How to Overcome a Low GPA in Your MBA Applications

Low undergrad GPA? 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 this is one of the easiest items to mitigate in your MBA applications.

For most people, college was several years ago, and you’ve come a long way: started your career, accepted a promotion, and maybe even started managing a team. Though your progress since college will be advantageous in addressing the admissions committee’s questions about your leadership potential, skill set, and sometimes analytical skills; it doesn’t answer the question of how well you can handle a classroom or academic environment.
Though MBA programs often emphasize the “programmatic” nature of the degree (the internships, seminars, experiential learning opportunities, conferences, trips, networking etc), an MBA is still a master’s level degree with master’s level classes. And as such, the coursework demands that you are able to perform in the classroom (study, apply theories to cases, pass tests, etc). And 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 GPA from undergrad is not at or above the average for your target schools? Whenever I’m advising an applicant with a low GPA, I focus on two things: 1) explain; and 2) overcome.
Note that I did not use the word “justify”. Explaining is not making excuses; explaining is simply stating how it was and how it’s better now (whatever “it” was). Importantly, 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 a while to really perfect your time management skills and figure out how to prioritize effectively. In fact, it shows a great deal of maturity and self-reflection. However, you must immediately follow that statement by pointing to how you’ve overcome that issue (eg. point to your higher GPA in your previous master’s program, the fact that you manage multiple projects at a time now with no issues, etc). Be brief but be specific – you don’t want to leave anything to assumption or have them think that you are being vague because the real reason is that you just partied too much.
All of this information, in addition to any other necessary explanations, will go into the optional section of the application. This section is where you can directly point out that certain areas of weakness, including a low GPA, are not reflective of the strength of your candidacy.
So, in addition to explaining why your GPA from undergrad was low, you also want to note in this section what you’ve done to prove your academic ability. The best “proof” of course is to take a post-grad class and show the admissions committee that you can handle the academics like a champ.
A large percentage of my clients taken some sort of online or in-person class to bolster their applications (I’d estimate over 50%). And fortunately there are great options for every work and life schedule.
On the higher end of commitment level would be in-person classes at a local community college or university continuing education department. These work well for people who learn best in a group setting and want to hunker down and complete the class on a more concrete schedule. Attending an in-person class, per se, isn’t necessarily viewed more favorably in this day in age, but it has the advantage of a more structure for those who prefer that setting.
Online classes offer more flexibility, or go-at-your-own-pace programs that are appealing to those who travel for work or have less control over their day-to-day schedules. Online classes also range in commitment level and costs. On the lower end of the commitment and time spectrum,MBAMath.comcosts $149 for modules spanning subjects such as statistics, accounting and financing that can be completed in 20-40 hours. On the higher end of commitment and time isHarvard’s HBX CORe, which costs $1,950 and is estimated to take approximately 150 hours to complete. Of note, many estimate that a rather large percentage of HBS admits have taken HBX CORe (this is anecdotal, of course).
Other popular options includeWharton’s Coursera courses(the graded versions – there are many different classes and you can subscribe to the specialization for $79 per month) andUC Berkeley’s extension(approximately $1,000 for an accounting course that spans approximately 45-50 hours).
The most popular courses to take generally include accounting, statistics and/or calculus if you didn’t take it in college. This of course depends on how much quant work you’ve done in the past and how you scored.
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.
And aside from increasing your chances, taking additional coursework shows your commitment and willingness to prepare for the MBA experience, which of course signals that you are ready to get as much value out of the program as humanly possible (and they like that!)

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