Test Scores, GPA, and Extracurriculars for Grad School

Worried that you won’t be able to get into the graduate school of your dreams because your GPA is low? Don’t be. Less-than-stellar grades can be overcome as long as you have a plan.

Almost all graduate school applications require transcripts. But a large reason for that requirement is to (1) verify that you earned an undergrad degree, and (2) ensure that they have an official record of it. In short, just because a transcript is required doesn’t mean it’s of paramount importance.

Your transcript is one component of your application, and it is considered together with your statement of purpose, recommendation letters, and usually some samples of past essays or other work. Many schools also require standardized test scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Others may ask for additional materials, too.

Some programs weight GPAs heavily. But others might be more interested in how you did in courses relevant to the program. Certain programs might look foremost at your portfolio, recommendations, or statement of purpose to provide a sense of how you’ll fare in their program. Still others might want to see relevant experience, such as work or an internship, and not be particularly concerned with a GPA.

The bottom line: You’ll need to know how the programs you’re interested in think about GPAs during the admissions process. Here are eight steps you should take to gain admission to your top-choice graduate programs, regardless of your undergraduate GPA.

1. Know the requirements

You’ll need to do your research to find out whether the graduate programs you’re interested in have specific requirements regarding GPAs. Check to see whether a minimum GPA for applicants is listed on each program’s website. Some sites may also give average GPA scores of past successful applicants.

It’s a good idea to research GPA requirements for all the programs you’re considering. Ultimately, you should plan to apply to about five graduate programs: two safety schools where admission should be pretty easy, two solid schools where your chances are good, and a dream-but-still-possible school.

Then, assess how you stack up vis-à-vis the requirements. Maybe your GPA gives you a fighting chance after all. Or maybe it seems as if the school is going to look at that one number and send a thin envelope, not a fat one. If it’s the latter, read on to find out what you should to next.

2. Talk to the faculty

Make an appointment with some faculty members you’re interested in working with. After demonstrating your interest in (and research of) the program and discussing how your experience makes you a solid fit, ask them frankly how your application would be viewed, given your GPA. If there are any mitigating circumstances surrounding your low GPA, let them know. If you were going through difficult life circumstances, for example, some programs take that into account.

If, however, you were thrown by the material, the response may vary, depending on its relevance to the program. Going for a master’s in computer science? If your transcript shows a C in calculus, eyebrows might be raised because calculus is very important in computer science. But admissions committees are likely not to care as much if your lower grades are in not-so-relevant areas. Earning a C in French literature may not sink a computer science application, as long as you can meet the program’s subject-specific requirements.

3. Complete additional coursework

If the program wants you to demonstrate more or better knowledge than your GPA signals, taking one or more courses might do the trick. Earning an A in a standalone calculus class would show that you’ve mastered that key material. Depending on the subject matter, you may also be able to earn a certificate for completing online courses.

4. Pursue relevant field experience

You can also demonstrate skills mastery via work experience. Look for internships, research assistantships, volunteer opportunities, and other professional leads that will help you acquire hands-on experience in your prospective graduate field. The network you’ll cultivate in that pursuit is also likely to help you establish yourself in the field—during graduate school and beyond.

5. Publish in your subject

If you do original research, work on an exciting project, or otherwise make a contribution to your field, then write about it—and get your work published! Showing that you can pass muster in peer review will be a significant plus for your candidacy.

6. Use your statement of purpose

Write a thoughtful, clearly formulated statement of purpose in which you communicate—by showing, not telling—your understanding of and passion for your chosen field. Write with specificity about the research you hope to do in graduate school. Demonstrate your familiarity with the faculty by expressing how—and why—you hope to work with a few specific professors. You’ll need to make a compelling affirmative case, with plenty of specifics. (That’s true regardless of your undergraduate GPA!)

7. Consider submitting a separate letter of explanation

Depending on a program’s GPA requirements, you may be advised to submit a separate letter of explanation. (In some cases, your explanation may be included as part of your statement of purpose; you’ll need to follow the guidelines of each program to which you’re applying.) In your explanation, you’ll want to be clear and concise. If your relatively low GPA doesn’t reflect your abilities, explain why. If, for instance, you had a family emergency one semester, you can explain that your grades fell due to those personal circumstances—but in that case, committees will probably want to see that you successfully pulled them back up. If the cause of your low GPA is still ongoing, the committee will want to ensure that you’ll be able to complete your graduate work satisfactorily.

8. Focus on recommendations

Most graduate programs ask for recommendation letters. Your recommenders can discuss your qualifications, including your GPA, and make the case for the kind of work you are capable of doing (and have done for them!). Say you have a GPA on the low side, but your environmental bio research project really blew your professor away. If she recommends you as someone with great potential for research, her endorsement can significantly strengthen your application. If you’re able to do research-assistant work for someone in your field (perhaps even someone in the graduate program you’re hoping to gain admission to), then that person’s recommendation may carry even greater weight.


In short: There are several ways to overcome a low GPA. Grades are an important—but not exclusive—signifier of future academic success. If your grades alone don’t make your case, then let the work you have produced and the relationships you have nurtured earn you admission to your chosen graduate program. While you don’t need to act on all of the suggestions presented here, you should strive to set yourself apart from other candidates. If you ensure that the other (non-GPA) parts of your application shine, you may very well earn a coveted spot in your dream graduate program.