a master’s program or as I mentioned for pre-healthcare applicants, a formal postbac program. If you have put several years of relevant achievement between you and your undergrad performance, you may need fewer classes to assure schools that you’ve changed, especially if you have a nice high shiny GMAT, GRE, LSAT, or MCAT.
With an above average test score and evidence that you can perform academically, you are well on your way to dealing with that low GPA.
4. Add Context to Your Low GPA (11:58)
Schools may still wonder “What happened? Why was the undergrad GPA low? How do I know it won’t happen again?”
You need to respond to those concerns proactively. Worried admissions readers tend to vote “Deny.” This is especially true if we’re talking about a declining undergrad GPA.
How can you deal with these worries? Factually give context to the person evaluating your application. Your goal should be to show that whatever contributed to the poor performance either is not a factor in your life anymore or is something that you’ve learned how to deal with it so that it doesn’t affect your performance any longer.
You can break these causes down into a few categories:
• Circumstances beyond your control: Illness, accidents, family problems. If these are the factors that contributed to a drop in grades, hopefully they are behind you. What you should do: You need to straightforwardly and simply say what happened and point to evidence that it is behind you or that you’ve learned to deal.
• Circumstances at least partially within your control: Poor decisions early in your college career. A bad choice of major. Inferior time management and study skills. The need to work 20+ more hours per week. What you should do: Take responsibility for mistakes, if any, and point to evidence (like your recent A’s and professional achievement) that you have matured and have developed into a responsible, grounded adult. If you had to work to support yourself or your family, no need to apologize, but do state how many hours per week your worked and try to provide evidence of grades when you weren’t working so hard and actually had the time to study.
• A low or declining GPA with no extenuating circumstances. As I said earlier, that’s a major red flag. What you should do: While you can be happy you didn’t have to handle situations like those mentioned in 1 and 2, you do have to take responsibility and assure the school that it won’t happen again. You need to have more classes with A’s to show that you are now motivated. You may need to discuss what caused the lack of motivation, but the goal has to be to persuade the admissions reader that those circumstances are behind you and you have your motivation and mojo back.
I’ve harped somewhat on the serious impact of declining GPA and that is intentional. Still I do want to distinguish between a minor fluctuation and a declining GPA. I was recently asked by someone who had a 3.9 in his freshman year if he would have a problem because the rest of his college career he averaged a 3.8. No. That is a fluctuation, not a declining trend. It is an outstanding GPA and not at all a cause of concern.
Applicants sometimes worry that an “explanation” will seem like whining or be defensive. The concern is justified. You don’t want to whine or provide excuses. However, providing context just lets the admission reader understand the environment in which you operated. Perhaps the challenges you faced would make your 3.0 look like a 3.8. You need to give the adcom the ability to make that judgement.
To avoid whining, make your description of the circumstances straightforward, take responsibility for any mistakes, and focus on what you’ve done to show your ability.
I’ve given you 4 As for your GPA in the form of to-dos. I also want to give you an A for things to Avoid.
5. Avoid these Mistakes in Handling a Low GPA (17:30)
The biggest mistake is to think that schools don’t consider the GPA. There is a grain of truth to that assumption for executive MBA programs, because applicants to those programs are typically 10 years or more from college graduation. But most of you are applying within 5 years of graduation, and your GPA is the school’s window into how you perform academically. It is also something that all graduate applicants will have, and it is one common means of comparison, admittedly imperfect because of differences in grading scales and courses of study, but it is something you all have in common.
The second most common mistake is one applicants make in adding context to their mediocre performance. They err by proudly proclaiming that they were too busy to study and take their classes seriously. Variations on this theme:
• Took too many units so that they could finish faster or collect an additional degree.
• Enrolled in advanced classes where they didn’t have the prerequisites.
• Were so active in extra-curricular activities that they didn’t have time for classes and classwork.
• Were too busy with their start-up to attend class.
The key failing in all of these “excuses” (and these are excuses) is that there is no acknowledgment of or taking responsibility for a mistake, poor time management, or bad decisions. You did it this way and are happy you made these choices and would do it again. While you’ll get an A for honesty, your reasoning will basically tell the admissions reader that you are likely to exhibit the same behavior in grad school. Your candor will not warm the heart of an admissions reader.
A closing point (19:55)
This is not one of my A’s for your GPA, but I have to close on this note. A successful application to a competitive program is not exclusively about ameliorating weaknesses. It also requires that you give schools a positive reason to accept you. A few months ago an MBA applicant called me up and asked me about his handling his GPA. He would not hear this part of my response. He was so focused on that negative element in his profile that he ignored everything I said about the necessity of giving the admissions committees good reasons to get excited about the prospect of having him as a member of their class. Don’t make the same mistake.
• Round 3 vs Next Year, upcoming webinar for MBA applicants
• MBA Admissions A-Z: U is for Undergrad Grades
• Boost Your GPA for Medical School Acceptance
• Tips for Medical School Applicants with a Low GPA
• MBA Admissions Tip: Dealing with a Low GPA