Grad School Admissions: How to Deal with a Low GPA

Your heart’s set on grad school. Perhaps you want a doctorate in literature because you’re hoping to teach Jane Austen seminars at the university level. Or, maybe you’d like a doctorate in biology, hoping to work in the medical sciences researching a cure for diabetes. You’ve begun the process of looking into various programs but you face one obstacle: your less than stellar undergraduate GPA.

Don’t let a low GPA deter you from your dreams!

First, what’s considered a low GPA? Generally, on a 4.0 grading system, a GPA of less than 3.0 (which is equivalent to a B) is considered low. For top tier grad schools, a GPA of 3.5 is often expected. Investigate prospective schools’ requirements for their master’s or doctoral programs. Be sure to go to the specific department’s guidelines. Many universities won’t list a minimum or average GPA of past applicants but other schools will. You may have to dig a bit to find these statistics. If they aren’t listed on websites, pick up the phone and make a few calls.

1) Put your GPA in perspective.

Your GPA is just a number. It doesn’t tell the whole story of your undergraduate years. Is your GPA in your proposed field of study significantly higher than your overall GPA? If so, emphasize this on your application. It’s not uncommon for these two GPAs to be different. Graduate schools are likely more interested in the grades you earned in courses relevant to your proposed field of study.

Did your grades steadily improve from freshman year to senior year? This is worth highlighting as well. Schools will take this into consideration as they examine your application.

2) Be prepared to explain.

Perhaps there’s a perfectly valid reason for your low GPA – a hospitalization or a family emergency. Admissions committees will likely understand these circumstances. Consider explaining your GPA in the application, either in your essay or in a separate section. Don’t hope that they won’t notice a low GPA. They will. You’re better off addressing the issue head-on. Be honest about it but steer clear of making excuses that sound immature.

3) Focus on other areas of your application.

Ensure that the rest of your application is outstanding. Take the GRE and ace it, even if it means taking it a few times. Use the app Ready4 GRE to help boost your score on the exam. Or, take a test prep class.

Write an amazing essay. This is your chance to persuade the school that you’re the perfect candidate for their program. Refer to this link for some tips: If you need to submit scholarly work, make sure it’s the best possible representation of your academic capabilities.

Letters of recommendation are a key factor universities use in determining your acceptance. Secure a few letters of recommendation from faculty members in your major who can testify to your ability. Thinking about a PhD in math at Princeton? Consider these words from the math department’s website: “The most important thing you can do is to develop a close mathematical relationship with a faculty member at your university who can speak to us knowledgeably about your qualifications and who can advise you correctly about what you need to do to make yourself a good candidate for Princeton.”

4) Be realistic about where you’re applying.

Don’t apply to schools that likely won’t accept you. Are you hoping to pursue a doctorate in industrial engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering? A quick glance at the department’s website reveals that they concentrate on a few characteristics of their candidates. They state, “At a top-tier institution, a grade point average of at least 3.7 out of 4.0 or 90 out of 100 is desirable.” Perhaps you should set your sights elsewhere.

5) Boost your academic profile.

Depending on your timeline, it may be worth taking a few graduate level courses in your field to enhance your application with more recent, higher scores. Hopefully, there is a prestigious local university that offers graduate courses in your field. Sign up for some courses and – this is key – make sure you earn A grades in these classes! In addition to showing admission committees that you’re capable of high grades at the graduate level and that you’re serious about graduate work, taking graduate level courses before entering a full-time graduate program has the potential benefit of connecting you to faculty members in your field who can write letters of recommendation for you or possibly offer you a research position. Recent achievements can go a long way toward helping you secure a spot at your top choice graduate school.

The bottom line: you can maximize your chances of getting into a graduate program even if you have a low GPA. Don’t fret! Hold onto your dreams of an advanced degree and go for it!