Do you need a high GPA to get into a top MBA?
Chioma Isiadinso, founder of admissions firm Expartus and former admissions officer at Harvard Business School, says a high grade point average is extremely important for securing a place. “It signals not just academic ability, but commitment to putting in the effort over a long period of time and it is a way for schools to benchmark you against the competition,” she says.
She says a low GPA — under a 3.5 — will handicap an application to a top MBA program because many business schools are reluctant to admit candidates with scores that will lower their GPA average — which applicants use to judge how “elite” an MBA cohort is and which affects their position in rankings.
But while important, a high GPA is not essential. Each year plenty of candidates are admitted to top schools with scores that are below — or above — the average.
The Georgetown McDonough MBA class average GPA is 3.3 and if a candidate has a score below 3.0, the school looks for other evidence of performance. Anne Kilby, director of MBA admissions and operations, says that a high standardized test score, such as on the GMAT or GRE, can offset a poor GPA.
She adds that candidates could also take online courses in quantitative subjects, such as those offered by the MBA Math website, or an accredited institution, to prove their academic rigour. “These are ways to build the admissions committee’s confidence,” she says.
When evaluating a GPA, the admissions team pays close attention to quant grades because they are very relevant to many MBA classes. “The most common courses include statistics, accounting, or micro and macroeconomics,” Kilby says. “We do find that having had exposure to quantitative courses contributes to students’ success in the MBA.”
Kelly Wilson, executive director of masters admissions at the Tepper School of Business, says the admissions team considers also the quality of the undergraduate college attended, as well as the rigor of the major when assessing GPAs. Tepper’s GPA average is 3.4 and the middle 80 percent range is 2.9 — 3.8.
Isiadinso, the admissions consultant, says that a high GPA in a notoriously challenging major, such as physics, and at a selective school would be far more valuable to admissions committees than a high GPA in a perceived easier course and at a less well-known institution. “It’s not just about the GPA, they look at the context too,” she says.
Karen Marks, founder of the North Star admissions firm, says “anything below a 3.0 will raise alarm bells at most schools”, regardless of the college attended.
But she adds that one of her clients was admitted to Columbia Business School with a GPA below 2.6. Another was admitted to the Darden School of Business with a full tuition scholarship despite having a GPA below 2.9.
Have a low GPA? Be honest and provide context
She advises those with low GPAs to be open and honest about the score, rather than make excuses. “The GPA really is just one factor, and the relative importance varies from candidate to candidate, depending on a variety of factors, such as if they have robust work experience,” Marks says.
Georgetown’s Kilby says that candidates with low GPAs should provide context through their MBA essays. “It helps the admissions committee to have this understanding, rather than allowing for assumptions to be made,” she says.
Indeed, GPAs are not always a reliable measure of candidate quality, given that MBA candidates usually graduated from college several years ago, meaning their ability may have in fact improved, or decreased.
“Their maturity and motivation levels were also different at that time,” says Anna Farrus, MBA admissions director at IMD Business School in Switzerland. “GPAs provide some information, but it has to be put in context.”
She adds that it can be hard to fairly and accurately compare the GPAs of a globally diverse applicant pool, as different countries and schools have different grade measures. IMD does not convert the scores into one single system, and so does not publish a GPA average.
“If we see a poor result in an applicant’s degree, we will question that, but it won’t necessary mean their chances of being admitted are lower,” Farrus says, adding that the school puts more emphasis on the GMAT score. “It’s the best predictor of academic success.”
Ultimately, admissions teams will pull information from a variety of sources — including anecdotal knowledge and online research — to make a holistic choice on whether someone should be admitted to their MBA, or not.
But Isiadinso adds: “If you have a low GPA, you have to go literally above and beyond to convince the admissions committee to accept you.”