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How to get into grad school with a low GPA: MS admissions with bad grades

How to get into grad school with a low GPA

In the best of all possible worlds, you have a stellar academic record to bank upon as you send in your application for MS at graduate school.

However, what if, your grades are not exactly impressive, and your GPA is not something that you would show your neighbor?

You then have to think of ways to impress the grad school admissions committee with your skills, talents, leadership ability, and non-academic achievements.

Why does your GPA matter to grad school admissions committees? Here are the top 3 reasons.

  1. Your GPA shows how serious you have been about your academics and how disciplined you will be in the future.
  2. It shows whether you can handle the burden of grad school academics.
  3. It points to whether you can add value to discussions and research and the general quality of the program.

A low GPA need not be the end of your grad school dreams. If other parts of your application, such as test scores, recommendation letters, essay / statement of purpose, and work experience, show that you may succeed at grad school, then you can keeps your hopes high.

Many graduate programs, including MS programs, have required, cut-off GPAs. What determines them?

The competitiveness/reputation of the program, the type of degree, and the field of study are the factors. Usually, the more competitive a program, the higher the GPA requirement, with a few exceptions.

What about the type of degree? MS programs may have lower GPA cut-offs than PhD programs. Moreover, the more popular a program or field of study, or the greater the job potential, the higher the GPA cut-off is likely to be.

For example, an MS program in computer science, particularly at a top school, may be very high because of the program’s job potential.

Research schools

Research your graduate school and the relevant program you want to get into to understand the GPA requirements. The information will probably be available on the school website. The minimum GPA required may be listed, and some schools may also provide the average GPA of successful applicants.

You could make a list of five schools: a dream school where you would like to do a program, two reputed schools where you have a slight chance, and two schools where admission might not be so difficult.

Keep in mind that not all graduate schools have the same or similar GPA requirements for MS and other graduate programs. Highly reputed schools may have GPA requirements of 3.5, while others may view a GPA of less than 3.0 as low. A few new programs may even accept GPAs of 2.75 or 2.5.

All grad schools don’t go by the GPA mentioned in your undergraduate transcripts. They may use their own methods to calculate your GPA, and your GPAs may vary between schools. Some schools, for example, take into account both the failing and passing grades of a student who has repeated a course.

With a low GPA, you can also look for schools that don’t have GPA requirements. And don’t be under the impression that this is the case with only second-tier school; even some top schools may review all applications regardless of the GPAs. Such schools look at the fit of the candidate and consider all aspects of an applicant to decide.

When seeing your GPA, schools also evaluate the rigor of the classes/examination, the reputation of your undergrad college, and your background. Still other schools provisionally admit you but keep a watch on your progress through grad school before confirming admission.

A few schools may even allow you to join as a non-degree-seeking graduate and attend up to nine credit hours of graduate classes to see if you score good grades of 3.0 or above. If you do that, you may be able to use these grades as a substitute for your low undergrad GPA.


How to choose the right graduate schools with low grades

Prepscholar recommends creating a table to evaluate your options (template below).

  • Make a table with five columns and five rows
  • In the extreme left column, give the names of possible grad schools.
  • For the other four columns, give the titles “GPA cut-off,” “Major GPA cut-off,” “Average GPA,” and “Notes.”
  • Collect GPA information from school websites.
  • Leave out schools with high undergrad GPA requirements.
  • At the bottom of the table, record your own GPA and your major GPA for reference.

It could look something like this. It’s a simple tool that can help take out the confusion from the process.

School GPA cut-off Major GPA cut-off Average GPA of class Notes
School A        
School B        
School C        
School D        
Your GPA: 0.0 | Your major GPA: 0.0


Say no to early admission

Early admissions are highly competitive, and you may not stand a chance with a low GPA. Go for regular admissions, and you will find time to improve your test scores or take additional courses in undergrad subjects where you have scored low.

Take future-faculty advice

If you can fix up an appointment or a channel of communication with a member of the faculty, demonstrate your interest, and explain how your work experience makes you a good candidate for the graduate program despite your low GPA, you might receive useful advice.

Visit schools that you feel you’ve a chance of getting into. Send emails to professors before your visit and seek an appointment. Besides collecting information, visits may make you change your impression about a lower-ranked school.

Do more courses/projects

Any poor showing in an undergraduate subject that is an important part of your graduate program, such as calculus for computer science, might be difficult to explain away.

But you could try to overcome the situation by taking an additional course in calculus at a local university or an open enrollment course, for example, and doing well. You could attend additional courses at your school and participate in a continuing education program.

You could also take up projects or other activities relevant to your chosen graduate major. Try to publish a paper on your project, which could bring you credit, particularly with a peer review.

Score high in GRE / TOEFL

Your GRE / TOEFL score is taken by many grad schools as a major pointer to your ability to take up grad-level courses and your power of expression. Score well in every part of the GRE, or at least in the part most relevant to your grad major.

If your target programs require GRE subject tests, score highly in them, too. This will help a great deal to take some focus away from a low GPA. Same with your TOEFL score.

Opt for internship

A good step is to look for an internship, a job, or research assistantship in a related area right after completing your bachelor’s degree, to prove your interest in your chosen field.

Briefly narrate your experience, giving work details and teamwork experiences.

Shine with your essay

With a low GPA, your motivation to go to graduate school may be seen as suspect by admissions committees. Do you have the discipline for grad school? Your essay should satisfy them on this score.

Speak honestly and in your own voice to say why you wish to achieve a higher degree in your subject. Write logically and in a way that would spell out your thinking process.

Your essay and statement of purpose are crucial elements of your application process, whether your GPA is high or low.

Demonstrate your interest in the subject and school, not just by saying something mundane, such as “I love to pursue research in biochemistry,” but by showing that you have gone through the faculty list of the school and expressing your interest in doing research with specific professors.

Do any particular programs or research of your target department interest you? Mention that.

Explain life circumstances

An explanation of difficult life circumstances that affected your undergraduate study and GPA would also help at a few schools. With some schools, you may be able to consider submitting a separate letter.

But the school would want to see that you overcame the circumstances and reassure itself that you will be able to do that and complete the graduate program.

Write your explanation in a thoughtful and mature way. Take responsibility. Demonstrate that if it weren’t for difficult circumstances, your GPA would have been much higher.

Get recommendations

The recommendation letters can also undo some of the problems caused by a low GPA. For example, if you impressed your professor in your bachelor’s program by your capacity for research, or you were able to work efficiently as a research assistant to a member of the faculty, you could have a recommendation letter that speaks louder than your GPA.

Maintain contact with your bachelor’s degree project supervisor so that she remembers you and your work. Keep good relations with your boss, too, so that he will readily provide a recommendation based on your performance at work.

Stand out at interview

You can also try to persuade your interviewer to overlook your low GPA by making an exceedingly positive impression at your admissions interview.

Be ready to explain your low grade as you should expect a question. Practise beforehand about what you are going to say.

Talk about work experience

Work experience is a major attraction for grad school admission committees. If you have insightful observations to share from working in an industry related to your target graduate major, you will be seen as a potential asset to your classmates.

If you have entrepreneurial experience, and you ran a startup, this will win you points with the admissions officers.

Impress with extracurriculars

Schools don’t go just by your GPA but by your personality as a whole. Do you have extracurricular achievements? Write about them in your essay. Have you volunteered for social work or won competitions? This will add shine to your application.

Still in undergrad? Pull up your socks

If you’re still in the freshman (first) or sophomore (second) years, you can improve your GPA while still in school. For example, a bachelor’s degree student who may have let her grades drop in the freshman or sophomore year can pull up her GPA in the junior and senior (third and fourth) years to achieve a final GPA that get her into an MS program.

However, the student must put in some serious effort right after the first year and have a target program/school and be aware of the GPA required and the willingness to work hard to achieve it.

Even in this scenario, the student may have to write a convincing supplemental essay about why her GPA was low at the beginning, and how she managed to bring it up to par.

The student, having scored a low GPA in her freshman and sophomore years, may struggle to achieve the grades required for her chosen MS program at a school of her choice. What is it that opened her eyes to the importance of future plans and the necessity of shoring up her grades?

Therefore, try to be foresighted and make graduate school plans right when you start your undergraduate course. With a lower GPA, you still might have to look for schools that care about your story and be willing to accommodate you going by your fit.

Focus on major GPA

Give particular importance to your undergrad major GPA, which, if high, may momentarily blind the admissions people to a low overall GPA. This is particularly true if your undergrad major GPA is related to your target field of study for MS.

Imagine that you are applying for MS in geology at a reputed school. Your undergrad major was the same subject and you scored a high GPA.

However, you didn’t do so well in a minor, say, environmental studies, which brought your GPA down. You can then explain the low GPA convincingly.

Remember that your undergraduate school and program reputation and relevance to grad study counts, too. A lower GPA from a top school may be condoned, and a low-GPA but relevant undergrad major from a second-tier school may be just as good as a high-GPA unrelated major from a top program.
Also read:
Managing low academic grades & GPA in MBA applications
Can a high GMAT score make up for low GPA?
Low GPA success stories
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

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