This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.
When your business school application lands on an MBA admissions committee member’s desk, the member takes a hard look at two important metrics: your GMAT or GRE score and your GPA.
Your GPA matters because it tracks your performance over four or more years and demonstrates your ability to execute in an academic environment. Unfortunately, by the time you apply to business school, it’s too late to do much about a low GPA.
According to the most recent Kaplan survey of business school admissions officers, 32 percent said a low undergraduate GPA is an application killer. A GPA below 3.0 could be hard to come back from, but that said, if you have your heart set on attending one of the best business schools in the world but worry your undergraduate GPA could harm your chances, know that you generally still have a chance.
This is a holistic process – every piece of the puzzle matters. When one aspect of your MBA application is weaker, you want to maximize other areas.
Keep in mind that there’s no specific cutoff for a GPA or test scores. Every year we work with clients who have had sub-3.0 GPAs and they are still accepted into their target MBA programs.
If you do have very low numbers, you’ll need to address this somewhere in your application. You don’t want to sound whiny or make excuses; just confront the issue head on.
Take a look at these MBA application tips for offsetting a spotty academic performance in college.
• Explain extenuating circumstances: Use the optional essay to let the admissions committee know if your grades suffered because of extenuating circumstances, such as when you had pneumonia in your sophomore year. If a death in the family drew your attention away from school or if you also worked during college and had to divide your time between studying and supporting yourself financially, note this.
If in all honesty your academic performance suffered because of excessive social and extracurricular commitments, you can explain in your optional essay that you have since learned better time management skills and have continued your community involvement without sacrificing your work performance.
You don’t want to get too personal or detailed here. Rather, show awareness of the reasons for your lower GPA and any lessons you have learned. Then reassure the admissions committee that this will not characterize your performance in business school.
• Show strong GMAT or GRE scores: High test scores offer you two advantages – they prove you can handle the quantitative work in the program, and they are a more recent example of your academic abilities. Many admissions committee members agree that a strong GMAT or GRE performance offsets a low GPA.
For example, the average GMAT score at schools such as Stanford Graduate School of Business and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is around 730. If you can hit or exceed the average test score at your dream program, you know you have a chance at admission. However, if you aren’t happy with your test scores, weigh whether retaking the GMAT is a prudent option.
• Excel on the job: When making their admissions decisions, business schools place a high value on an applicant’s relevant professional experiences. As such, showing strong recent work performance will go a long way toward convincing committee members that you have what it takes to succeed in an MBA program.
If your work experience is at a nationally or internationally known company, that’s even better – the admissions team will feel more comfortable knowing that Proctor & Gamble, Credit Suisse or McKinsey & Co. felt confident enough take a chance on you first.
When you ask your supervisor for a letter of recommendation, ask that the individual specifically address your quantitative abilities and your ability to multitask in order to further mitigate your low GPA.
• Other considerations: Finally, the level of your major’s rigor could be an important consideration when evaluating your GPA. For example, you may receive more leniency for a mediocre GPA as a physics major than if you studied theater. The admissions officer may also look to see in which specific classes you struggled.
If you had trouble in quantitative subjects, that’s more problematic. You should address this by taking – and acing – a college-level calculus or statistics course through your local community college before you apply. This will show that you are ready for graduate school.
Every part of your MBA application is important. If your low GPA is keeping you awake at night, shift your energies toward killing the GMAT, getting stellar letters of recommendation, writing compelling essays and –fingers crossed – wowing your MBA interviewer. Your admissions success depends on your ability to knock it out of the park in every other way.