When you’re applying to grad school, having a low GPA is not necessarily a deal-breaker.
So you’ve made some decisions for your future, and those decisions include going to graduate school to help you arrive at the career of your dreams. But what if you have a less than competitive GPA from your undergraduate education? No worries; there are things you can do to still get accepted to a graduate program.
First, be prepared to address your low GPA in your application. Be clear and direct about your academic record, and provide context for why your GPA is lower than you’d like.
Sometimes, extenuating circumstances negatively affect one’s grades. Was there a personal or medical life event that truly made your academic performance suffer? If so, explain what happened so the admissions committee can understand. Typically, in a situation like this, your transcripts will demonstrate academic success, followed by crisis grades, and then a return to academic success. Your transcript will corroborate your story. Additionally, demonstrated resilience goes a long way; it reflects character.
If needed, consider asking a professor who knew you then and recognizes your true academic ability to discuss your disruptive life event and your ability to return to high achievement in a letter of recommendation.
If your grades started low and continually improved, or if you changed majors later in your undergraduate education and your grades vastly improved, explain this for the adcom. For some students, adjusting to college life is difficult. Sometimes, finding your path is not a straight line but a curvy line. If you demonstrate a trajectory toward academic success, the circumstances around the lower grades might be enough to “own” and explain. Just be honest and take responsibility. Do not place blame or write about circumstances with too much emotion. Stay level-headed and logical as you convey the story of your academic performance.
Perhaps you can offset any concerns about your academic ability by retaking the classes in which your academic performance was poor or you failed to demonstrate your abilities. Or you can offset concerns about your academic ability by studying for and doing very well on the GRE.
Here’s another approach. Many colleges and universities allow individuals to take graduate-level classes as “non-matriculating” students. Consider taking a little more time to bulk up your academic performance by taking a few graduate courses on a part-time basis in the field for which you are destined. If you have an undergraduate degree and the graduate courses you are interested in taking do not have prerequisites, presenting successful graduate-level coursework on an additional transcript might be all you need to do.
There’s an added bonus to this strategy. Sometimes, if you shine as a non-matriculating student in a graduate course, professors are more than willing to write you a letter of recommendation. Others will lobby for you to stay on at their school. Consequently, when it’s time to formally apply to a program you know and like, you might have graduate faculty members from that program who already know you and who are members of the admissions committee.
Does the college or university you’re interested in offer a certificate program? Sometimes, a certificate program can be a portal to a graduate program. Additionally, it allows you to get to know the faculty in the academic discipline you’re interested in and experience the discipline without a full-time commitment (and quite likely without the weight of student loans), giving you time and less risk as you assess your fit with the program or field.
If your goal is a PhD, consider applying to a master’s program first. Master’s programs tend to have less stringent admissions requirements, and many allow students to proceed through the curriculum part-time. Some schools highly recommend this pathway to a PhD.
When it’s time to apply, pay close attention to your school list. Certainly include a few dream schools if that’s important to you. However, stay realistic. If you have a low GPA, find programs that are less competitive that align with your interests. If a school claims that their accepted applicants have an average GPA of 3.8, it’s not likely the right school for someone with a 3.0 GPA. Look for data like this on each school’s website, and let it guide your decisions about your school list. Remember, stay realistic.
Importantly, there are other factors involved in presenting a strong application that can strengthen your chances of admission. An application to graduate school is multifaceted. Most graduate programs request a personal statement or a statement of purpose. Take this essay seriously. It’s an opportunity to create a self-portrait that is highly appealing. Do not write the essay as a narrative resume. Follow the school’s prompt if the adcom provides one. Otherwise, tell a story about yourself that resounds with human qualities that are valuable in your field of choice. Explain how you know that this field is your destiny.
Do you have volunteer work or paid work that correlates with the values and/or the objectives of the profession you are targeting? Have you won academic, professional, or community-based awards? Are you published? Are you a veteran or a member of a disadvantaged group or community? Are you a career changer? Have you overcome hardship? Do not bury these details.
Try very hard to clearly represent yourself, including your achievements and awards, somewhere on your application. These shiny moments can often offset the dullness of poor grades because you are human – not a number.
Stay positive. Stay truthful.
Dr. Mary Mahoney, PhD, is the medical humanities director at Elmira College and has more than 20 years of experience as an advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. She is a tenured English professor with an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD in literature and writing from the University of Houston. For the past 20 years, Mary has served as a grad school advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. Want Mary to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!