Don’t Ignore a Low GPA in B-School Applications

Use MBA admissions essays to demonstrate enthusiasm and growth and balance out a low undergraduate GPA.

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Show admissions officers that you’ve grown and matured in an essay to counteract a low undergraduate GPA.
Show admissions officers that you’ve grown and matured in an essay to counteract a low undergraduate GPA.

MBA candidates have anxiety over many facets of their applications, from less-than-stellar GMAT scores to weak quantitative profiles to blemishes on their academic records. One common weakness facing MBA hopefuls is a low undergraduate GPA.

Keep in mind that a 3.5 or better undergraduate GPA isn't considered low for the purposes of most MBA applications, so look at the mean GPA for admitted students at your target programs to determine whether you have an issue to overcome in that area.

[Find out which 10 schools receive the most MBA applications.]

Our client Spencer came to us for assistance with his applications to three top-five MBA programs. He had a successful track record as part of a business development team at a health care company, as well as great leadership examples on a nonprofit board. Spencer had achieved a strong, balanced GMAT score of 740. The main issue with Spencer's application was his 2.9 GPA from Boston University.

When we discussed his GPA in detail, Spencer said he was passionate about economics and did well with that subject and a few other classes that interested him. But he wasn't able to muster enthusiasm for his communications or literature classes – a reality that his grades reflected.

There were no extenuating circumstances that affected Spencer's GPA. He simply lacked the maturity to work hard in the classes he disliked.

The difficulty with a low GPA is that it's solidly in the past. When MBA programs look at academic records like the GMAT and GPA, there's a question of aptitude – if the applicant can do the work? – as well as application – if the applicant will work hard. It was clear that Spencer had the aptitude. Unfortunately, it wasn't clear that he would dedicate himself to his MBA course work.

[Match your personality with b-school teaching styles.]

Spencer directly addressed his low GPA in his optional essays. He made no excuses and admitted that he had lacked the wisdom to see the big picture during his undergraduate years.

He demonstrated that he had since developed the maturity to work hard in all classes, not just those he found intellectually interesting. He explained that he was a high achiever at work, had achieved A's in a set of pre-MBA classes and was prepared to dedicate himself to his MBA studies. Ultimately, Spencer's candor paid off and he was admitted to Columbia Business School.

Another client, Joe, had a fairly solid 3.4 GPA from his days as an undergraduate at University of California — Berkeley. Because his grades were decent overall, he wanted to gloss over the fact that he got a D in an introductory economics class. Joe assumed that the admissions committee would give him the benefit of the doubt and understand that this grade was a fluke.

While I understood his reasoning and sympathized with his desire not to dwell on a single failure, I fervently disagreed with this approach. If you don't provide those details, the admissions committee will make assumptions that may not be in your favor.

In Joe's case, the admissions committee may think he did not like or value economics as a subject, or that he could not grasp basic economic theory. Worse, they may wonder why he didn't feel the need to explain such a serious blemish on his record, which could lead them to doubt his judgment or presentation skills.

[Check out these six great careers for MBA graduates.]

As it turned out, Joe had a very good reason for the low grade, and the story behind the grade became an asset to his application. Rather than try to explain, Joe drafted an essay that focused on how he helped his family through a significant health and financial crisis. This included driving back and forth between Berkeley and San Diego on a weekly basis. The frequent travel, combined with a fairly inflexible professor, led to the D.

Joe's story revealed his personal priorities – his work ethic, dedication to family and determination. In many ways, it was the strongest essay he wrote. Joe talked about how he grew through this experience, and his honest self-reflection was rewarded with admission to the Wharton School.

These real-life examples show how addressing a low GPA in your MBA application is a critical step, whether it was caused by dramatic circumstances or mere laziness. Admissions committees really do consider applications holistically, so if all other aspects of your candidacy are strong, one flaw likely won't doom you completely.

Be honest, show introspection and growth and let the chips fall where they may.