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What steps can you take to get accepted despite a low GPA? [Show Summary]
Linda Abraham outlines five steps for mitigating the impact of a low GPA so that you can move forward with a successful graduate school application.
Linda Abraham, Founder and CEO of Accepted shares her insights into overcoming low stats [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 458th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Before we dive into our main topic for today, I want to invite you to take advantage of Accepted’s library of free downloadable reports, several of which discuss how to apply successfully with low stats. Check them all out today.
Now to today’s topic. I was recently doing some end-of-the-year/beginning-of-the-year review and noticed that one of our most popular podcasts is “Five A’s For Your Low GPA”, which is now going to be replaced by today’s podcast. I decided to address this topic again, because it is a recurring issue and because I’d like to address some factors that have changed since the initial podcast in 2016 which is almost six years ago.
We’re going to go through the five A’s as I call them, or the five steps for dealing with your low GPA. You really have to do all of them if you have a below-average GPA, because you want to mitigate its impact or ideally eliminate its impact as schools evaluate your application. So to deal with a GPA that is causing you concern, I’m going to give you the following five steps.
The five A’s are:
- Assess your GPA (is it really low?)
- Analyze the causes of your low GPA
- Address those causes
- Add context to the low GPA
- Avoid mistakes in addressing the GPA
Now let’s go through each topic in more depth.
1. Assess your GPA (is it really low?) [2:41]
I define a low GPA as one that is 0.3 or more below your target school’s average GPA for matriculating students on the US 4.0 scale. This information can usually be found in posted class profiles, or sometimes on US news rankings, or on Accepted’s Med Selectivity Index, Law Selectivity Index, and MBA Selectivity Index. An alternative definition, which also works in my book, is a GPA that is below your target school’s 75th or 80th percentile if you have that information. Usually, the information I started with is a little bit easier to come by, but if you have this, it works also.
Now let’s take a look at these definitions and discuss what’s good and bad about them because there’s good and bad in both of them. First, the good. What I like about these definitions is that they are relative to the schools you are targeting. So if you have a 3.3 GPA and the average GPA for the entering class at your target school is a 3.3, you do not have a low GPA. You don’t have anything to mitigate. You don’t have anything to address unless possibly there’s a downward trend in your grades. However, don’t tune out yet. If you have that same 3.3 and the schools that you’re aiming for have an average GPA for accepted students of 3.7 or above, as do several medical schools, some law schools, Stanford Business School, and other graduate programs, then you have a low GPA and you should definitely, definitely listen to the rest of this podcast because you’re going to need to do the steps that I’m going to outline.
What’s the flaw in my definition? Well, there are some flaws. Number one is admissions is about much more than just your GPA and you’re going to see that later in this podcast. You cannot look at any one number, be it the number of publications you have, your GPA, your test score, the amount of work experience you have, the number of hours you volunteered, and focus exclusively on that number. It’s just not going to work. Whether it’s a good number or a bad number, admissions is much more holistic than that. It really, and truly is.
By focusing on the average, which I’ve done, remember I said 0.3 or more below the average, the definition doesn’t reflect the impact of trends in your GPA or of extenuating circumstances. We’re going to get to that a little bit later. It doesn’t reflect the impact of diversity or adversity, and non-academic experiences on how schools view these numbers and it doesn’t reflect how far away you are below average. If you’re more than 0.3, well there’s 0.3 which is kind of on the cusp but there’s also 0.5. There’s one full point. It all makes a difference.
A little below isn’t really a problem. Again, if you’re right at 0.3, I think there’s something to address, but it’s not as serious a problem as if you’re talking 0.5 are one full point. The elements that are not included in this definition, the fuzzier aspects of admissions really, are the flaws in my definition. And they provide opportunities for those of you who may have a low GPA and still want to attend the programs of your dreams. Because if you provide the context and you provide alternative evidence of your academic ability, you still can get in.
2. Analyze the causes of your low GPA [6:09]
Ask yourself these questions: “Did you have a hard time adjusting to college? Did your GPA take a hit during your freshman year, but improve every year after with you maybe landing on the Dean’s list in the last two years that you were in college? Maybe you earned a 4.0 the last year?”
Well, that’s a very different GPA than the opposite trend or kind of just flat the whole way. Or maybe did you start out strong earning a 3.9 during your freshman year, but then lost your motivation. Your grades dropped steadily so that your average GPA during your senior year had declined to a 3.1. That trend is a red flag. Even if the overall GPA is competitive, maybe a 3.4 or a 3.5.
There are also circumstances beyond your control, like illness, family issues, God forbid an accident. Did they cause a drop in your grades for a specific short period of time? Did you declare the wrong major and have poor grades in that major until you realized that your true calling is something else, and then you start 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 that allowed you to attend the school that you attended? 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 deal with it.
3. Address those causes [7:39]
Now think about how you’re going to address your GPA. Your basic goal in addressing your GPA is to show that it isn’t really an accurate reflection of your ability today, as you apply, as you go to graduate school. It’s to provide evidence that you’re really capable of much, much more academically. There are two basic steps that you have to do to make that case and mitigate the impact of your low GPA.
Number one, whether it’s the MCAT, the GMAT, the LSAT, GRE, the DAT, whatever the test is that you have to take or are able to take, it is one way to mitigate the impact of a low GPA, because it can show that you really have the raw intellectual ability to succeed in that graduate program. It indicates that raw talent and aptitude for your chosen field, and in many cases, has years, if not decades, of correlation with success in those programs. It’s one way to settle doubt that your GPA is an accurate reflection of your ability if that test score is much higher.
You might be thinking, “My school doesn’t require a test score.” Or “The test is optional at my target programs, and I was planning to apply for a waiver and not take it.” I hate to break it to you, but somehow you must show academic ability, on par with those who attend your target programs. If your GPA is below average, as we defined it a minute ago, and you don’t have significant postbac or master’s programs with strong grades, a high test score can really help you or help the school understand what you are capable of and show that you have much greater intellectual horsepower than your GPA shows.
Just understand this. The last thing most graduate schools want to do is admit someone who can’t handle the work, and who ultimately drops out because they simply aren’t up to it. It’s lost revenue to them. Its poor use of their resources. It’s up to you to give them the evidence that you can handle their programs and prepping for and acing the test is one excellent way to do so. Sometimes, in conjunction with additional recent A’s, which is step number two. Now, some of you are probably thinking, “I can’t ace the test. Can I just take the classes?” You can try it. Let’s go to the classes right now.
So step number two in showing that you really are capable of much more than your GPA indicates would be taking classes in your chosen field and earning A’s in them. For some of you, that may mean a few classes. It might be HBS Online for people aiming for business school, for premed, it could mean a full postbac program, a year of coursework for academic enhancers. I would encourage you to listen to our podcast, “Is a Postbac Program Right For You?” where we go into that, that’s specifically for premeds and pre-health care folks.
For future MBAs, aim for A’s in business-related courses. Again, I mentioned HBS Online, you could also take statistics for business, calculus, accounting one, economics one. Only take courses for which you have the prerequisites and remember the prerequisites because you want to get those A’s. For law school applicants, you could take a few undergrad law courses or classes that require writing and analysis. Regardless of your degree goal, you want to show that you have the self-discipline, the study skills, and motivation to apply yourself and excel in an academic setting related to your chosen field of study.
I’ve emphasized the importance of both the courses and the tests if you want to mitigate the impact of a low GPA. I sometimes like to say that the test score shows that you have the head to succeed, and A’s, or grades, show that you have the derriere to succeed, or that you have the ability to sit and study and take a test, because you need both in graduate school to succeed in graduate school. And you need evidence of both to get into graduate school.
How many classes should you take? I’m sure some of you are wondering. Well, that depends on how bad your GPA was 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-health care applicants, a formal postbac program. If you have put several years of relevant achievement between you and your undergrad performance, you may need just a few classes to assure schools that you really have changed. Especially if you have a nice shiny GMAT, GRE, or whatever is a relevant test. With a high test score and evidence that you can perform academically in class, you are well on your way to dealing with that low GPA.
4. Add context to the low GPA [12:43]
What went wrong? What happened? Schools are going to wonder. Don’t let them imagine that you were out on the beach, goofing off. Why was your undergrad GPA low? How do I know it won’t happen again? That’s what they’re going to be asking if they don’t know what was going on. You need to respond to these concerns proactively. You don’t want worried admissions readers thinking the thoughts that you are on the beach, you’re a goof-off and you haven’t changed, because worried admissions readers tend to vote deny. This is especially true if you’re talking about a declining GPA average. Then it’s hard to deal with.
How can you deal with these worries? Well, I’ve already given you a couple of steps in terms of addressing that GPA. But you also want to factually provide context to the application reader, the person evaluating your application and qualifications.
Your goal should be to show that whatever contributed to your poor performance as an undergrad, either is not a factor in your life anymore or something that you’ve learned how to deal with so that it won’t affect your performance going forward. You can break these typical causes into three broad categories.
Circumstances beyond your control.
Number one is circumstances beyond your control. Those usually are illness, accidents, family problems, sometimes financial problems. If these are the factors that contributed to a drop in grades, hopefully, they are behind you. What you should do about them, is you need to straightforwardly and simply state what happened. Point to evidence that it is behind you and no longer an influence upon your performance, or that you’ve learned how to deal with the situation.
If you have difficult family dynamics that were weighing upon you, and now you have a good relationship with your parents, whatever it is. If you suffered from emotional issues, perhaps as an undergrad, and you have held down a job for the last X years. You’ve been doing well. You’ve learned how to deal with those emotional issues and they are behind you. With that said, obviously, illness hopefully is behind you. Again, whatever family issues are hopefully behind you.
Circumstances partially within your control.
Then there are circumstances that at least partially are within your control, that would imply that perhaps there are some less than optimal decisions that you made along the way. Poor decisions early in your college career. Again, a bad choice of majors is a classic one. Inferior time management and study skills when you first started college, is not unusual at all. You could have faced a need to work 20 or more hours per week. That’s not an error, it’s just a circumstance that is not entirely within your control. You have to have a roof over your head and food to eat.
What should you do about it?
If the circumstances that you’re talking about resulted from a mistake, you picked the wrong major, you were immature in your freshman year, definitely happens, it’s common, take responsibility for any mistakes that you’ve made and point to evidence, like your age, your high test scores, perhaps your success on the job, that you have matured and have developed into a responsible, grounded adult, who has time management skills, has a good way of prioritizing and things like that. Good executive function. Again, show them you’re a different person than you were when you goofed off your freshman year.
If you had to work, you have absolutely nothing to apologize for. But do state how many hours per week you worked and try to provide evidence of grades when you weren’t working so hard and actually had the time to study.
No extenuating circumstances.
The third circumstance that I want to deal with is a low or declining GPA with no extenuating circumstances. As I said earlier, a declining GPA is a major red flag. What you should do: While, you can be happy you don’t have to handle the circumstances and situations like illness, family problems, or serious accidents, 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 grade decline or 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 your mojo back.
Now, I’ve harped somewhat on the serious impact of a declining GPA. And that is intentional. It’s a problem. Still, I do want to distinguish between a minor fluctuation and a declining GPA. I was once asked by an applicant who had a 3.9 his freshman year if he would have a problem in other words, if his GPA would be looked at as declining, because the rest of his college career, he averaged a 3.8. No, that is a fluctuation. That is 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 make them come across as defensive. Well, I think that concern is justified. If that’s your concern, that’s legitimate. You don’t want to whine, and you don’t want to provide excuses. However, providing context – I didn’t say providing an explanation. I said, providing context — just lets the admissions reader understand the environment in which you were operating. And perhaps the challenges you faced could even make your 3.0 look like a 3.8. You need to give the admissions committee the ability to make that judgment. Provide them with the context.
I remember working with a client. This was one of my first clients, in the mid-1990s. He attended a major university but he grew up in a rural area about three hours away from the big city and the big university. Somewhere along the way, he was working his way through school, and one of his parents became ill. I think he was also an only child. So he was going to school at a very tough competitive university, working, and visiting home regularly, which was a three-hour drive each way. Once the context was given, what he had achieved seemed so impressive that it put his GPA in a whole different light. Now he wasn’t whining. Don’t whine. He didn’t whine about his family illness. He didn’t whine about the fact that he had to work his way through school. He just said, “I’d like the admissions committee to understand that this is what was going on when I was going.” And, I think from his sophomore and junior year there was a dip and grade when he was traveling home so frequently.
To avoid whining, make your description of the circumstances straightforward, take responsibility again for any mistakes, don’t try and justify errors of judgment, and focus on what you’ve done to show your ability.
5. Avoid mistakes in addressing the GPA [19:35]
I’ve given you four A’s for your GPA in the form of to-dos. I also want to give you an A for something very important to avoid, major mistakes.
Don’t: Think schools don’t care about your GPA
The biggest mistake is to think that schools don’t consider the GPA. I have talked to applicants who actually do think that. Now, there is a grain of truth to that assumption for Executive MBA programs, because applicants to those programs are typically 10 years or more after college graduation. But most of you are applying within five years of graduation, and your GPA is the school’s window into how you perform academically, how you perform period.
It is also something that all graduate applicants will have, and it is one common means of comparison in a competitive process. Admittedly, it’s imperfect because of differences in grading scales and courses of studies, but it is something you all will have in common with your competition. Frankly, as schools make tests optional, in my opinion, those grades and transcripts are going to become more important. They just have less to evaluate without the tests.
Don’t: Proclaiming you were too busy to study
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 would be, “I took too many units so that I could finish faster or collect an additional degree.” “I enrolled in advanced classes, and I didn’t have the prerequisites, because I was in such a rush to get done.” “I was so active in extracurricular activities that were so important and so vital, and so impactful, that I didn’t have time for classes and coursework.” Or, “I was too busy with my startup to attend class.” The key feeling in all of these excuses, and these are excuses, as opposed to context, is that there is no acknowledgment of, or taking responsibility for, a mistake, poor time management, or misplaced prioritization. No acknowledgment of bad decisions. You did it this way and are happy you made those choices and would do it again.
While I’ll give you an A for honesty, your reasoning will basically tell the admissions reader that you are likely to exhibit the same behavior in graduate school. And frankly have a similar academic record. Your candor will not warm the heart of an admissions reader. So you might get an A for honesty, an A for candor, and all that, but you’re not going to get in, because they’re going to be worried that you’re going to do the same thing all over again. Again, if you are proud of your academic record, and feel that your below-average grades were justified, not because of some emergency, but because of priorities that you still adhere to, well, again, it’s just not going to get you in.
Don’t: Forget to highlight your strengths!
The last mistake that sometimes applicants make when dealing with a low GPA, is being so focused on your GPA weakness or other weaknesses, that you don’t highlight your strengths. A successful application to a competitive graduate school program, whether it’s business school, law school, medical school, or whatever, is not exclusively about ameliorating weaknesses. You’ve got to do that if you have them, but you also have to present the school with positive reasons to accept you, like every other candidate. In other words, addressing that weakness doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to make a case for acceptance.
An MBA client once called me up and asked me about his handling of his low GPA. He would not hear this part of my response and trust me, I spoke to him a few times. 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. Give them positive reasons to want you.
I had a father call once to get information from me for our services. That’s very common. They bought for their son, and the son, unfortunately, had taken the test for his particular program, and the score went down dramatically the second time and he didn’t cancel it so it’s on his record. The father was upset about it and called me. And I said, “Well, your son can apply at lower rank schools and do this and that” otherwise, there was no time to retake at that point. It would’ve meant waiting for a whole other cycle. They didn’t want to do that. The son applied and I got a call, another time, the father basically said the same thing. And then I got another call, “My son got an interview invitation. “That’s fantastic!” I said. He then kind of moaned, “But what about the test score?” And I said, “Just forget the test score. Don’t focus on the test score now. Focus on the things that are going right.”
When you address the GPA, or in his case, it was a test score, and obviously this podcast is about the GPA, once you’ve addressed it, focus on the good things, the strengths in your applications, your motivation for this degree program, the experiences that’s prepared you for this educational path and your ultimate career path. What you hope to accomplish after you get the degree, what you hope to accomplish when you’re at that program. Don’t focus exclusively on your weakness. Give them positive reasons to want you.
We’ve included links in these show notes with any resources I mentioned, and a bunch I didn’t mention, but which will be helpful to you. Please check them all out. Again, please take a second to explore our collection of free reports, and you can download any that you want from reports.accepted.com. You can find advice there on both ameliorating weaknesses and highlighting strengths.
- Accepted Free Resource Library
- Overcoming Weaknesses in Your MBA Profile
- Dealing with Low Stats when Applying to Med School
- Law School Selectivity Index
- MBA Selectivity Index
- Med Selectivity Index
- How to Overcome a Low GPA Cheat Sheet
- Accepted’s Admissions Consulting Services
- Is a Postbac Program Right for You?
- An Accepted Student’s Advice for Reapplying to Medical School
- A Dean’s Perspective on What Makes Great Physicians