All hope is not lost if you goofed up during undergrad, but approaching your application the right way is key to success.
A lot can change between the time you’re 18 and, say, 28. Let’s say straight out of high school wasn’t your most studious and sensible life period (you’re definitely not alone) and your undergrad GPA reflected that. But as you got a few more years of experience under your belt, you settled down and focused, and are now rocking a truly impressive business career.
Is all hope of getting into a top MBA program lost thanks to your lackluster undergrad performance?
Nope, says Jay Bhatti, who served on the Wharton admissions committee while getting his MBA at the school. “Many times candidates with poor undergraduate grades are admitted if they have shown significant accomplishments after school. However, it takes time to rack up these accomplishments. Most people accepted with poor undergraduate grades were older and had a few more years of work experience,” he assures potential applicants.
That’s good news for those with impressive professional credentials but less stellar academic records, but how exactly do you best convey your growth to ensure those reviewing your application don’t get hung up on your GPA?
Wow Them With Your GMAT Score
A 2011 Kaplan Test Prep survey of 265 MBA admissions officers found that just 24 percent felt a low undergrad GPA was the leading reason for rejection. That’s good news for those trying to bounce back from a low undergrad GPA. Less good news is the fact that more than double that amount (58 percent) said that a low GMAT or GRE was key to rejecting an applicant.
The bottom line: if you flubbed your college years, your GMAT counts more than ever.
“Make sure you have a strong GMAT or GRE score, since the exam is another indication of potential for academic success,” stresses Paula Wilson, director of MBA admissions at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business in a discussion of overcoming less than impressive undergrad grades on BusinessWeek.
That could very well mean a ton of studying and taking the test more than once, so make sure you leave yourself enough lead time to adequately prepare. “If you are applying to a top 10 MBA school, you should aim for a GMAT score of at least 700,” says Bhatti. “If you got a score below 700, take the GMAT again. Even if you don’t break 700 the second time around, it at least gives the committee a more favorable opinion of your determination. This is why I tell people to take the GMAT at least a year before you plan to apply. It gives you enough time to prepare and get a good score. If you don’t get a good score, you have a lot of time to try again.”
Nail the Optional Essay
Impressive test scores are key to overcoming lackluster undergrad grades, but you can’t just get a great score, cross your fingers and leave it at that. The committee will certainly take note of your low GPA, so you need to address the issue head on in your optional essay.
“I strongly recommend that you take advantage of the optional essay portion of the application. Most schools will offer this. This is an opportunity for you to address any concerns you think the admissions committee might have about your application and to discuss, in your particular case, why you will be successful academically in their program,” advises Wilson.
What exactly should you discuss in the essay? Stacy Blackman, founder of an MBA admissions consulting company, has delved into the issue for U.S. News & World Report and says your approach depends on your circumstances. She directed one client who simply failed to apply himself during his undergrad years to write an essay that “made no excuses and admitted that he had lacked the wisdom to see the big picture during his undergraduate years. He demonstrated that he had since developed the maturity to work hard in all classes, not just those he found intellectually interesting.”
Another student who got a D in a key course due to a family crisis, however, would do better to explain the situation and own his priorities. The exact content, in other words, will vary person to person but should reassure the committee that whatever the problem was them will no longer be a problem now.
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and Women 2.0 and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM, among others.