Low GPA: Is it “Game Over” or “Game On” for MBA Applicants?

The bad news: You didn’t do nearly as well in the college classroom as you could have.

The better news: A low GPA is not necessarily a showstopper in seeking admission to top-tier business schools.

In Kaplan Test Prep’s 2011 survey of 265 MBA admissions officers (including 16 of the top 25 programs), only 24% those decision makers said that a low undergrad GPA is the leading reason for rejection – less than half (58%) of those adcoms who said that a low GMAT or GRE was the key to giving a thumbs down.

For the Class of 2012, GMAT scores at Harvard were as low as 570 vs. the median 730 score. So, if Harvard shows this kind of latitude in admitting applicants with low GMATs, it’s reasonable to assume that there is still a chance for those with a GPA below their 3.66 average (per US News & World Report).

So, if you were an undergrad underachiever who now intends to seek admission to a top-10 bschool, here are 9 timely questions to ask… and answer candidly:

1. How bad is “bad”? If you have a ~3.0 GPA, then you’re definitely not out of the game. However, if you’re talking >2.5, then the challenge may be an insurmountable one. We’ve been successful with applicants who had GPAs as low as 2.2, but it’s not easy.

2. How was your GMAT performance? A score above the target school’s median is the fastest and best way to overcome a weak GPA. Every point above 730 will help. And remember the importance of getting an 80%+ in the Quant section and a 4.5+ on the AWA.

3. What was your academic major? If your undergrad degree was in physics rather than, say, communications, then a lower GPA is far less of an issue. Rigor rules!

4. Where did you attend college? Is your alma mater an Ivy or online? The stature of the undergrad institution is a major consideration. For instance, according to PoetsAndQuants.com, approximately 30% of Harvard’s incoming class are grads of the 8 Ivy League schools. Less than 18% come from public universities. So, pedigree matters! Princeton trumps Phoenix every time.

5. Did your GPA trend up or down? If you had a tough freshman year but then rallied to earn all A’s during your senior year, that’s the kind of uptick that MBA adcoms love to see.

6. What circumstances led to the sub-par GPA? If issues such as family, health, part-time work, or extracurriculars impaired your classroom performance, then you need to explain those factors. Turn it into a true story of persistence against all odds.

7. Who is your employer? According to a 2011 PoetsAndQuants.com article, of the top organizations sending the most employees to Harvard, financial and consulting firms represent 20 of the top 25, with only two high-tech companies and one non-profit on the list. Having a resume that features a major feeder will help mitigate a modest GPA.

8. What impact have you had on the job? Demonstrating strengths and skills at work that leverage classroom learning can really help. Having professional recommenders describe these abilities in glowing terms will make your story more credible.

9. Do you have the endurance and confidence to complete extension courses? The most convincing “do-over” for applicants with a poor GPA is to achieve A’s in challenging, relevant pre-MBA courses from accredited universities. So, return to the scene of the crime and show your true potential.

As you can see from these questions, it’s critical for applicants to assess their candidacy beyond the GPA – because that’s what the adcoms will do.

How to start? Request a free, expert evaluation of your professional, personal AND academic profile from The MBA Exchange. We’ll let you know if your low GPA means “game over” or “game on”!