Let’s face it, you have a poor undergraduate GPA, and can’t change it. You may have questions such as, is that all that matters? Is it true that my prospects of getting into a graduate programme in the United States or Canada are slim? Do I have to settle for a program/university with a low reputation? Applying to graduate school with a poor GPA can feel like getting lost in a forest, such as in the image above.
The bad news is that the answers to the above are yes, well, kind of. Hear me out.
The good news is that a poor GPA is not the end of your ambitions. It comes with some conditions.
Let me begin with an example. A client of mine had a pretty low GPA, about 6.5/10 (which is about 2/4, possibly even lower, when converted). They also had a poor GRE score (below the global and Indian average) and submitted it. The person got into the University of Texas, Dallas and a couple of other pretty decent schools as well!
I’ve been a consultant for a couple of years now, and have had clients receive admission from some of the world’s best universities globally. So I’m well aware that UT Dallas isn’t exactly a great university, relatively speaking. But it still has a lot going for it, and it’s way better than the likes of American University, Pace University, etc. If you’ve been to a consultant before, I am quite certain they would have recommended such universities to you.
To shed some more light on the said applicant, they had also done an MBA with a pretty decent GPA and will have had about a year of full-time work experience in a field related to the program for which they applied to. Of course, they also had excellent recommendations and a top-notch SOP (which I helped improve).
What can help offset a poor GPA?
In this segment, I’ll break down what you can do, going over important parts of your application, if you have a poor GPA.
Before going ahead, you must understand your GPA and what really matters. Your overall GPA is important, but your GPA over the latter two years of your degree, or the combined GPA of core subjects (relevant to the graduate programme), is sometimes scrutinised more closely. If you did well in certain key courses but your GPA was dragged down by unrelated subjects or electives, or if you did poorly in your first year or early semesters, you can expect the admissions committee to cut you some slack. If, on the other hand, your academic performance was bad throughout your undergraduate degree, or you did particularly poorly in core/related areas, you will have to rely on other parts of your application.
It’s also possible that your undergraduate degree was in a different field and you intend to change fields/careers; you can mention this in your SOP.
1. The Statement of Purpose (SOP)
I have a detailed post on how to write a high-quality SOP. This part of your application becomes even more important if your GPA is poor – why? You can use the SOP to give an explanation about what it is that led to a poor GPA, or the decision to change fields, for example. Even if the above do not apply, a strong, well-written statement can really uplift your application.
If the application asks for a Personal Statement, the above information about explanations and changing fields should be included in it.
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2. Recommendation Letters (LORs)
Now, getting a recommendation can be tricky. Obviously, you would not want to ask the professor in a course that you failed or did poorly in to provide a recommendation. Try to convince a professor in the course(s) that you performed best, to provide a recommendation.
You could also rely on project/thesis advisors, or if you have some work experience, you could ask your boss or manager to provide a recommendation. Either way, ensure that the recommendation is from a person who knows you well, and can discuss your positives (with examples).
Of course, it is quite likely that your referee may ask you to provide a draft to them, in that case, I am happy to help you draft a recommendation that will certainly uplift your candidacy for any graduate program.
3. Full-time professional experience
Professional experience is not given the importance it deserves, among applicants. There is so much that one can gain by working – industry relevant technical skills, soft skills, project management, organization, money management, working with strict timelines, troubleshooting, etc. For an applicant with an average or poor GPA, relevant full-time work experience can really get you some massive brownie points! I have had clients with an average GPA but 2 years+ of professional experience get incredible offers of admission.
A job/role that is relevant to what you want to study in the future, at a reputed organization has the most value. Working at a lesser-known company or a startup also has tremendous value, but you must present your role well, particularly in the resume and in the SOP (if it is being included in the SOP). Consider the following examples:
- Pradeep says that he is the key person in leading testing and introduction of new products for a client, and has been working at a huge IT company for over three years. He has experience with using Python, SQL, AWS, and has extensive experience in testing.
- Ramona says that she independently handled scripting tasks for automation and development to test functions and triggers for a platform that has over a hundred thousand users, while improving efficiency by 18%. She also has experience with Python, Java, SQL, AWS and Docker. However, this was during a 2-month internship with a startup.
The work experience in both of the examples have value, but which one do you think leaves a more enduring impact? I reckon Ramona does, because she provides quantitative impacts (efficiency, number of users), while Pradeep severely underplayed his experience, despite having much more. This brings me to the next component of every applicant’s application package (and this goes far beyond graduate school) – the resume.
Your resume will always be one of the most important parts of future career-related applications. I have a detailed post on writing a standard high-quality resume and a free downloadable MS Word file too. Despite being a key component of your applications, reviewers will spend under a minute skimming through your resume. This explains why Ramona’s experience will leave an excellent impression – numbers. And yes, they will notice your GPA. Never make the horrendous mistake of not mentioning your GPA!
5. GRE/GMAT score
Lastly, a good GRE/GMAT score, and by good I mean an excellent score, may just be your saving grace. Although the GRE/GMAT score may not be given much weightage in some programs (varies depending on the program), a really strong GRE score, where it matters, might still keep you in the race.
In conclusion, a lower than average GPA is not the end of your graduate school dreams! It is just one part of your application, and admissions committees always view the application holistically when selecting applicants. Now, that being said, if your transcripts are ridden with backlogs and consistently low grades, you should reconsider going abroad, enrol in a post-graduate program in your home country (as the person in the above example did), work for a while and do well in that! These are just a couple of many strategies.
Identify your strengths. If you have good GRE/GMAT scores, or extensive/focused work experience at a well-known company, if you have research experience and publications, or something else, highlight those at every opportunity. Play according to your strengths, and you may increase your chances multi-fold.