A less than stellar undergraduate GPA is a scenario that many face when applying to MBA programs. And this happens for many reasons. Some people get to university and explore their social freedom for the first time, some folks switch majors after realizing their first direction was not right, some students take a while to find their academic groove, and some schools are known to grade more harshly than other institutions.
Be an Impartial Analyst
The critical question is how low is low? Mean GPAs have gotten higher at the top 10 schools and the distribution around the mean is tighter versus years back. It used to be that you could have a 2.9 GPA and still get into an elite MBA program — but that‘s getting harder to pull off and there are increasingly fewer outliers.
So take a sober look at your targeted schools in terms of GPA and the reported GPA % distribution and don’t ignore what you find. You may see some blog posts floating around with authors talking about how they got into HBS with a 2.7 GPA. Know that this is rare and don’t fool yourself into thinking odds are in your favor. I see clients each season over shoot on their targeted schools and you need to have a balanced slate of schools to maximize your chances. As you move into the top 10-20 schools, there can be more wiggle GPA room, but even average GPAs for these schools have become more impressive over time.
So be an impartial analyst as you research your schools. That is what an MBA would do!
Explaining a Low GPA
The optional essay is often a great place to play offense and explain your academic performance. While it’s rarely a good idea to fully blame extenuating circumstances for your low GPA, some explanation may be warranted. People have health problems and family deaths, some applicants are varsity athletes with crazy schedules, some students have to deal with coming to a country for the first time and performing academically in a non-native language, and some have to work full time to pay for school. There are some understandable reasons why applicants can underperform, and rather than just letting an admissions officer draw their own quick conclusion, you should provide some color on the situation. Keep it concise and don’t blame multiple things. Take some responsibility as well, and admit you could have handled the situation more maturely.
What Can You Do?
Clients always want to know how they can perhaps counteract a low GPA. As I have argued above, this is getting harder to pull off given competition has become so fierce and the mean scores figure into the rankings. The Internet has democratized the process of researching schools and getting application tips, and high quality folks from all over the globe are targeting Top 20 programs. So a low GPA is more of a liability, but you can take action steps:
- Killing the GMAT. Getting a great, balanced score on the GMAT is the best revenge. And you should try to score above the mean GMAT for your targeted schools. The GMAT is the great equalizer, as it lets AdComs compare applicants who come from very different schools and learning cultures. So double down on the GMAT, get a private tutor, and push your applications to Round 2 if necessary to have more time for this critical exam.
- Take a Class. Maybe you did not do so well in Statistics in undergrad. Take that class again, perhaps at a well-known university in their extension offerings. I still prefer a physical class (like you will do at your MBA), but some kind of hybrid online class is fine too. Some of the major schools also have more and more offerings (on campus and on line) — so if you are targeting Booth and live in Chicago, why not take a business relevant class on their campus. Or check out HBS’ CORe programs if your professional experience has not exposed you to a broad business fluency. Not everybody passes those HBS courses so getting an “honors” from HBS is another way to show that your undergraduate performance is not the whole story.
- Look at a Part-Time Program. Some applicants simply won’t be able to make up for a low GPA. Applying to lower ranked schools with solid recruiting in your desired field or applying to a part time program can be a great option. Some of the top schools (Haas, NYU, Booth, etc.) have part-time programs and the bar is generally more forgiving on the GPA issue. At least for now.
If you are unsure about your GPA situation, talk to a current MBA student or an admissions consultant. Getting outside perspectives can help. For example, many applicants don’t know that for most schools, only US reported GPAs figure into reported class profile averages – this can help you if you are a foreign applicant with a less than stellar academic record.
So don’t worry yourself into inaction. Get informed and make a plan!