Can GPAs Get Any Higher At Top Business Schools?

gradesIt’s not only GMATs that are inching higher at the top business schools. It’s also the grades on incoming students’ undergraduate transcripts, according to a new analysis of grade point averages by Poets&Quants.

Six of the top ten schools reported slightly higher average grade point averages for the MBA classes that entered last fall, with the biggest increase coming at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The incoming Kellogg class had an average GPA of 3.60, up from 3.54 a year earlier. Only one school reported a decline: Harvard Business School where the average GPA slipped to 3.67 from 3.70 the previous year. The remaining three top ten schools reported stable GPAs for their new MBA students.

You can chalk some of this up to continued grade inflation at undergraduate institutions, but also increasing competition in the elite MBA applicant pool. Over the past five years, the trend toward higher GPAs is more striking. Only eight schools in the top 25 reported lower GPAs over the five-year span, with all the rest showing increases or grade point averages that remained stable. The same is true in the next tier of the 25 schools that round out the top 50 in the U.S.

SIGNIFICANT FIVE-YEAR INCREASES AT UNC, WHARTON, NYU, CORNELL, & DARDEN

Some of the increases are fairly notable (see below). Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business increased the average GPA of its entering MBA class by 1.5 points to 3.46 last year from 2010. The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill posted a 1.2 point rise to 3.42 over the same period. Wharton, NYU’s Stern School, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School all reported average GPAs that rose a full point in the past five years.

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business continues to lead the pack, as it does with the highest average GMAT score of any U.S. school, with a 3.74 GPA, followed closely by Harvard with a 3.67. At many of the other elite schools, including UC-Berkeley, Kellogg, Wharton, and MIT, the average GPAs are now so high that applicants have little room to get in if there are a couple of Cs on their transcript.

While all the schools obviously admit students with GPAs below average, the mean is often an important dividing line. How narrow the range actually is can be glimpsed in the 10th and 90th percentile scores of any class. At MIT Sloan last year, a 3.23 GPA represented the 10th percentile while a 3.87 was at the 90th. The average GPA at MIT last year was 3.58. Or consider Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business where the 10th percentile was 3.16 and the 90th was 3.85, with an average of 3.54.

“If your GPA is less than the average, you have some explaining to do,” says Betsy Massar of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm. “Undergraduate GPAs matter and high GPAs still turn heads. But it also depends on what kind of classes you took.”

If you clearly stretched yourself in more rigorous coursework, it will often make a difference than students whose undergraduate transcript shows they took relatively easy courses.

HOW SOME CANDIDATES EXPLAIN AWAY THEIR BELOW-AVERAGE GPAS

While slightly less emphasis is placed on a GPA than GMAT scores, they are still vital to a successful application. “They can be very important,” adds Vince Ricci, director of admissions consulting for Agos Japan, a global admissions consulting firm based in Japan. “If you are a Harvard undergrad with a 3.2 and want to go to Harvard Business School, it’s going to be tough.”

How to position a below-average GPA in an MBA application? Massar says you can often point out that you had lower grades in freshman year but things got better as you adjusted to college. “The trend is your friend,” says Massar. “If you held down a job working 30 hours or more a week during college, you can also cite that as a reason why your GPA isn’t as high as it could be.”

But Massar cautions applicants who try to play the sympathy card to excuse away a lower GPA. A death in the family or your own personal illness can be legitimate explanations, but the justification has to come off in an authentic and genuine way or it can backfire. “It can’t be wah, wah, wah.”

One thing’s for sure. Don’t expect much of a let-up in these numbers. With Princeton University giving up the fight last year to fight grade inflation, you can expect undergraduate grades to inch ever forward. And because GPAs, like GMATs, are a metric in U.S. News’ rankings, MBA admissions officials will continue to pay great attention to them.

Top 50 Schools With Biggest Five-Year Increases In GPAs

 

School Five-Year Change 2014 Average GPA 2010 Average GPA
Arizona State (Carey) +.15 3.46 3.31
Wake Forest +.13 3.33 3.20
North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler) +.12 3.42 3.30
Cornell (Johnson) +.10 3.35 3.25
Pennsylvania (Wharton) +.10 3.60 3.50
New York University (Stern) +.10 3.52 3.42
Virginia (Darden) +.10 3.50 3.41
Washington (Foster) +.09 3.43 3.34
Chicago (Booth) +.08 3.60 3.52
Northwestern (Kellogg) +.08 3.60 3.52
Ohio State +.08 3.48 3.40

Source: Poets&Quants analysis from available GPA data