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Addressing GPA and Test Scores for Grad School Admission
Dr. Donald C. Martin -- Graduate Study Expert Dr. Donald C. Martin -- Graduate Study Expert
Chicago, IL
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Addressing GPA and Test Scores for Grad School Admission

As we know, academic credentials are one of the most important components of an applicant's credentials.  That said, there are various ways admissions committees evaluate grades and test scores. During my tenure as an admissions dean at Columbia, University of Chicago and Northwestern, I weighted essays, well written recommendation letters and interviews equally, and sometimes more heavily, that a GPA or test score.  Based on 28 years of evaluating and making final decisions on over 125,000 applications, here are some things to keep in mind about the academic section of your application(s).

  • For some institutions, transcripts and test score reports are by far the most important part of the application.

While hopefully not the only consideration, you need to understand the degree of importance academics plays in the application evaluation process for each of your options.  At some institutions this is so important that admissions committees conduct a preliminary review of an applicant's GPA and test scores, and may deny that applicant right then and there, without going any further.  As much as possible, you should find out if this type of evaluation is done at any of the institutions you are considering. If your academic credentials are less competitive, it will help you manage expectations when it comes to the likelihood of your being admitted to an extremely competitive graduate program.

  • Be ready to discuss your transcript if it is less competitive.

Perhaps there are some extenuating circumstances that contributed to your GPA being lower then you would like.  These might include a medical situation you experienced, the loss of a loved one, a financial or personal crisis, etc.  It is perfectly acceptable to explain this to the admissions committee.  This topic could be asked in a regular essay, or open for discussion in an optional essay. By all means, explain what happened, but do not make excuses, or sound like you are whining.  Just state the facts.  If there are no opportunities to address the situation in an essay, then send a letter with the explanation.

  • Consider taking a few graduate level courses to demonstrate your academic ability right now.

If you GPA is lower, a great way to impress the admissions committee is to take a one or two graduate level courses and do very well.  This shows that you mean business, that you realize you need to demonstrate academic ability, and that you are trying to demonstrate what you are now capable of doing.

  • Take the GRE, GMAT, LSAT or MCAT a second time if necessary.

Often applicants will communicate that they are not good test takers, which is definitely true in many instances.  But they take their respective test only once. If you take a test the first time, and do not receive the score you hoped for, or the score you believe will help make your application more competitive, take the test again.   If your score improves, that is the score that will be used when your application is evaluated.  If the score does not improve, or even drops, at least you showed that you put forth an extra effort and gave it a second try.

  • Consider applying to graduate schools that you believe will evaluate your application in its entirety.  If an admissions committee starts with an evaluation or your academic credentials, and might deny admission before looking at anything else in your application, you may want to consider how much you really want to be a student there.  It begs the question:  "Are they really interested in me as a person, or are they only interested in rankings and numbers?"

As I have suggested countless times to thousands of prospective graduate students over the years, your choice of graduate program is largely about finding a match between you and the institution.  It would seem to me that you would look for a program that values students as human beings, and evaluates their applicant pool accordingly.  How applications are evaluated says a lot about how students will be treated.  Make sure you really feel comfortable being part of the student body, the institution, and the alumni network. Make sure you know what current students and recent graduates really think about their experience. Make certain you are going to feel "at home" there.  Over the long haul, that is what you will remember, and I would think you would want to feel like your investment was well worth it.  

  • Do not be angry or resentful if you are not admitted to a top program.

While it will hurt, it is not personal.  There are literally thousands of outstanding graduate programs out there.  And at the risk of sounding philosophical, things do tend to have a way of working out for the best.  You can wait a year and re-apply – the chances of being admitted on the second attempt go up considerably – or you can move on, and enroll where you have been admitted.  And if you practice persistence and determination, you will graduate with flying colors, and be ready to embark on the next successful chapter of your professional career.

  • Remember what success is truly about.  Your academic credentials may put you at a competitive disadvantage, but that has nothing to do with ultimate success in grad school and beyond.

Remember:  There absolutely is no long-term correlation whatsoever between your GPA and test scores and success in grad school/life.  As a Dean of Admissions, on more than one occasion I admitted applicants whose GPA was below a 2.0, or whose test scores were well below average. That is because I came to believe that these individuals possessed what it really takes to succeed:  persistence and determination.  This was evidenced in other parts of their application(s).  Do not allow yourself to feel second rate because you are not as likely to get in to a top-five graduate school.  That was the case for me, but I did get admitted to very strong Master's and doctoral programs, and did just fine academically and professionally.  You will too. 

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Name: Dr. Donald C. Martin
Group: Grad School Road Map
Dateline: Chicago, IL United States
Direct Phone: 773-549-7639
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