You want to apply to business school, but you may be holding back because you’re worried about your low numbers–an unimpressive GPA or GMAT/GRE score. Don’t worry – this is NOT the end of the world! This post will define what “low” really means, help you put your scores into context, and show you how you can mitigate these potential weaknesses. Remember that while explaining a low GPA or test score might be difficult, it can be done. Also remember that your numbers are only part of a holistic process by which adcoms consider you as a well-rounded individual. Let’s dive right in.
11 topics for applicants with low stats to explore
1. How do you define a low GPA?
For the purposes of this blog post, “low numbers” for most applicants are test scores and GPAs at the lower end of or below the mid-80% range for a given school.
When talking about getting into business school with a low GPA, we define “low” as:
- One that is at least 0.3 points below your target school’s average GPA for accepted students (on the U.S. 4.0 scale).
- One that is below your target school’s 75th or 80th percentile.
Both of these definitions require you to look at your numbers relative to those of the schools that you are targeting. So if you have a 3.2, and the average GPA of the entering class is a 3.2, then you do not have a low GPA. However, if you have a 3.2 and the school you are aiming for has an average GPA for accepted students of 3.6, then all of a sudden your average 3.2 GPA transforms into a low 3.2 GPA. It may be difficult to find average GPAs for your target programs, but if you have a 2.6, you know it’s low for almost any MBA program. For almost all business schools, a GPA below 3.0 warrants a deliberate effort to counterbalance.
Let’s say that by these criteria, your numbers are low. What do you do?
2. Look closely at your numbers
Which numbers are low – GMAT/GRE, GPA, or both? If only one of these numbers is low, at least the other number demonstrates your academic ability. Then the question becomes, why is the GMAT or the GPA low? Some people are simply not great standardized test-takers. A low GPA often reflects the simple fact that college students are still growing up. In fact, a 3.0 GPA that starts out below 3.0 and trends upward consistently, with the final semester or two in the 3.5 range or higher, is not nearly as worrisome as a GPA that trends in the opposite direction.
Speaking of trends, let’s look at three GPA trend scenarios that will help you explain to the admissions committee what happened.
- Scenario A – 3.0 GPA, upward trend
You goofed off for your first few semesters and didn’t weigh the consequences. You failed some classes and started out with an embarrassingly low GPA not because of lack of ability, but because of immaturity. Mid-sophomore year you wised up and continuously hit above the 3.8 mark for the rest of your undergraduate career.
- Scenario B – 3.0 GPA, downward trend
Your college experience started out with a motivated streak of genius – three solid 4.0 semesters in a row. But then…things took a downward trend. This could have been because you got lazy or apathetic. Or, you may have faced a medical, family or other personal situation that made it impossible for you to focus on your studies, and your grades suffered significantly.
- Scenario C – 3.0 GPA, static
You work hard, but not too hard. You take some classes seriously; others, not so much. You never really cared about school or grades to really put the effort in. A few years out of school and a life-changing career move have motivated you to new heights and you want to apply to b-school. But now you need to deal with your middling academic record.
3. Understanding these GPA trend scenarios
Students in Scenario A don’t really have too much to worry about (unless you’re applying to top MBA programs for which a 3.0 GPA is a significant hurdle). Many students start off weak in college because of immaturity. Or, you may have declared the wrong major, struggled with those courses, but eventually hit your stride once you found your true academic calling. Your grades went up, proving your capabilities and your increased maturity. You may have even ended up on the Dean’s List, hitting a 4.0 in your last two years.
Students with a Scenario B are in more of a bind. Your tip-top grades may have fallen due to circumstances that may be more easily forgiven. For example, you may have had to take a job for longer hours to support yourself, or had a sports team commitment to maintain an athletic scholarship that allowed you to matriculate to this college. Alternately, and perhaps less easy to forgive, you may have buckled under the pressure of college work and tests. Or, you may have simply become apathetic. In any of these instances, you’ll have some explaining to do, and must also show what you have done–or are doing–to prove you’ve got what it takes to succeed in b-school. The Additional Information section in many applications is the perfect place to provide context for the downward trend and persuasive evidence of your capabilities now that you are not dealing with whatever caused your grades to sink.
The problem of mediocrity looms over you if you’re like our Scenario C student. If you want to be considered for a spot in the next MBA class, you’ll have to take some of the same steps as a Scenario B student. More suggestions coming below!
Whatever your circumstance, your job is to prove that today you have the ability to excel in your target MBA programs and that the circumstances that contributed to the poor marks in college no longer affect you. Additionally, the degree of severity of your case will influence how hard you will have to work to mitigate the situation.
4. Analyzing how your numbers break down
You may have a low GPA but high GMAT/GRE; a high GPA but low GMAT/GRE; or your numbers may be weak in both GPA and GMAT/GRE.
Let’s look at each situation.
If your GMAT quant score was high and you had solid grades in quant courses in college, that’s a plus. MBA adcoms need evidence that you can handle the quantitative coursework. However, if your quant side is dragging the numbers down, it’s more of a problem. Low quant scores on both the GMAT and your transcript are a worst-case situation.
Whichever your situation, you’ll need to develop an application strategy to address your particular circumstance.
With all that being said, the use of the GRE has grown substantially in the last ten years. At some programs, such as Yale’s School of Management, more than one third of the class are admitted with GRE scores.
You should take and prepare for the test that you feel you will do best on, provided that your target schools do not express any preference for one test over the other (and most have no preference).
In addition to allowing the GRE, and in some cases the Executive Assessment, more and more MBA programs have introduced test waivers or have gone entirely test-optional. If you are struggling to get a good test score, it may make sense for you to focus on test-optional programs. On the other hand, if your GPA is low for your target programs, a shiny, high test score is one way to show intellectual mojo and the raw ability to succeed in graduate management education.
5. Rescue plan for your low GPA
Your job is to convince the adcom that your GPA does not accurately reflect your abilities. In fact, you are capable of much, much more. Here’s what you need to do to prove this assertion.
- Ace that GMAT or GRE. You need a high GMAT or GRE score. The test score indicates you have the raw talent and aptitude for your chosen field.
- Get yourself some A’s. Take a reputable online course (or through a local community college) ASAP in several quant classes: calculus and/or statistics, and/or accounting if you haven’t taken them. You should retake them if you took them in college but earned below a B. You’ve got to earn an A!
- If your quant grades were weak, do you have experience doing quantitative tasks at work? Do you excel at these tasks? If so, highlight those aspects of your work to demonstrate proficiency in your resume and perhaps one of your essays.
- Finally, if you are able to make any suggestions or have some say in what your recommenders write, ask them to confirm your skills in the areas where your grades might call them into question.
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.
6. Addressing low verbal scores
MBA students must have strong written and spoken communication skills, especially given the emphasis on teamwork. Thus, consistently low verbal scores will raise a red flag. Your essays are the ideal place to neutralize this concern. Submitting mediocre essays will only reinforce concern about your communication skills.
Your essays must be excellent, both expressive and flawlessly written. When selecting examples and anecdotes to write about, choose those that highlight your communication skills. Looking beyond the essays, ask recommenders to comment positively on your verbal skills. Finally, you can bolster these skills by taking a course online or at a local college that involves substantial writing, either business-related or other non-fiction, narrative writing. You’ll need to earn an A for this to have real impact.
7. Putting your numbers in the context of your demographic profile
Earlier on in this post we explained our general guidelines for what constitutes “low numbers.” Now let’s drill down a little deeper. To really understand the impact of your numbers, you must first understand your demographic profile vis-a-vis the MBA applicant pool for your chosen school(s).
Your target school may be eager to admit underrepresented applicant groups, but no matter how underrepresented you may be, you won’t be admitted if the school is not convinced you can handle the coursework. Beyond that, it’s really a matter of supply and demand.
Demographics encompass your ethnicity, nationality, gender, industry, sexual orientation, and function. It is well known that Indian engineers and computer scientists with high numbers are overrepresented in the applicant pool, as are white and Asian male investment bankers with high numbers. Thus, a GMAT in the lower 80% range and a 3.3 GPA may be a problem for them in applying to, say, Wharton, whereas a female Peruvian corporate finance associate with a 650 GMAT and 3.3 GPA from a top national university would be a viable applicant. If this Peruvian female had a 590 GMAT and a 2.7 GPA, that might not be the case, as questions would arise about her ability to master the coursework. In a sense, understanding your demographic profile is part of looking closely at the numbers and reading the nuances.
8. How your MBA application essays can help counteract your low scores
We’ve discussed several ways to demonstrate that you’re qualified to excel in a top MBA program, even with low numbers. These include taking additional courses and earning A’s, but proving yourself through relevant professional experience will be crucially important.
Still, even if you prove you are “qualified,” that rating is a far cry from being admitted to a competitive program. Your low scores may now be “understandable,” but they won’t excite the adcom, so your work experience must. Mine your work experience for all evidence of accomplishment, leadership, and impact. In your essays, write about your experiences that prove you make a difference on the job, going above and beyond what’s expected. If you’ve made notable contributions as a volunteer or in another non-work activity, especially if you’ve taken a leadership role, highlighting these experiences will strengthen your profile.
9. How the optional essay can help offer context for your low GPA
Use the optional essay or Additional Information section to help mitigate a low GPA. In a well crafted optional essay, you can demonstrate that whatever contributed to your poor performance is either not a factor in your life anymore, or is something that you’ve learned how to deal with. In other words, show the adcom that it’s a non-issue.
Whatever the context for your low GPA or scores, (extenuating circumstances or circumstances totally beyond your control), explain the situation in a straightforward, honest manner. Write briefly, just stating the facts. Do not go on and on about the details–the shorter the better here. For real mistakes that you’ve made, fess up, take responsibility for your actions, and show, don’t just tell, that you are a changed person who has learned lots and moved forward. Focus on evidence of your talents that counters the impression made by the low stats. Absolutely no whining!
10. Select the right MBA programs for your profile
Different schools weigh the “pillars” of your application – test score, GPA, work experience – differently. Some will put more weight on the score and/or GPA than others do. Some will be more interested than others in the specific qualities, experience, and demographic factors you bring to the program. To deal with these differences, first select programs that meet your learning needs. Then focus on those that take a more holistic view of applicants and/or those that favor your distinguishing characteristics. You can use the Business School Selectivity Index™ to discover the schools where you are competitive.
11. Remember that b-school admissions is a holistic process
MBA admissions is about much more than your GPA. You cannot look at any single number and focus on it exclusively, especially once you weigh in the circumstances that led to your low GPA, and if the trending direction of your GPA works to your advantage. Your GPA also doesn’t at all reflect the impact of your diversity and non-academic experiences – important factors that adcom members weigh heavily.
Whether you are admitted or rejected to b-school will result from a consideration of you as a complete package — the holistic sum of your parts – as reflected in your application. Yes, your GPA is extremely important, which you know because you are reading this post, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of your admissions profile. Work hard, prove your academic abilities in other ways, and convince the adcom that you’re ready to hit the books and ace the heck out of b-school.
In many cases, you can get accepted to business school with low stats. Check out Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting & Editing Services and work one-on-one with an expert advisor who will help you strengthen your case in a compelling application that will get you ACCEPTED. Yes, even with those less-than-stellar stats.
• Applying to Business School With Low Stats: What You Need to Know, a free guide
• How to Apply Successfully to Grad School Despite a Low GPA, a podcast episode
• Applying to Top MBA Programs with a Low GPA, a short video
• What GMAT Score Do I Need to Get Accepted to Top MBA Programs?