Bill Gates once joked that in ninth grade he invented—well before he founded Microsoft—a new form of rebellion. “I hadn’t been getting good grades, but I decided to get all A’s without taking a book home. I didn’t go to math class, because I knew enough and had read ahead, and I placed within the top 10 people in the nation on an aptitude exam.”
For the rest of us, A’s rarely come as easily. Yet, they loom large in elite MBA admissions. Unlike a GMAT or GRE, a grade point average is a fairly honest reflection of one’s academic ability over four or more years. And like GMAT or GRE scores, the average GPA of an incoming MBA class has generally been going in one direction: up.
Generally, higher GPAs can be attributed to continued grade inflation at undergraduate institutions. But there’s no doubt that part of the increase is the result of increasing competition in the elite MBA applicant pool. Over the past five years, the trend toward higher GPAs is striking. Some 15 of the Top 25 business schools in the U.S. have seen GPAs rise, ranging from a .13 increase at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where the class GPA is now 3.53 to the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School where last year’s class came in at 3.41, up .10 since 2011.
STANFORD GSB CONTINUES TO LEADER THE PACK ON AVERAGE GPA
In only seven out of 25 cases did GPAs fall, most notably at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, where the average fell by .05 to 3.35, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where the average slipped .04 to 3.40 over 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 3.75 GPA, up a sliver this past year from 3.74 a year earlier. Not far behind is Harvard Business School and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, both tied at 3.66. At many of the other elite schools, including Kellogg, and Yale, average GPAs are now so high, with all three schools tied at 3.60, 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 range of scores of any class. At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, this year’s entering class was composed of students who scored as low as 3.0 and as high as 3.83. The Fuqua average for the Class of 2018 was 3.47. At NYU Stern this year, the range went from a low of 2.51 to a perfect 4.0, with the average being 3.50.
“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 TO EXPLAIN AWAY A BELOW-AVERAGE GPA
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.”
That certainly wouldn’t have been Bill Gates’ style.