How to Overcome a Low College GPA

One of the most stressful points of applying to business school is having to confront once again your undergraduate performance.  That GPA which you happily left in your past must now be resurrected for all on the admissions committees to see, and it’s often an uncomfortable exercise.  While there’s no way to change the past, there are some practical things you can do to help overcome the potentially detrimental impact a poor GPA can have on your profile.  Read on…

If you feel haunted by poor academic performance in your college years, whether it be a low overall GPA or perhaps even a failing grade or grades on your transcript, you might be justifiably worried about how it will be perceived by your target schools.  But what exactly is required for schools to sign off on your candidacy?  While you don’t necessarily need a 4.0, schools are going to want to see a demonstration of consistency in your ability to achieve high marks.  You can certainly look up and see the average GPAs of accepted students, but averages can sometimes be misleading, even intimidating.  Generally speaking, top schools really love to see a 3.5 or better, but as long as you have a 3-handle on your GPA, you shouldn’t raise too may eyebrows.  For the rest of us, however, there may be work to do.

If you are one of the unlucky ones with a 2-handle GPA, the first thing you can do is to consider addressing it in an optional essay. 

In fact, the optional essay is most often used by applicants to speak to why their GPAs were not up to snuff, so schools have almost come to expect it.  Make sure your use of this essay is expedient, using as few words as possible to provide not an excuse, but the basic circumstantial facts about your individual situation.  The best explanations often involve health issues or tragedy which affected your inability to achieve as highly as you would have liked.  If you didn’t have these challenges, don’t make up anything---the admissions committees will respect the truth much more than some contrived story.  Plus, they have a way of sniffing out bluffers, which could get you tossed from consideration quickly. 

Besides explaining the reason for your poor performance, there are other things you can do to help compensate for a low GPA.  One very practical approach is to re-take some classes to show you can now perform better.  With the proliferation of online courses and MOOCs, it’s very easy to get a few classes under your belt and the bonus is, you may just find yourself better prepared for going back to school than someone who hasn’t taken classes since undergrad.  Particularly if you performed poorly in quantitative courses in college, you should try to pound through some math or finance classes and post a good grade, which you can use to build what’s known in the industry as an alternative transcript. 

If you can take actual college courses at a local university, it’s even better because you will have an additional transcript you can submit with your original one. 

There is also a great course online called MBA Math which was actually developed by a Tuck professor to help MBA hopefuls prepare for the quantitative rigors of b-school.  The great part about MBA Math, is that it has been so popular, most top schools know and respect the class.  Accredited university coursework of course adds another layer of credibility, but the most important thing is, to show the adcoms you can do well.

The farther into your past your GPA, the less it matters, so older applicants are generally less scrutinized for academic sins than younger applicants. 

The best news of all, is that GPA is generally the most forgivable of all the measurable profile components—certainly not as important in most cases as your GMAT or GRE score, for example.  While there are some exceptions (Wharton, for example is less concerned with GPA than HBS is), you should generally assume that all top schools like to know that you can handle actual coursework successfully.  In the end, it can be difficult to convince schools that you should have a seat instead of someone else with better classroom performance.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to do this with additional coursework, you should take the last ditch option, which is to demonstrate academic-like skill from your job.

If you performed poorly in Calculus or finance, for example, you can speak to how your job requires math skills or finance prowess and that since college, you have practiced such as part of your daily work.  Getting your recommenders to speak to these abilities can add corroboration to the mix which just might allow the committees to see beyond your sub-standard transcript. 

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