Essentials Of An Awesome App: GPA

This is the second installment in our new series, The Essentials of an Awesome MBA Application. Last time admissions consultant Linda Abraham addressed the role of the GMAT in MBA admissions; this time, she tackles today the importance of the GPA, or grade point average, which in the U.S. is on a 4.0 system.

It makes sense to start this post out similarly to the last one: A low GPA can keep you out of a top MBA program, but a high GPA is certainly not enough to get you into the b-school of your dreams. If you have a sky-high GPA, make sure that the other components of your application are equally impressive.

Then realize what a GPA reflects about you: It may reflect a combination of academic ability and application of that ability. It may reflect only one or the other. If your GPA is at or above your target school’s average at matriculation, you don’t really need to read the rest of the article. However, if your GPA is below that average, then pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.

Now, what should you do if your GPA is a little on the low side? If you have a GPA more than .3 below the school’s average, you are going to need to make a deliberate effort to counterbalance it with a substantive explanation plus an otherwise strong application, above average GMAT, and perhaps more recent evidence that you know how to excel in an academic setting.

What are the possible explanations? Here are a few

  • Your GPA was dragged down due to an illness in your family or your own illness during a single semester or year.
  • You partied too hard freshman year (like 2.0 hard) but then started to grow up as a sophomore and received 3.5 or higher during your junior, and senior years.
  • Your undergraduate GPA is low, but you earned a 3.9 GPA while pursuing your M.A. in Economics after graduating from college.

A low GPA is not insurmountable. Proper explanation plus other evidence of academic mojo could pull you out of an otherwise ding-worthy situation. That mojo can take the form of a masters degree with high grades, retaking courses in which you did poorly, especially if they were business-related, or taking quant classes now, particularly if your quant record is sketchy. Consider calculus 1, accounting, statistics for business, and economics, but make sure you have the necessary prerequisites.

If, however, your GPA is a true reflection of your abilities as a student (that is, you can’t muster a proper explanation and don’t have evidence that you are a better student than your grades indicate), then you may need to adjust your list of target schools accordingly.

Be honest with yourself—do you really want to spend the time applying to a school that doesn’t value your qualifications, only to get rejected and go through the application process a second time next year?

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted.com and co-author of the new book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

Our Series on the Essentials of an Awesome MBA Application

Part I: The GMAT

 

  • James Earl Jones

    How are AP classes evaluated in the transcript?  For example, I placed out of calc I and took calc II my first semester of college and got an A-.  I have no grade for the AP course and I clearly chose not to pad my GPA by taking calc I again my freshman year.

  • SuperS

    Dear Linda,

    Firstly, i would say my first target is TOP5.

    Could the GPA of MA cover for the score from B.A., is it right ? is there any case like that ?
    If i could bring my M.A gpa close to 100% with unchanged low GPA (below 3.)..
    Adc will re-consider that i am the proper candidate ?
    (Of course, this is based on Attractive Career experience, high GMAT 700+ and language score).
    Pls give me your answer.Thanks.

    SuperS 

  • @RK,

    First off, unless the school asks you to translate your percentage to the U.S. 4.0 GPA scale, don’t do it. Top MBA programs are experienced in interpreting foreign transcripts and you will almost do better relying on their interpretation than this formula. My understanding is that at most schools, your percentage is a good, above average record. However, a 2.7 is a below average GPA for top MBA programs. It would be a disadvantage, if accurate.

    If the school asks you to translate your percentage, follow its instruction for converting the percentage to a GPA.

    Best,
    Linda

  • @TK,

    I’m sorry. I apparently missed your post earlier. While the schools won’t go through individual class records, they will look at the transcript, especially if they have concerns about it. They certainly will put more weight on your major and on courses related to business — like finance, econ, etc.

    Best,
    Linda

  • RK

    Linda,

    I scored 73% in my under-graduation engineering course. According to the information on a website, the equivalent GPA (on a 4-point scale) would be 2.7 (using formula: GPA = (Percentage/20) – 1). I wanted to know whether use of this formula is justified. If yes, I understand that even though the under-graduate grades/scores would be normalized before comparison, does my percentage fall into the low-end category?

  • Mike,

    Thanks for the additional information.

    Admissions readers will wonder about your fluctuations, the ups and downs. It is very important that you provide context for the inconsistency (working almost full time and going to school) and also provide evidence that you know how to apply yourself through ideally a combination of recent A’s, designations that require disciplined study, and your GMAT. Don’t let them wonder either about your motivation or about your ability.

    For more suggestions, please see http://www.accepted.com/mba/applicationweakness.aspx .

    Best,
    Linda

  • Mike C

    Thanks for the reply. I was a business undergrad and my scores fluctuated quite a bit (I worked nearly full time while in college) and I didn’t know if scores can “off-set” one another in adcom’s minds. For instance I got a A in Financial Accounting and a C in Managerial, a C in Quant (I know adcom will look unfavorable at this but my GMAT Quant will hopefully rectify this) but an A in another quant heavy course, C in MicroEcon and A in Macro and A in Business Econ …. my point being my overall GPA is in line with the 80% range (and higher overall in business courses) but how do adcom’s consider inconsisten ranges (A-C) in similar courses (financial/managerial)?

  • Mike,

    They consider both school’s transcripts. The transfer itself doesn’t mean much or influence much. If you went from a weaker school to a more rigorous one and maintained or improved your GPA, that will be looked at favorably. In general, they look for an upward trend in grades.

    It doesn’t take much time to peruse a transcript, unless there are a lot of “issues” in it and then it takes a little longer, but still not terribly long. They review it. They don’t study it. Whenever I have asked, they insist they look at everything. I suspect that if the basic numbers are bad, they may do a little more skimming than reading.

    Best,
    Linda

  • Mike C

    How do schools factor in transferring, ie you transferred to a different school during undergrad? Do they only take into consideration the GPA of the school you graduated from or do they also factor in the GPA of the original school?

    Also, do adcoms really sift through everyone’s individual transcripts to determine the make up of one’s GPA — this seems cumbersome considering the amount of applicants?

  • Mike C

    Linda,

    How do schools factor in transferring, ie you transferred to a different school during undergrad? Do they only take into consideration the GPA of the school you graduated from or do they also factor in the GPA of the original school?

  • TK

    Linda,

    Do schools necessary go through each person’s transcripts to determine the makeup of their GPA? This seems like a very tedious task considering the number of applicants. Do they only look at the major, finance, econ, engineering and the school to determine the caliber of the gpa? I find it hard to believe unless you are borderline that adcoms sift through everyone’s individual classes.

  • You’re most welcome.

  • JC

    Thanks Linda for your thoughtful advice.

  • JC,

    I think an explanation (started off in sciences then decided talents were in business…) plus a strong GMAT will do a lot for your chances at most schools. Obviously you have to be competitive in the other areas too — leadership, impact, work progression, etc. But given your good grades in business related topics, the logical explanation for the poorer grades, and a good GMAT, you should be able to convince the schools that you can do the work. Then you will need to convince them that you belong.

    Best,
    Linda

  • JC

    Linda,

    I have not taken the GMAT yet but have been averaging in the 85 percentile on quant practice test. I did well in Stats, Econ & Accounting but a C in Finance (took Physics & Finance at the same time, not a good idea). Oddly enough, I work in Finance for a top 3 bank.

    I hope this helps with answering my question.

  • JC,

    Before I respond, could you share your GMAT? What is your quant percentile? I’m guessing that you did well in your quant business courses and that you show a improving GPA during your college career, correct? Is your job quantitatively demanding? Are you planning to apply to programs with average GPAs at matriculation above 3.5?

    I’m sorry for all the questions, but your response could change my answer.

    Best,
    Linda

  • JC

    Hi Linda,

    I majored in Business (3.50 GPA) and minored in Environmental Science with a cum 3.26 GPA. I received low grades in Physics courses and fair grades in Chemistry & other minor courses. After the Physics courses, I realized I the science route was not for me.

    What are your suggestions around my GPA; should I take some quant courses or just explain my story to admissions?

  • AW,

    The schools will certainly consider your circumstances, your GMAT, your work experience, the CFA and any recent classes, but a 2.5 is hard to overcome. It is possible, but less likely that schools in the Top 10 will bite, but your chances increase outside the Top 10. The more recent academic achievement in business related areas you can show, the better.

    I also want to caution you that while it is very important that you provide context for your undergraduate record, once you provide that context focus on the reasons the schools should accept as opposed to those why they shouldn’t reject you because of your GPA. Focus on accomplishments on and off the job since you graduated college. Dean Andrew Ainsley of UCLA Anderson said in a recent chat at Accepted, “I think the bigger thing for applicants to realize is that what we are looking for are signs of something exceptional. It’s not as though we are hunting for the negatives; we are really hunting for the positives. So I’d hate to categorize it and say that we are looking for this or we’re looking for that. If we have some sign of exceptional leadership, some sign of exceptional intelligence, some sign of exceptional business experience, just some sign that you shine in the pack – that is what we are looking for.” http://www.accepted.com/chat/transcripts/2011/UCLAAnderson.aspx .

    It’s a good point to keep in mind.

    Best,
    Linda

  • AW

    Linda,

    I have a low gpa, a 2.5 from college, because I was distracted when both my parents had strokes. I was able to score a 730 on the gmat, but will attempts to counter-balance be enough? I am registered for calc classes and going to sit for the cfa this winter.

  • Kurt W

    Thank you for your timely response Linda and I will take your advice in the interpretation of the transcript.

    Kind Regards

  • AM,

    The short answer: A CFA would help to mitigate a low GPA. Your work experience as an investment analyst would also help.

    The longer answer is that it depends on several questions: 1) How low was the GPA. 2) How long ago did you graduate? 3) How demanding is your work experience and can you show impact and growth on the job? 4) Were there extenuating circumstances that contributed to the low GPA and that are no longer a factor in your life? 5) Does your GMAT indicate that you are capable of more than your GPA does?

    Best,
    Linda

  • AM

    Linda, thanks for the enlightening article.

    In reference to a low GPA, my questions are: (1) to what extent can reasonable work experience (for example, investment analyst) offset this, though recognising length of experience is also a factor, and (2) how do schools view professional qualifications such as the CFA?

  • @srini – I would disagree with you that B-school admissions committees place too much of an emphasis on grades. As a matter of fact, their process of evaluation takes into consideration many of the factors that you reference.

    Because of the high degree of variance associated with GPAs from schools of various calibers across various disciplines, the B-school admissions process also employs other methods for evaluating a candidate’s intellectual horsepower.

    The GMAT is probably the most important one – since it is the only truly objectively comparable metric in the application file.

    But B-schools don’t stop there. They also take a close look at the caliber of the undergraduate institution and the academic rigor of the coursework – which is one reason why an alternative transcript that shows solid performance in challenging classes can be such an effective tool in mitigating a low undergraduate GPA.

  • Kurt,

    yes schools are familiar with the grading scales outside the US and they interpret your transcript in light of that information. Many countries have harder grading scales than the U.S. and schools know that. If your university is not well-known, you may want to include class rank information to be on the safe side.

    Also, unless the schools you are applying to ask you to have your transcript evaluated or “translated” to the U.S. scale, don’t do it. Let the schools interpret your grades. Obviously, if they ask you to have it evaluated, then you should do so.

    Best,
    Linda

  • Srini,

    Distance from college as well as what you have accomplished since college are definitely important. However, realize that if your GPA doesn’t demonstrate that you can perform in a demanding academic setting, something else needs to do so. That is the real point of the article above. If your GPA is more than .3 below the school’s average, then something needs to show you can do the work. One element that several of you have pointed out, is the rigor of your program. Yes it counts. And schools also look at trends in grades, whether you worked in college or not ,and other factors. This is a holistic process.

    BUT, if your grades are more than .3 below the school’s average, you should realize that you may have a competitive weakness to address. Somewhere in your app you have to show the academic smarts — both the raw talent and the ability to apply that talent — or competitive business program are going to choose someone who has better demonstrated those smarts.

    You are assuming above that all applicants would find engineering more difficult than literature courses or courses demanding a lot of writing. There are many, particularly engineers, who would rather take math classes all day long than enter a literature or sociology classroom. Bschools are full of engineers, who have not been scared from taking those classes. And people who come from liberal arts backgrounds and can do the math demanded in top MBA programs are very welcome in business schools.

  • Clown,

    Agreed.

  • JH,

    Schools definitely adjust for the rigor of the program and the competitiveness of the student body. They interpret GPA scores. That is one of the reasons that if one has a low GPA, there are ways you can mitigate it.

    Linda

  • Kurt W

    Thank you for such a great article, is there a difference in the expectations of the GPA score from Top North American universities when evaluating students that studyed both undergraduate and master’s studies in Australia?

    A GPA over 3.0 in this country is considered exceptional and at a master’s level are very difficult to obtain. Most student’s, even from other countries studying here tend to find it difficult to obtain a very high score and are lucky to average 3.0 over the course of each semester.

    I find it rather interesting that students in North America score well over 3.5 in the blogs that I have read.

    Are international students assessed differently? Could speaking English due to being raised in Australia be an advantage?

  • srini

    One important factor that has not been discussed in this article is how long has it been since one did his / her undergraduate studies. For example — if you finished your Undergrad in 2003 — how relevant is that gpa in today’s context? Along those lines..If you finished your undergrad in 2010 — your gpa is much more relevant and a valid data point. I have a feeling bschools give too much importance to gpa. For example — one of my good friends has a 3.1 gpa from gtech in electrical engineering. Another friend has a 3.8 gpa in sociology from a 2nd tier school. There is no way that the two programs, the gpa etc can be compared. Moreover, by schools placing such an importance on the gpa ‘number’ — students are becoming more risk averse and taking easy courses. They are also not going into fields like engineering, math, physics etc in large numbers. The process has become about numbers. Even after getting into an MBA program — people are playing it safe and to their strengths because they are highly concerned about their gpa. Companies want gpa about 3.5 or 3.7 — and students are hyper-focused on grades rather than learning (and you cannot fault the students).

  • JH

    Thanks for this article. Suppose one applicant has a 3.3 from Stanford and another applicant has a 3.6 from UC Riverside. How much are adcoms willing to “adjust” a GPA based on rigor/competitiveness of the school?

  • Clown

    Linda,

    Thanks for the thorough response.

    The main point I was trying to make is that when a school publishes an 80% range for the GMAT of 680-760, it’s pretty easy to see where you stand. It’s tough to argue that a 680 is better than a 720.

    If a school publishes an 80% range of 3.0-3.8, due to the variables you mentioned above, it’s quite possible that one applicant’s 3.4 is more impressive than another applicant’s 3.7.

  • Clown,

    Excellent question. The admissions committees have a good sense of programs that tend to have harder grading curves and easier grading curves. For example it is well known that the service academies tend to be tough. UC Berkeley’s engineering program is also known for a tough curve.

    That being said, your point is valid that this metric is mushy. It can be very difficult to compare grades for different majors or even different teachers of the same subject at the same school. That’s where school reputation, subject rigor, and the GMAT — especially the GMAT — come into play. Not to mention non-academic indications of brain power like the work you do or certifications that you have acquired outside the classroom.

    That is also one reason the admissions process is holistic and doesn’t just rest on one metric.

    That being said, applicants are applying to school. Grades are important in schools. They are also a factor both in the US News ranking and the perceived competitiveness of a program. Schools want to admit students who make them look good.

    Finally, the last thing any school wants to do is admit someone who doesn’t have the academic ability or self discipline to succeed and thrive. So the grades — for all the flaws that you correctly point out — still do count.

    Best,
    Linda

  • Clown

    GPA is probably my least favorite metric – there’s too many apples to oranges.

    I don’t put much thought to the median GPA of 3.4 or 3.5 or whatever. Comparing schools of different prestige aside, there’s way too much variation in majors.

    I don’t think it’s fair to compare my 3.1 in mechanical engineering to a 3.7 in finance from the same school. If someone has a 3.7 in another engineering or hard science field, then I would concede, your GPA is better than mine.

    How do adcoms weigh this discrepancy in rigor of curriculum?