According to the Council of Graduate Schools’ Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, there were a total of 2.2 million graduate school applications submitted to colleges and universities around the country for the 2016 academic year. With that many applicants competing for spots, students may be concerned about how well they fare against the competition if they don’t have high grade point averages (GPAs). However, a low GPA does not have to keep students from getting into graduate schools. In this guide, we provide information on how students can still be accepted into an advanced degree programs despite having a low GPAs, as well as what other criteria schools consider when evaluating hopeful students.
Although grade point average is not the only thing that makes a prospective student a good candidate for a grad school program, it is an important factor — but how much of a factor depends on what schools students are interested in attending. For more competitive programs, a 3.0 or even higher may be the minimum GPA accepted, but in other cases, schools are more flexible and will admit students with a minimum 2.5, or they may have no GPA cutoff at all.
The reason schools consider GPA is because it can be an indicator of how serious students are about attending graduate school, as well as a predictor of how well they will perform when they get there. However, the minimum grade point average that schools require can be based on a few factors, including the field a student is pursuing and whether he or she is seeking a master’s or doctoral degree.
Although GPA is an important factor that grad schools look at when evaluating prospective students, it’s not the only one programs consider. The following are some other factors that graduate schools will use when evaluating students.
Just as with undergraduate school applications, personal statements can help students bolster their grad school applications by allowing admissions committees to get to know them better, which is especially important since a low GPA may cause a school to have reservations about a candidate. Students should use their personal statements not only to show off their writing abilities, but also to discuss why they’re interested in these particular schools and programs, what they bring to the table that will help the departments to which they’re applying and how completing the degree will contribute to their career goals.
Whether or not students are required to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) depends on their specific programs of interest. Although GRE scores are optional for admission to some schools, students with low GPAs can mitigate them by performing well on the test. This can also demonstrate to schools that students are serious about getting their graduate degrees, despite their undergraduate grades.
Students who want to go to grad school should make an effort to build rapport with some of their undergraduate professors, so they have people who know them well who can vouch for them when they apply to advanced degree programs. As a result of these relationships, professors can write recommendations that provide insights about students that grades alone cannot.
“Letters of recommendation are similar to references for employment,” said Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult, and graduate admissions at Clarion University. “Graduate programs review these letters to gain a better understanding of the total student.”
A strong resume with industry-relevant experience can help students stand out in a sea of applicants, despite having low grades. Any experience gained through internships, jobs, extracurricular activities or research projects is a great way for students to demonstrate their skills and interests in their fields.
When applying to graduate schools, students should be clear about their career goals and what they can get out of a graduate program. Schools want to admit students who will benefit from earning their degrees, so prospective students should make sure their goals are congruent with the educational opportunities that the programs they apply to are offering.
Meeting faculty members in a program is another great way for students to boost their grad school applications as well as get the information they need to choose the right schools. Students can use the interview as another opportunity to explain why they want to attend specific programs and what their aspirations are, as well as provide information about why their GPAs are low.
While students may not initially be admitted into graduate programs because of their grade point averages, they may get the opportunity to take classes on a provisional basis for a chance to gain full admission.
“At Missouri State, we have a method for individuals who do not meet our undergrad GPA minimum standards to enroll as non-degree-seeking graduate students and ‘try out’ up to nine credit hours of graduate classes to see if they can earn decent grades — and, if so, they can usually use nine hours of graduate coursework with a 3.0 or higher GPAs as a substitute for their undergraduate GPAs,” says Douglas Gouzie, graduate program director for the Department of Geography, Geology, and Planning at Missouri State University.
The Council of Graduate Schools reports that for the 2016 school year, 48.7 percent of students who applied to master's degree programs were accepted, while the acceptance rate for doctoral programs was 22.2 percent. With this in mind, students should take a realistic approach when choosing which schools they will apply to and do as much research about the schools they’re interested in as possible so they know what their chances of acceptance are.
“Research into a graduate program is often more important than the research students did for their undergraduate degrees,” Bearer says. “Graduate programs have higher expectations of students and therefore are more competitive when it comes to being accepted. Students should take advantage of the opportunity to speak with graduate admissions counselors, who will help students understand the expectations of graduate school.”
By speaking to an admissions counselor, as well as the faculty in a department, a student can get a clear idea of whether or not there is a realistic chance of getting into a program. However, that is not the only useful information to be found in visiting a school: A student can also learn if a program is the right fit. Although a graduate school may sound good on paper, it doesn’t mean the culture will match with a student’s needs or that it will be good working with that faculty.
Students who evaluate their chances of getting into specific schools may initially end up disappointed, but, according to Gouzie, not getting into a highly competitive school may actually be a good thing in the long run for some students.
“Who wants to go be in a program where he or she is the least-prepared student by far and will constantly have to work twice as hard to even get the lowest passing grade in the class?” Gouzie says. “Yes, maybe the ‘top program’ is worth stretching yourself for, but if you cannot complete it or it makes you ill from stress or it leaves you with a really low GPA on your resume (or ‘last in your class’ ranking), is that program name really going to help you get your dream job? I have found many students who found good quality programs where they had faculty mentors who went out of their way to help the graduating students network or land jobs, and where they were much happier at the second- or third-ranked (or even middle-ranked) program because that program had friendly alumni, a great set of classmates and camaraderie and very helpful faculty.”
When applying for graduate schools, students should know exactly what is expected of them in order to be successful. To provide insight on how prospective grad students can handle the process even if they have low GPAs, we spoke to two experts: Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult and graduate admissions at Clarion University, and Douglas Gouzie, graduate program director for the department of geography, geology and planning at Missouri State University.
Bearer: Students who have lower GPAs should be prepared to take the GRE or GMAT to gain acceptance into a graduate program. They should also reach out to graduate admissions, who can help put them in touch with faculty. By meeting with the faculty and graduate admissions, students will be able to gain a better understanding of what is expected during graduate school.
Gouzie: Make contact with the graduate program and see if they offer any options, such as GPA plus GRE scores or the last two years’ GPA or nondegree graduate status, or even a “trial/ probationary” admission status. Again, the more students interact with the program directors and program faculty, the more likely they are to find matches for their existing skills without getting into programs that are over their heads.
Bearer: Work experience will be weighed heavily by most MBA, accounting and finance graduate faculty. Hands-on learning and internships are required of most programs; therefore, prior work experience is valued as well and can support a candidate’s acceptance in lieu of a high GPA. At Clarion, we can consider a 2.75 GPA with significant and relevant work experience. Due to the competitiveness of allied health programs, work experience is recognized in combination with strong GPA. There is also consideration given to candidates who have strong grades in the given discipline, even though the cumulative GPA is under 3.0. In some programs, yes, work experience can help make up for not having a high grade point average.
Gouzie: This is really program dependent. In my department’s program, we consider letters of recommendation (including work supervisors) and other factors, but those are best explained in personal interactions with faculty mentors (or prospective faculty mentors). I’m also aware of some programs that consider military service separately from GPAs. Every program is looking for a specific set of skills, and if the student has work experience that shows those skills, it could end up being very beneficial and be used as part of the program’s consideration.
Bearer: Generally no, because most graduate students are applying for graduate programs within their professional fields. For the students who are changing fields, their majors are generally not considered, just their GPAs. Often students in this position will be required to take additional classes to make up for any deficiencies or prerequisite classes they may need before beginning their programs.
Gouzie: Yes, to the extent that, beyond the university’s overall minimum standards, it is the program that really evaluates a student’s grades. For example, if you are applying to a physical science program, the program director is very aware of typical physical science undergrad GPA ranges and is probably comparing you only to other undergrad science GPAs. Having said that, in my career, I have noticed that someone who has an overall GPA of 2.0 and a last 60 hours (last two years for most colleges) GPA of 2.1 probably isn’t going to do much better in a graduate program. But someone with an overall GPA of 2.0 and a last 60 hours GPA of 3.6 is probably someone who got serious about their studies or found the major that interested them or somehow has turned things around and done well enough on the upper-level major classes that are needed as prerequisites to do well in graduate classes.
Bearer: Students can write letters of purpose, or goal statements. What do they plan to achieve during their graduate programs, and how will this help them in their futures? Students with lower GPAs can take advantage of these to explain why their GPAs were so low and how they have changed since their undergraduate days.
Gouzie: The best way to explain a low GPA is to have done something to fix it (even if it is only the last semester with a much higher GPA). Beyond that, I think most program directors will listen to any reasonable explanation, but students should think how their explanations indicate the future will be better. In other words, if a student says, “That low GPA is due to a divorce and bitter settlement which took over four months to work out, and, because of that, my grades were affected for two semesters”—then that might be okay if the third semester got better. On the other hand, if a student says, “My GPA is low because I work four jobs to support my parents and five siblings,” one might ask if you are still going to need to work those extra jobs and how you will have any time left over to do well in your grad classes.
Bearer: Candidates with lower GPAs than required should keep in mind that they can repeat some prerequisite courses to raise their GPAs. Also, a personal interview and relevant work experience can sway a decision. Most importantly, they can take additional coursework in their particular disciplines to prove that they are prepared to enter rigorous graduate programs and achieve success. Students should expect to have to study much more than they did during their undergraduate programs. They should also expect more of themselves and step up to the challenges ahead of them.
Gouzie: Graduate program directors are usually willing to listen and understand how and why a student might not have the greatest GPA. At the same time, I think most program directors are honestly trying to help each student find the student’s “best fit” match, where the student will have a good likelihood of succeeding in the program and will benefit the most from that program. Having said that, I think most students need to understand that your past experience is your track record, and saying you are now going to be a better student because you suddenly want this program is not a very convincing case. Having some way of showing that you now do have the skills, attitude and life situation to succeed is probably the best thing. Last, I will note that in my program, and many others I know of, the program director is simply trying to connect potential students with potential faculty mentors. So making a connection with a faculty mentor is a very important part of this process. There are some university rules, such as minimum GPA, I cannot change. But if a faculty mentor tells me he/she really wants a particular student in the program, I will go to great lengths to think creatively about ways to make that possible.
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