Undergraduate grade point average is, arguably, the least important aspect of your MBA application. Some schools weight GPA heavily, or claim to, but most will overlook a low one if an applicant is extraordinary in other ways. A great GPA can only help, but a good one probably won’t hurt much, if you have other desirable qualities. For proof, see the GPA ranges published in Class of 2022 profiles last fall: the University of Chicago Booth School of Business admitted someone with a 2.80 undergrad GPA, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management admitted someone with a 2.50, and Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business admitted a 2.60. All are top-10 programs.
GPA is a secondary stat, but it’s not an afterthought. And from the data, we see that in 2020, the gatekeepers at the top U.S. B-schools cracked the gates open a bit to allow more students with lower undergrad scores. That, or the best students deferred admission or decided to wait until this whole pandemic thing was in the rearview. Probably a bit of both.
As it was year before, Stanford Graduate School of Business was the top school in 2020 for average GPA, notching a 3.8. (Since 2019 Stanford only publishes GPA to one decimal place). After the GSB came Harvard Business School (3.70), UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business (3.65), Yale School of Management (3.63), and five schools tied at 3.60: Chicago Booth, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern Kellogg, Columbia Business School, and NYU Stern School of Business. All are top-10 schools except Stern, which is ranked 15th.
Comparing the five-year window of averages may be more instructive. In the top 50, 21 schools saw improvement between 2016 and 2020 in their MBA class GPA; compare that to 29 schools in the window between 2015 and 2019. Of the 21 schools, 12 were in the top 25; last year it was 15 schools. Is this a Covid effect? Maybe. Look a bit closer: Of the 21 positive schools, the average gain was 0.065, and the top-25 average gain was 0.06; last year those marks were +0.08 for 29 schools and +0.07 for the 15 in the top 25.
‘SELF-AWARENESS & INTROSPECTION ABOUT PERSONAL EXPERIENCES & PAST SETBACKS’
What constitutes a “low” GPA? Esther Magna, a principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting, said not long ago that an undergraduate GPA below a 3.2 will need explaining in an MBA application.
“A muted GPA can be an opportunity to show self-awareness and introspection about personal experiences and past setbacks,” Magna said. “It can be a window into a candidate’s character and values and can be invoked to tug at the heartstrings of the MBA Admissions Office readers. Addressing the reasons for the lower GPA across relevant applicant materials is critical.”
Eric Askins, UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business admissions director, eschews the term “holistic” when talking about how he and his team evaluate MBA applications. In a recent discussion with Poets&Quants about Haas’ expansion of its deferred MBA admission program, Askins offers up advice for young applicants that is pertinent for anyone considering applying to the highest-ranked public-school MBA program in the United States — or any of its peer schools for that matter.
“Let’s walk a little bit away from ‘holistic’ because I think it’s so vague a term,” says Askins, where the MBA Class of 2022 reported an average GPA of 3.65, down slightly from last year but up overall since 2016. “For us, what we’re looking for is intentionality throughout the entire application. If you can come to us and give us the clarity of purpose, we’re going to look for the components that make up your end goal in the various portions of your application. So, what that means is if you want to tell us that you want to get into sustainability in some way in the future, we’re going to want to see the pieces of sustainability. And they don’t have to live in my undergraduate major. They can live in courses I’ve taken. They could live in extracurricular work that I’ve done. They could live in some of these other spaces.”
THE 2-YEAR WINDOW: SOME VERY INTERESTING DEVELOPMENTS
In the five-year window between 2016 and 2020, seven schools were even, including four in the top 25 and three — Penn, Kellogg, and Yale — in the top 10. Last year when we wrote this story, the number of even schools was just five, three of which were in the top 25. The number of schools that lost ground in average GPA over the last five years was 18 this year, with an average loss of 0.041, compared to only 13 last year, with an average loss of 0.06. The nine schools in the top 25 with five-year losses between 2016 and 2020 was nine, at an average loss of 0.048; between 2015 and 2019 it was seven top-25 schools, with an average loss of 0.039.
The school with the biggest GPA glow-up over five years: USC Marshall School of Business, which grew 0.18 to 3.55. The University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business also saw big improvement, up 0.16 to 3.45. The biggest decreases were at Emory University Goizueta Business School, which dropped 0.10 to 3.20, and No. 25 Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, which declined 0.09 to 3.30. But it wasn’t all bad news. Last year, five schools were at 0.10 increase over five years: MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia, Duke University Fuqua School of Business, Washington Olin Business School, and the University of Rochester Simon Business School. This year that number grew to seven, including five in the lower 25: Columbia, USC Marshall, Rochester Simon, the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, Pittsburgh Katz, Boston University Questrom School of Business, and the University of Utah Eccles School of Business.
We tend to favor five-year evaluations of undergraduate GPAs because it’s a stat that typically doesn’t move much year to year, and a longer telescope offers better perspective. But 2020 was not a typical year. So what did the Y-O-Y picture look like for the top 50 schools? It was very interesting!
Nineteen schools were even between 2019 and 2020, up from only 11 last year; nine were in the top 25, up from six. Only 14 schools total were in positive territory, down from 19; seven of those were in the top 25, but last year there were 12. And the schools that lost ground? There were 16, including nine in the top 25 and four in the top 10. Between 2018 and 2019, 20 schools lost ground in undergrad GPA, including seven in the top 25. So, a muddled picture. Interestingly, with four schools losing ground from 2019 and five others even, the top 10’s only school to improve was Stanford, which grew a whole tenth of a point. The only other school to do that in the entire top 50: the University of Texas-Dallas Jindal School of Management, which climbed to 3.50 from 3.40.
The biggest two year decreases were at Emory Goizueta, which lost 0.10 to 3.20, and Washington Olin, which also lost 0.10, dropping to 3.40. And in a nice illustration of why two-year GPA comparisons are perilous, see the differential for Georgia Terry, which lost 0.09 to fall to 3,42 this year — but which is still up considerably from the 3.30 it reported in 2016.
See the next page for complete 5-year tables of undergraduate GPAs at the top 50 U.S. B-schools.