“But my undergrad school was highly competitive…”
“But I worked 20 hours a week during college…”
“But I was a varsity athlete at a Division I school…”
“But even though it took me a couple of years, once I got it together I made dean’s list every semester…”
“But my PhD GPA was 3.9…”
These are the fretful “buts…” of MBA applicants who fear their applications will be doomed by a poor undergraduate GPA. Behind every GPA is a story. Often it’s a story that arouses frustration, confusion, uncertainty, and even anguish on the part of applicants.
Your undergraduate GPA is important – this is true – but adcoms view your GPA (like the rest of the application) holistically. And this isn’t just how they view low GPAs, but how they view all GPAs.
How Your GPA Fits into the MBA Application Puzzle
First, no matter how well or how poorly your GPA represents your actual ability, the adcom will consider it and take note of it when reviewing your application. You cannot, by convincing explanations or subsequent courses, erase a low undergrad GPA from adcom consideration, but you can work to mitigate it, sometimes substantially.
Second, the adcom will examine the context of your GPA. They can see some aspects of that context automatically when they look at your transcript (like rigor of courses and school), but for other contextual hints (like pneumonia in sophomore year), you will need to state them directly, usually in an optional essay. They will see whether your GPA trends up (good) or down (a problem that might need explaining), and they will see from other areas of your application whether you were working during school and/or participated in a lot of activities, etc.
Why the Context of Your GPA Matters
They will draw some conclusions from this contextual review. Here are a few scenarios that could account for a low GPA and that you may want to draw attention to in an optional essay:
• If you worked while you were in college, the admissions committee will probably assume you had to, and so will be less likely to blame you for time management challenges that weren’t necessarily your choice.
• If you started college in the US barely knowing English and struggled for a year or two until your passion and ambition propelled you to the dean’s list – you can’t assume the adcom will know you overcame rudimentary language skills. The optional essay allows you to explain this particular challenge.
• If they see lots of activities, they’ll note the positive aspects (sociable, contributor) and the possible negative aspects if your GPA was low (less than great time management and prioritizing).
• If your GPA trends up, they may understand that you were just a kid still growing up, and will most likely view your last two years as more representative.
• They’ll also note things like change of academic focus (like your grades really improved once you switched your major from physics to East Asian Studies).
Part of your job in writing your application is to anticipate and envision the context the adcom sees for your GPA and fill in gaps. For example, if an overabundance of activities undermined your grades, you can show in your essays how you subsequently learned to better manage your time while maintaining your vibrant community involvement.
Moreover, good GPAs are not just given an “OK” from the adcom. They actually review your transcript. An otherwise strong GPA that has one C in your only quant course could raise an eyebrow. So could a GPA that starts very strong and trends down – even if it’s solid in aggregate.
Post-undergrad efforts also shape the context of your undergrad GPA. A strong GMAT, demanding professional certifications, an “alternate transcript” of courses to demonstrate academic capability and counter a low undergrad GPA, and/or a strong grad school GPA all will help to mitigate a low GMAT – but again, they will not erase it from your profile. They will have other positive impacts though, such as showing commitment and maturity.
Self-Evaluating Your GPA through the Eyes of the Adcom
The adcoms’ use of context in evaluating GPA means ultimately there is no one formula applied. It’s nuanced, unique to the candidate, and qualitative. Try to see your GPA in their eyes to determine (a) if you need to provide context for your performance, (b) if you should take steps to mitigate your low GPA like additional courses, and (c) whether your GPA in its holistic context enhances your candidacy at a given school.
Cindy Tokumitsu has advised hundreds of successful applicants, helping them gain acceptance to top MBA and EMBA programs in her 20 years with Accepted. She would love to help you too. Want Cindy to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• MBA Action Plan: 6 Steps for the 6 Months Before You Apply, a free guide
• What to Do About a Low GPA, a podcast episode
• 6 Tips for Applying to Business School with Low Stats