Strong admissions essays can help applicants compensate for a less-than-ideal college GPA, experts say.
But experts say it is possible for grad school applicants to overcome the stigma of low undergraduate grades if they have excelled since graduation or if they are college seniors who have dramatically improved their academic performance since freshman year.
Stephanie Shyu, an alumna of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says her admission to the institution is proof that it is possible for someone with an imperfect college transcript to get accepted into graduate school.
“I had a tough time adjusting my freshman year of college due to burnout,” Shyu, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Duke University, wrote in an email. “As a result, I let my grades fall and I ended my first year of college with a 3.0 GPA. When I realized I wanted to apply to law school and that my grades as they stood were not going to be competitive, I worked to pull up my grades in my junior and senior years.”
Shyu notes that, despite her diligence in her junior and senior year of college, her overall undergraduate GPA ended up being less than the median among admitted students at top law schools. “However, the upward trend in my grades, a final senior year GPA of 4.0, and a compelling supplemental essay explaining my low grades allowed me to gain admission to several of the top law schools,” she says. “My experience applying to grad school showed me that there are schools out there that do evaluate applicants holistically for fit. My advice for applicants who can compellingly explain why their grades aren’t an accurate reflection of their potential is to find and apply to the handful of schools that care about your story.”
The key for applicants with a GPA below the norm at their target grad schools, experts say, is having some kind of positive accomplishment – such as high test scores, eloquent recommendation letters or successful graduate-level coursework – that outweighs their past academic performance.
“College grades are one of several factors that faculty and graduate admissions professionals are considering in a graduate school application,” wrote Kim C. O’Halloran, the associate provost for graduate studies at Widener University in Pennsylvania who has a doctorate in higher education administration, in an email. “It is important to build the strongest overall application possible, so focus on the other application requirements – write a strong essay, identify faculty in your intended field of study to write letters of recommendation for you and seek test preparation assistance if a standardized test is required. Focus on the elements you have control over now, as you cannot go back in time and change your college GPA.”
Klint Kanopka, a doctoral student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, says he compensated for his B average in college by subsequently achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA in a master’s program.
This postcollege academic achievement, Kanopka says, helped him show that he was a more serious student, bolstering his case for admission to a doctoral program at an elite graduate school of education.
Cory Thornton, the director of graduate admissions with the University of North Georgia, says that graduate programs can vary significantly in their expectations regarding grades. At highly competitive programs, a college GPA of less than 3.5 might be perceived as low, while at many other programs, a GPA is only considered low if it is below a 3.0, she says. Some new grad programs in emerging fields may be more forgiving of mediocre college grades, and they might set their GPA target a bit lower than more established grad programs to a 2.75 or 2.5 GPA, she says.
Thornton says grad schools don’t necessarily use the undergraduate GPA that is given on a student’s college transcript, since these schools may perform their own GPA calculations. She says grad schools that do calculate college GPAs use a variety of mathematical methods, so the GPA numbers these schools come up with may differ. For instance, some institutions count every grade an applicant has received in college courses toward his or her undergraduate GPA, regardless of whether the individual has repeated a class and received a higher grade on his or her second try, Thornton says. By contrast, there are other institutions that only count the most recent grade of a repeated course toward the undergraduate GPA, which means that if a student flunked a class or two on their first attempt but passed later, only the passing grade would count.
Here are seven strategies experts suggest for prospective grad students who are concerned about their undergraduate GPAs.
Gain relevant work experience.
Timothy Jaconette, founder of the consulting firm Advanced Admit College Admissions, says grad school hopefuls with lackluster college transcripts can make amends for that failing by achieving professional success.
“This work experience will help you stand apart from the crowded applicant pool,” Jaconette wrote in an email. “Professors are looking to find someone who can share insights with the rest of the graduate cohort.”
He adds that entrepreneurial work experience, which involves starting or leading a venture, is one way to impress grad school admissions committees enough that they will forgive low college grades.
Kanopka says that doctoral hopefuls who were not A students in college should do significant writing and research before applying to doctoral programs. “Any opportunities you can take to develop your research interests, identify some questions you want to address and get some experience doing some actual research will help move your application up the pile,” he wrote via email.
Write thoughtful, creative and honest admissions essays.
Experts say it’s crucial for grad school applicants with low college grades to write admissions essays that clearly explain their reason for wanting to earn an advanced degree, since admissions officers may doubt their level of motivation and discipline.
Kanopka says the personal statement is a great place for applicants with low college GPAs to demonstrate their determination. “It’s the thing that they’re going to read to really most understand what your logic is and what your thinking is,” Kanopka says.
Supplemental essays are additional opportunities for prospective graduate students to overcome their low undergraduate GPAs. Shyu says she included a supplemental essay in her law school application since she knew her college grades were lower than the typical Penn Law candidate.
In that essay, she explained that she had initially felt lost in college, described how she discovered her sense of purpose when she took a semester off and discussed how pausing to reflect on her life goals spurred her to improve as a student and grow as a person.
Alert admissions officers if a personal issue impacted your academic performance.
O’Halloran says graduate school applicants whose undergraduate GPAs were negatively impacted by unfortunate life circumstances should provide that context in their application. “Sometimes, the overall GPA doesn’t tell the complete story,” she says. “Perhaps a student was dealing with a challenging situation during one semester, which brought down the overall GPA. I encourage an applicant to share that information and highlight their ability to bounce back and be successful in subsequent coursework.”
Consider signing up for additional courses.
Andrew Selepak, the director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida, says he knows from personal experience that excelling in classes after college can help someone get into a competitive graduate program despite a low college GPA. Though he only had a 2.85 undergraduate GPA when he received his bachelor’s degree in American history from the University of Virginia, he was able to qualify for admission to a master’s program at George Mason University after completing several of the school’s courses and earning solid grades in those courses, he says. Selepak says participating in a university’s continuing education program is one way for prospective graduate students to gain access to graduate-level courses, which affords them the chance to prove their academic competence. “This could be one option for students, although it does mean finding programs that offer this opportunity to students who did not earn a high enough GPA as an undergrad,” he wrote in an email.
After earning his master’s degree from George Mason, Selepak went on to pursue a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Florida, where he now teaches.
Demonstrate your potential by performing well on your graduate school entrance exam.
“Given the potential for elasticity in your test scores, I advise prospective grad students with a low GPA to view rigorous test preparation as a great opportunity to increase your chances of acceptance,” wrote Shana Ginsburg – the founder and president of the Ginsburg Advanced Tutoring, LLC test prep company – in an email.
Aim to excel in admissions interviews.
Prospective grad students with low college GPAs may be able to persuade graduate faculty to forgive that flaw in their application if they make a positive impression during admissions interviews, Thornton says. “The faculty really feels like they know the student, and they’re not strictly looking at that GPA as the hard indicator,” she says.
Apply to schools without GPA requirements.
Experts say prospective graduate students with low college GPAs should target graduate programs that have a holistic admissions policy, meaning they look at an application in its entirety before making a decision.
“Thankfully, most schools now are considering much more than just the numbers you submit,” wrote Erin Goodnow, the co-founder and CEO of the Going Ivy admissions consulting firm, in an email. “If your grades or test scores weren’t the best, you want to accentuate the positive in the rest of your application – showing some unique leadership experience or research or life perspective and maturity.”
Goodnow adds that a growing number of grad schools are embracing the idea that prospective students should not be defined solely on the basis of their academic statistics, such as grades or test scores. “The rigor of the classes counts for a lot, as does your background and experience in life, as well as preparation for your advanced degree,” she says. “Accentuating your positive attributes in essays, letters of recommendation and interviews is critical if your numbers aren’t going to be the strongest part of your application.”