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Don't Let Grades, Test Scores Keep You From Graduate School

Learn five tips to improve your chances of admission.

Get accepted to graduate school even if you have a low GPA or test scores.

You can get accepted to graduate school even if your scores aren’t stellar.

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On more than one occasion as both a graduate school and business school admissions dean, I admitted applicants with GPA's below 2.0. That may seem hard to believe, but it's true. 

I came to believe that the more intangible aspects of a candidate, such as persistence and determination, were perhaps more revealing. Unfortunately, this sentiment is not universally shared.

As you consider your graduate and professional school options, you must accept the fact that grades and test scores matter. But there are five things you can do to help improve your chances. 

[Check out tips to overcome bad grades in college.] 

1. Apply to schools that will evaluate your application in its entirety: At some institutions, academics are so important that the admissions committee performs a preliminary review to weed out applicants based on GPA and test scores. Before you apply, make sure to find out how schools perform evaluations. 

One other piece of advice: If a graduate program starts the review process by immediately eliminating applicants based on GPA and test score, you may want to consider how much you really want to be a student there. It begs the question: "Are they really interested in what I can bring to the program, or are they only interested in rankings and numbers?" 

2. Be prepared to discuss undergraduate grades: Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that contributed to your GPA being lower than you would like, such as medical, financial, or family issues. 

It is perfectly acceptable to explain this to the admissions committee. I recommend addressing it in your required essay or in an optional essay, or including a letter in your application. 

By all means, explain what happened, but do not make excuses or sound like you are complaining about the situation. Just state the facts and provide indicators that your GPA does not reflect your intellect or work ethic. 

[Learn what to consider when applying to medical school with a low GPA.] 

3. Take a few graduate-level courses: In most cases, there is nothing stopping you from signing up for individual graduate courses. But you need to be prepared and committed to scoring an A. 

Assuming you perform exceptionally, this is a great way to impress the admissions committee. It shows that you mean business, are serious about demonstrating your academic ability, and have what it takes to succeed. 

4. Retake the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT: Often, applicants will say that they are not good test takers, which is definitely true for many. But too often applicants only take the test once. 

If your GRE or GMAT score is less than you had hoped for, take the test again. You may want to consider a test prep course, too. If your score improves, you'll be better positioned to be accepted. Even if it drops, at least you showed that you put forth an extra effort and gave it a second try. 

[Get six tips for GRE success.] 

5. Apply again: Being denied to your dream grad school hurts, but it is not personal. At the risk of sounding philosophical, things do work out for the best. Nevertheless, don't give up. Try again. 

Based on my experience, the chance of being admitted on the second attempt increases considerably. However, I recommend giving it a year before reapplying. 

Remember, regardless of where you are accepted, if you practice persistence and determination, you will graduate with flying colors and be ready to embark on the next successful chapter of your life. 

Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. To learn more about graduate admissions, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.