Can a Low GPA Hurt Your MBA Admissions Chances?

Undergrad performance is important for MBA admissions, but it's not everything

Everybody’s got a story about their undergraduate years. Some talk about the late-night study sessions and the endless days spent in the library; others recall epic weekend ragers.  

It’s not hard to imagine how the various distractions could make a dent in an otherwise good undergraduate GPA. And if you’re applying to MBA programs, the distractions might come back to haunt you, since undergraduate performance is a critical component of most MBA applications.

This is because admissions teams see undergraduate performance as a key indicator of how you’ll do when faced with the rigors of an MBA program.

“There's a theory that says that if you've performed well in the past, the likelihood is that you are going to be able to perform well in the future,” says Heather Spiro, associate director of MBA programs at Manchester Business School.

Your GPA: How low is too low?

Spiro says that most successful Manchester applicants have at least a 2:1 degree (which, in the UK means the upper division of the second-class honors level, which roughly converts to around 3.5 on a 4.0 GPA scale.) Other UK business schools, such as University of Oxford’s Saïd Business Schools, also prefer a 2:1 degree, but there tends to be some flexibility for students with strong work experience. 

In the US, many business schools don’t have GPA cut-offs per se, but do tend to admit students who are within a relatively narrow GPA range. For instance, the middle 80 percent of the MBA students in the current cohort at Columbia Business School had GPAs between 3.1 and 3.8. At UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the 80 percent range in the current class is between 3.2 and 3.8. 

That’s not to say that a lower GPA is grounds for immediate rejection. In fact, there are many other factors that admissions committees will often take into account. For instance, “it really depends on where the student is as far as graduating,” says Andre Gill, assistant director for admissions at University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.

Specifically, for recent graduates, the undergraduate GPA may play a bigger role in the admissions decision, according to Gill. Whereas, “for applicants who are several years out at least, the undergraduate GPA plays less of a role.”

Not all degrees are the same

Additionally, many MBA admissions committees will also look closely at the undergraduate institution as well as the candidate’s actual major, since all academic experiences aren’t necessarily the same.

“An applicant’s GPA is also evaluated in the context of the difficulty of the academic major, the academic reputation or rigor of the undergraduate institution,” according to Julie Barefoot, associate dean of MBA admissions at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

What this means in practice is that sometimes there’s a bit of flexibility for those who pursued challenging degrees. 

“Students with engineering degrees, or other quantitative-heavy degrees,” says Leeds’ Andre Gill, “their GPA might be a little bit lower, because of how hard their classes were, so to speak.”

What you can do about a low GPA

MBA admissions representatives stress that a low GPA – within reason – may not necessarily be a dealbreaker. If there were extenuating circumstances that made your GPA lower than it could have been, you can try to explain the facts in admissions essays.

“The explanation should not be too detailed or personal in nature, but should forthrightly address the reasons for the weaker GPA and how this academic performance will not repeat itself in the MBA program,” according to Goizueta’s Julie Barefoot

Another way is to offset a low GPA is to get a great GMAT or GRE score. 

“Having a strong GMAT score is really going to mitigate a low GPA,” says Leeds’ Andre Gill.

Other approaches include taking a few business classes, and doing well in them, to show that you are ready for graduate school. 

“Especially if they're coming from a non-business background,” says Manchester’s Heather Spiro, “there are plenty of courses they can take, either online courses or face-to-face,” and what this does is “demonstrates that they are really interested in the program.”

Along this line, more rigorous academic options such as certificate programs, such as a CFA, can go a long way during MBA admissions.

The whole package 

In the end, while undergraduate GPA is a significant part of the MBA application process, it’s not the only factor. And for those who are worried about their undergraduate performance, the other parts of the package become more important. This means that getting good recommendations, having great admissions essays, and acing your interviews are integral.

“We're looking for you to knock the ball out of the park with everything else,” says Andre Gill.

Read more MBA application tips:

Photo credits:

  • Tulane Public Relations / Flickr (cropped)
  • "Studying" by Steven S. / Flickr
  • "Student studying in Hodson Hall Commons at Washington College" by Washington College / Creative Commons
  • "Project 365 #147: 270509 Testing Times Ahead" by Pete / Flickr (cropped and rotated)

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