How to Overcome a Low GPA in Your MBA Applications
One of the most common concerns we hear from clients is that their low undergrad GPA will prevent them from being accepted to the MBA program of their dreams. Whether it was because you chose the toughest major at your university, had a little too much fun, or were so involved in extracurriculars that you didn’t have enough time to study, the good news is that a low GPA can be one of the easier weaknesses to mitigate in your MBA applications.
If you’re like most applicants, college was several years ago and you’ve come a long way since then – you’ve begun your career, earned a promotion or two, and maybe even started managing a team. While these accomplishments help demonstrate your leadership potential and perhaps your analytical skills, they don’t tell the admissions committee whether you can handle a rigorous academic environment. Though MBA programs often emphasize the “programmatic” nature of the degree (the internships, seminars, experiential learning opportunities, conferences, trips, and networking), an MBA is still a master’s level degree with master’s level classes. The coursework demands that you can study, apply theories to cases, write essays, and pass tests.
The time-honored way for the admissions committees to assess your skills in this area is by looking at the combination of your GMAT score and your GPA. So, what can you do if your undergrad GPA is not at or above the average for your target schools? The key is to focus on two things: 1) explaining and 2) overcoming.
Explaining a Low GPA
Note that I did not use the word “justify”. Explaining is not making excuses; explaining is simply stating what ‘it’ was and why ‘it’s’ better now (whatever ‘it’ was).
Don’t sweep anything under the rug or be cagey. If your GPA was low in your first two years because you were struggling with over-committing and not managing your time well, then it’s OK to say that it took you awhile to perfect your time management skills and learn to prioritize effectively. In fact, it shows a great deal of maturity and self-reflection.
However, you must immediately follow that statement with how you’ve overcome that issue (e.g., earned a top notch GPA in another master’s program, successfully managed multiple projects at work, etc). Be brief but specific – you don’t want them to assume that you are being vague because the real reason for your GPA is that you just partied too much.
This information, in addition to any other necessary explanations, will go into the optional essay component of the application. This is where you directly point out that certain areas of weakness, including a low GPA, are not reflective of the strength of your candidacy.
Overcoming a Low GPA
In addition to explaining why your GPA from undergrad was low, you also want to use the optional essay to share what you’ve done to demonstrate your academic ability.
The best “proof” is having earned a stellar grade in a post-grad class to show the admissions committee that you can handle the academics like a champ. A large percentage of our clients take some sort of online or in-person class to bolster their applications (I’d estimate over 50%). Fortunately, there are great options for every work and life schedule.
On the higher end of commitment level are live classes through a local community college or university continuing education department. These work well for people who learn best in a group setting and want to be held to a more concrete schedule.
Self-directed online courses offer more flexibility and may appeal to those who travel for work (in a non-COVID world) or have less control over their day-to-day schedule. Online classes also range in commitment level and costs. On the lower end of the commitment and time spectrum, MBAMath.com costs $149 for modules covering topics like statistics, accounting and finance that can be completed in 20-40 hours. On the higher end of commitment and time is Harvard Online’s CORe program, which costs $2,250 and is estimated to take approximately 150 hours to complete. Of note, many estimate that a rather large percentage of HBS admits have taken CORe (this is anecdotal, of course). Other popular options include Wharton’s Coursera courses (target the graded versions) and UC Berkeley’s Extension.
Focus on foundational quantitative subjects you didn’t study in college (or performed poorly in) like accounting, statistics and/or calculus. By doing well in one of these courses, you can ask the admissions committee to look at your additional coursework grades as an indication of your ability to succeed in the classroom instead of your undergrad coursework. Typically, this demonstration, paired with a strong GMAT score, will help an admissions director to feel more comfortable with that aspect of your application.
Aside from increasing your chances, taking additional coursework shows your commitment and willingness to prepare for the MBA experience, which signals that you are ready to get as much value out of the program as humanly possible (and the admissions committee likes that!).