MBA Admissions: Low GMAT or GPA

First, are your numbers really so bad? "Low numbers" for the purposes of this article, and for most applicants, are GMATs and GPAs at the lower end of or below the mid-80% range for a given school. It may be difficult to find average GPAs, but if you have a 2.6, you know it's low for almost any MBA program. Roughly, except for the most elite schools, a GPA below 3.0 warrants a deliberate effort to counterbalance.

Say, by these criteria, your numbers are low. What do you do?


Looking closely at your numbers. Which numbers are low - GMAT, GPA, or both? If only one of these numbers is low, at least the other number demonstrates your academic ability. Then the question becomes why is the GMAT or the GPA low? Some people are simply not great standardized test-takers. A low GPA often is attributable to the simple fact that college students are still growing up. In fact, a 3.0 GPA that starts out below 3.0 and trends upward consistently, with the final semester or two in the 3.5 range or higher, is not nearly as worrisome as a GPA that trends in the opposite direction. If both numbers are low, how do they break down? For example, if your GMAT quant score was high and you had solid grades in quant courses in college, that's a plus, because MBA adcoms always look for evidence that the applicant can handle the mathematics involved (basic calculus and statistics). If it's the quant side that drags the numbers down, it's more of a problem. The point is, read the nuances of your scores. Assess and interpret the picture that emerges. Then develop an application strategy to address that issue. Low numbers vary significantly in the impression they create, depending on the details.

Addressing low quant scores. It's the worst-case scenario, low quant scores on both the GMAT and the transcript. Register at your local community college ASAP for calculus and/or statistics if you haven't taken them (or if you took them and earned below a B) - and earn an A! If you earned a D or F in other quant-oriented courses, consider re-taking them as well. If you have time to take additional quant-oriented courses, such as finance or accounting, it will help even more. In your essays, highlight quantitative aspects of your work to demonstrate proficiency. Finally, if you have some say in what your recommenders write, ask them to confirm your quantitative ability.

Addressing low verbal scores. Both written and spoken communications skills are essential for MBA students, especially given the emphasis on teamwork. Thus, consistently low verbal scores will raise a red flag. Your essays are the ideal place to neutralize this concern. They should be expressive and flawlessly written, of course. You also should select examples and anecdotes that highlight your communication skills. The opportunity the essays offer is also a pitfall, however - mediocre essays will only confirm concern about your verbal skills. So excellent essays are a must. Looking beyond the essays, ask recommenders to comment positively on your verbal skills. Finally, you can take a course at a local college that involves substantial writing, either business related or other - and earn an A.

Evaluating the numbers in the context of your demographic profile. This article's guidelines (above) for what constitutes "low numbers" are general. To really understand the impact of your numbers, you must first understand your demographic profile vis-a-vis the MBA applicant pool for your chosen school(s). Regardless of how rare a demographic profile may be, an adcom will not admit an applicant if it believes he cannot handle the coursework. Beyond that, it's really a matter of supply-and-demand. Demographics encompass your ethnicity, nationality, gender, and industry background. It is well known that Indian engineers and computer scientists with high numbers are over-represented in the applicant pool, as are white and Asian male investment bankers with high numbers. Thus, a GMAT in the lower 80% range and a 3.3 GPA may be a problem for them in applying to, say, Wharton, whereas a female Peruvian corporate finance associate with a 650 GMAT and 3.3 GPA from a good national university would be a viable applicant. If this Peruvian female had a 590 GMAT and a 2.7 GPA, that might not be the case, as questions would arise as to her ability to master the coursework. In a sense, understanding your demographic profile is part of looking closely at the numbers and reading the nuances.

Using your essays to counteract the low numbers. With low numbers, your first hurdle is demonstrating you're qualified. But being qualified is a far cry from being admitted. Your low scores may now be "understandable," but they won't excite the adcom, so your work experience must. "Mine" your work experience for all evidence of accomplishment, leadership, and impact. Show through anecdotes and examples that you are a person who makes a difference on the job beyond what's expected. Exceptional contribution and leadership as a volunteer or in another non-work activity also serve this purpose, though with the low numbers, strong work experience is still essential.

Selecting the right schools. All schools do not give the "pillars" of your application - GMAT, GPA, work experience - the same weight. Some, such as Columbia and Stanford, will put more weight on the GMAT and/or GPA than others. Some will be more interested in the specific qualities, experience, and demographic factors you bring than will others. First, select programs that meet your learning needs. Then focus on those that take a more holistic view of applicants and/or those that favor your distinguishing characteristics.

The optional essay. If your numbers are below the 80% range, they warrant an acknowledgement and an explanation. Similarly, if extenuating circumstances caused the low numbers, those circumstances are an important part of your profile. The optional essay is often the place to make these statements. If you write the optional essay, make it short and straightforward. Provide a brief explanation, take responsibility, and focus on evidence of your talents that counters the impression made by the low stats. Also, explain (or, ideally, show through example and anecdote) that either you have dealt with the problem causing the poor grades, or the circumstances no longer apply.

Creating a thoughtful strategy to counteract the effect of low numbers can transform you from a non-viable to a viable applicant at the schools of your choice. However, it's up to you to show the adcom that the numbers don't define you.

By Cindy Tokumitsu, Accepted Senior Consultant

For information on how Accepted can help you, please see our MBA admissions consulting and application services.

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