If you’ve been putting off applying to an MBA program because you have a less than stellar GPA, don’t. Chances are there’s more to your academic career (and life) than your GPA. While a high GPA is definitely a plus when applying to MBA programs, it’s not the only thing admissions directors look for in an applicant. In fact, Sharon Hoffman, former Associate Dean and Senior Director of MBA Admissions at Stanford said that while they looked for “accomplishment and success,” in a candidate, the school did “look beyond the numbers to see the trends.” They look for “intellectual curiosity” and are “impressed by someone who is the first in her family to get a university degree,” just as they are “by someone who pays for his entire education.”
What this means is you likely have a lot to offer that goes way beyond a GPA. To uncover all you have to offer, you’ll need to examine your background closely, take a look at your accomplishments inside and outside the classroom, and think of anything else that can add weight to your application. According to Stacey Blackman, owner of an MBA admissions consulting company, and author of The MBA Application Roadmap: The Essential Guide to Getting Into a Top Business School, "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." And there’s plenty of proof that Blackman is right.
In How to Get Into The Top MBA Programs, author Richard Montauk gathered information from MBA admissions directors at top schools such as Harvard, Sloan (MIT), Wharton (UPenn), and the Johnson School (Cornell), who shared their thoughts on academic qualifications. Most of the directors at these prestigious schools agreed that GPA is not the end all. Here’s what some of them had to say:
- If someone had a terrible first two years but strong last two years, we may very well think highly of him, especially if he’s taken the trouble to explain the reason for the weak initial performance. Ann W. Richards, Johnson, Cornell
- If someone did bad early in college, he can point to his later performance, whether at the end of college or in courses that he takes after college. He can explain his early failures by saying “back then I was a C student, but now I am an A student.” This sort of person will probably need to work longer too, though, to confirm that this reformation has truly taken hold. Judith Goodman, Ross, University of Michigan.
- Explain the trend in your performance. Otherwise, we’re left to our own devices to try to understand it. The optional essay is a great place to provide more information. Isser Gallogly. Stern, NYU
- We’d rather take someone who had a 3.2 GPA but was juggling other significant involvements while at college than someone who had a 3.4 but did little other than study. Dawna Clark, Tuck, Dartmouth
- We like to see evidence of quantitative skills. We also want someone to have taken challenging courses, to have stepped outside his or her own comfort zone. When looking at course selection, we like to see someone who is well-rounded. Peter Johnson, Haas, UC Berkeley
- We look for solid performance, coupled with some balance in your undergraduate career. Thus, we prefer the B student in engineering who participated in student government or band than the A student who never got involved in any activity. We also understand that some majors are more demanding than others. Someone with a B average in nuclear engineering will probably be rated more highly here than someone with an A average in theater. Frankly, the type of work at the Johnson School is such that the former student will be better able to jump right in and succeed. Ann W. Richards, Johnson, Cornell
- Leadership and service come in many different forms, and we look for applicants who have shown an ability to excel academically while making a contribution to the school community. We look for what you’ve done as an undergraduate, not what institution you attended. Thomas Caleel, Wharton, UPenn
Besides digging into your past to uncover achievements that you didn’t even realize you had, consider retaking the GMAT or GRE to get a higher score. High GMAT and GRE scores are a more recent example of an MBA applicant's academic abilities, and can compensate for a low GPA. Work experience carries weight as well. In fact, according to Montauk, “work experience is probably the single most important substantive element of your application.” “The weaker your other credentials,” says Montauk, “the longer you should work before applying.”
Schools are trying to access your management potential, and the best way to do so, in their opinion is to determine your managerial success to date. “It almost doesn’t matter what type of managerial or professional experience you get,” says Montauk. However, most successful candidates take “the tried-and-true path to business school by working in a traditional feeder industry.” Accounting, consulting, investment banking, advertising, and marketing are just a few. Working for a start-up (high-tech and other industry) is a plus.
Dr. Simon Learmount of Judge Business School at Cambridge had this to say about undergraduate work, the GMAT, and work experience: “when someone has underperformed as an undergraduate, their GMAT score becomes proportionally more important. We’ve accepted people without undergraduate work, but they’ve had exceptional work experience.” Simply put, if you have a proven work record, says David Bach of IE Business School (Spain), “especially if you did well in a position that required real intellectual ability, and scored well on the GMAT (or on our own test), a weak undergraduate record will not automatically sabotage your application.”
Going back to Goodman’s comment, if you want to make an even stronger case, consider taking a couple of classes (post-graduation) to improve on a weak undergraduate record. Besides giving your academic record a boost, successful completion of additional courses after you have already graduated shows that you are committed to continuing education. It also shows that you have taken solid steps to address the situation, instead of making excuses.
Kirt Wood of Rotterdam School of Management (Netherlands) says, “we do factor additional coursework someone does after a degree, much as we do an internship. We don’t value an internship as highly as we do full-time work.” Richards adds, “if you take courses after graduation in order to beef up a mediocre transcript, be sure that you take them at a reputable institution. Do not duck challenges; take demanding courses at demanding institutions. If you must attend a lesser-known institution, consider adding supplemental materials to show the quality of what you’ve done. If necessary, send a copy of the text used, the faculty member’s name and credentials, and a course description.”
By taking a second look at your background, successfully completing challenging continuing education courses, excelling at work, and aiming for a higher GMAT or GRE score, you will have a much greater chance of being accepted at your school of choice—despite having a not so great GPA.
Blackman, Stacy. "3 Ways to Offset a Low GPA When Applying to Business School." U.S. News Education. U.S. News & World Report, 01 July 2016. Web. 13 July 2016.
Montauk, Richard. How to Get into the Top MBA Programs. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2010. Print