How to Explain Your Low GPA to Grad Schools

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readMar 13, 2023

So you got a less-than-perfect GPA in college, and now you want to learn the best way how to explain a low GPA to grad schools. Don’t despair! Graduate school admissions committees are people too — they can understand that achieving a perfect GPA isn’t always possible for every student.

Nonetheless, when you’re applying to graduate schools with a weak academic record, it’s important to be honest about why your grades didn’t cut it. Read on for tips on how best to explain yourself and potentially gain admittance into the program you want to get into.

How Important is the GPA to Grad Schools?

Don’t let yourself be fooled into believing that graduate programs don’t take GPAs into account. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Since many applicants are applying within five years of graduating, schools rely on your GPA to gain insight as to how you have performed academically and overall throughout your studies.

The GPA is a universal point of comparison among graduate school applicants, making it an invaluable tool in the competitive selection process. Despite any slight variations that may exist between programs’ grading scales, the GPA remains something all schools can agree upon and use to compare candidates. As universities shift away from requiring the GRE for admission, applicants must bank on their academic transcripts and grades to make a lasting impression. As admissions committees will be putting more emphasis on grades, the GPA will become more critical than ever before since it serves as an all-encompassing assessment of a candidate’s abilities.

What is considered a low GPA for graduate school?

If you’re looking to determine if your GPA is considered low, use the US 4.0 scale as a guideline and measure it against your target school’s average matriculating student GPA. You can usually find this information in class profiles or by consulting U.S. News rankings. As an alternative approach, compare your GPA against the 75th or 80th percentile of your target schools if that data is available to you.

Your GPA is more than just a number

When considering your GPA, it is important to understand that admissions committees perceive it as a result of potential variation. This variation is significant, and its effects should be taken into consideration. Admissions committees dig deeper than just a letter grade and analyze your transcripts to detect patterns and trends. Depending on the factors that led to your low GPA, you may need to put in extra effort and dedication to overcome it.

Were your grades on an upward trend? Did you experience a turbulent freshman year in college, leading to a decline in your GPA, but then worked relentlessly and graduated with an impressive score? Was your academic performance lacking for a short period as you got sidetracked with the wrong major but then improved your grades after getting back on track and finding what truly resonated with you? If so, this academic growth could work to your advantage.

Were your grades on a downward trend? Did you start off with a bang, earning an impressive GPA score your very first year of college only to have the motivation slip away leading to steadily declining grades until graduation? That kind of downward fluctuation is cause for significant concern.

How to Mitigate a Low GPA in Your Grad School Application

To counteract a low GPA, it is essential to emphasize that your GPA does not accurately demonstrate your current academic abilities.

There are four main strategies to minimize the influence of a low GPA.

Taking the GRE

The GRE is an influential way to emphasize your raw intellectual capabilities, no matter what the GPA may be. Because it has been correlated with program success over many years, this standardized test demonstrates that you have the talent and aptitude for your chosen field.

Whatever your target discipline, taking the test sends a strong statement of commitment to pursuing graduate studies. This is why it is wise to take the test even if the test is optional for admission into the program. Taking the exam will prove beyond any doubt that you are academically capable and competitive with those admitted into your target programs.

If your GPA is substandard, an impressive test score can be a fantastic way to demonstrate that you have much more potential and intellectual capacity than what the numbers show. Achieving a strong result on this assessment will demonstrate to universities that you are more than capable of living up to their expectations.

If you want to learn how to explain your low GPA to grad schools, it’s essential to remember this: no graduate school wants the burden of accepting someone who cannot live up to their standards and eventually quits. This would be an inefficient use of funds and resources for them.

To show that you are devoted to upholding the goals expected from you, there is no better way than acing the GRE.

Signing up for more classes

You can show that you are capable of more than your GPA indicates by taking classes in your chosen field and earning A’s in them. It doesn’t matter what your degree goal is — you want to demonstrate that you have the self-discipline, study skills, and motivation to do well in an academic setting related to the field you want to study.

When deciding how many classes to take, it is important to think about the gap between your GPA and the average of your target school as well as when you graduated. If you’re looking to bridge the gap between your current GPA and the target school’s average, a Master’s program may be just what you need. If you’ve managed to build a strong portfolio of accomplishments since your undergrad years, demonstrating that your academic performance has improved could be as easy as taking just a few classes.

Additionally, if you are blessed with an impressive GRE score and evidence that proves your academic excellence in the classroom, then there’s no doubt you can defeat any negative impact from having had a low GPA in the past.

Statement of purpose

There are certain situations when it is appropriate to address a low GPA in your application materials. And learning how to explain your low GPA for grad schools is all about knowing where and when. However, there are also times when doing so may do more harm than good. Here are some guidelines to help you determine when it is and is not okay to discuss your GPA:

-If the rest of your application is strong, you generally don’t need to bring up your GPA.

-If your overall GPA is below a 3.0 but you have recently taken steps to improve it (such as taking extra classes or retaking courses), you may want to briefly mention this in your statement of purpose.

-If there are specific circumstances that led to a low GPA (such as an illness or family emergency), you may want to explain these in your essay.

-In general, it is best NOT to address a low GPA if doing so would require revealing sensitive personal information (such as mental health issues) that you would prefer not to disclose on your application.

Although it is usually best not to mention your low GPA in your statement of purpose, there are some cases where it might be beneficial to do so. If you have excellent reasons that help explain your low grades, then go ahead and clarify yourself.

You can own up to a low GPA or bad grade in your SOP, but only if you have an understandable excuse for it. If not, the best approach is to focus instead on how you learned from that experience and used those lessons in subsequent academic endeavors.

Even the most diligent and intelligent students experience days when nothing goes right, so one sub-par grade or less than stellar semester GPA isn’t a death sentence. As a general rule, any excuse you provide should have specific details and sound believable. It is not wise to invent extraordinary or obscure stories to conceal your low mark; rather, keep it sincere and honest without exaggeration.

Personal Struggles

When it comes to explaining the cause of your below-average academic performance for one semester, you should be courteous and honest about any personal health or other issues that may have impacted your results. However, it is important to remember that this reason can only defend a single poor semester; if multiple semesters are involved then citing ill health or bad luck as an explanation could work against you.

Good Grades in Core Courses

If your GPA is not as impressive, you can still emphasize your commitment to the field that interests you by highlighting your exemplary grades in major subjects or related classes.

Financial Problems

If financial issues caused your low GPA, you should explain this fact concisely and honestly. Mentioning how you had to study and work simultaneously can be helpful, as it can reveal the reasons why academic success may have been difficult to achieve at times. Keep it short and persuasive by tackling the issue in only two or three sentences.

Recommenders

If you don’t have any of the previously mentioned reasons that could help you solve how to explain your low GPA to grad schools, consider reaching out to an instructor who wrote a reference letter for you. They’ll be in the best position to argue that grades do not accurately reflect your talents and ambition toward your chosen major. A few sentences from them in their recommendation can make all the difference!

When Should You Not Address Your Low GPA in your SOP?

With the admissions committees receiving thousands of applications each year, it is vital to bear in mind that they are familiar with all kinds of rationalizations for poor academic performance. Ultimately, it’s not always advisable to make excuses for a poor grade if:

  • You often had bad grades. An occasional bad grade happens to the best of us. Nonetheless, it is unnecessary to explain grades that are consistently Cs and Ds throughout your academic career. Instead, let your other accomplishments such as internships, extra-curricular activities, and work experience showcase your abilities!
  • You don’t have a strong enough justification. Many people say they don’t do well on exams and that their GPA doesn’t accurately reflect their skill level or determination. They also use the grading system of their university as an excuse for low scores, but this argument falls flat — undergraduate GPAs are based on several different assessments. It’s unreasonable to rely solely on one exam when gauging your academic success! If some of your grades are not up to the mark, resist the urge to distract admission committee members with irrelevant points. Rather than wasting time and effort talking about it, address these low scores only if you have a plausible justification for doing so.

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits-all in answer how to explain a low GPA to grad schools. It takes thoughtful reflection, practice, and understanding your strengths to craft an explanation that will give your application the boost you need to be successful. While there is no assurance that any of these tips will work for every program, you can certainly set yourself up for success by using these strategies.

Whatever path you choose in the end, remember: don’t let fears or doubts keep you from pursuing the graduate program of your dreams. So take the necessary steps to make it happen and see what amazing opportunities await! If all else fails or if you’d like an extra pair of eyes to take a look at your application before sending it off, make sure to check out our graduate school application services-they’re here to help get you where you want to go!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a PhD from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and PhD programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 13, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/