Applying to Grad School with a Low GPA

Students throwing their graduation caps into the air

The road to completing a Bachelor’s degree can be very challenging, requiring time management, achieving a balance with other activities (especially for recruited athletes and those who are employed during school!), and having the patience and willingness to put in the time required to earn high grades. Besides these various necessities, some students encounter grade deflation and tough graders, whether those people are teaching assistants or professors. Students who are interested in pursuing graduate school afterwards are further stressed by the requirement of earning an above average GPA – since that’s a factor graduate admissions committees will look at in the evaluation process.

However, many students find themselves with a lower GPA than they would’ve hoped for – and still have a real opportunity to earn admission to a top graduate program. Keep in mind, GPA is just one of many requirements to apply for most graduate school programs. Schools are interested in the rest of your application, including your essays, letters of recommendation, and relevant work experience, and tend to evaluate students holistically versus considering each factor independently!

So, what do you do if you find yourself with a lower-than-average GPA? Read on for our top seven tips!

Review the Data and Choose Wisely

At some schools, applying with a low GPA and getting accepted is very unlikely, especially if the institution is publishing data that proves your GPA is significantly lower than their most recent cohort of accepted students. If you find that your GPA is below even the 5th percentile of accepted students, it means there’s a chance, but that 95% of accepted students had a higher GPA. However, you might find that your low GPA is closer to the 10-40th percentile at other schools, and use this data to make an informed choice. It’s always important to create a balanced school list, so try to avoid including too many schools where you would place relatively low on their scale.

Reach Out to Strong Recommenders

Letters of recommendation are a great way to add a different perspective to your application – and bring your story and your application to life!
Some graduate programs require more letters of recommendation than others. Letters of recommendation are always important, but usually, schools that allow you to include more, or have the letters required instead of optional, place more value on recommendations. These are schools that want to hear what your professors, colleagues, and others have to say about you. Academic performance, after all, is not the only part of an application!
When deciding who to ask for letters of recommendation, keep in mind how well they know you and support your goals. Those who know you well and have worked with you closely are more likely to write a glowing recommendation that could awe the admissions readers and focus on your strengths, instead of your lower GPA.

Display Interest in the School

Showing interest in a school is a great way to demonstrate that you’ll be a committed student – plus schools typically want to admit students they believe may attend if accepted.
Sign up for newsletters, get in touch with professors, and attend events that the school offers (virtual events are great, too!). If you’re applying to a program where research or some sort of specialty will be required, it can be helpful to reach out to a professor and discuss their research, especially if it aligns with what you’re interested in studying in graduate school.

Work Diligently on your Admissions Essays

Your admissions essays are one of the best ways to show a school what you have to offer, and why you would be a great fit for their program.

Your Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose essay gives you a chance to show off your personality, elaborate on your plans, and show why the school you’re applying to is a perfect fit.

Writing a great personal statement is a culmination of the previous steps – by researching a school and communicating with their faculty, you’re not only displaying interest, but learning more about why that school belongs on your list of graduate programs. You can even mention your conversation with a professor in the hopes that you can perform research with them and take their courses.

Take More Courses

One way to show that you’re academically motivated and focused on applying to grad school is by taking additional courses. These courses can be at any accredited institution, such as a community college, and even part-time courses that are offered at the institution you’re applying to! Doing well in these courses is another way to display your commitment to the program you’re pursuing. For example, if you’re interested in pursuing a Master’s degree in Computer Science, taking a few computer science classes can show that you’re interested in the field, and will already have some knowledge prior to starting your Master’s program.

However, if taking additional courses isn’t an option (for example – if you’re already working full-time), consider leveraging your professional experience in the form of a fantastic resume, glowing letters of recommendation, and referring to your work experience in your essays.

Focus on your Standardized Exams

Standardized tests – like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and others – may be required or optional for the graduate school program you’re interested in.

To help balance a low GPA, earning a high score on a standardized exam can improve the strength of your application. You can get a sense of average test scores for the schools you’re applying to on their admissions websites – we’ve also overviewed average GRE scores here and average GMAT scores here!

Keep in mind this is easier said than done – these exams are difficult, requiring three or more hours to complete, and much more time from you while you’re studying and preparing. Put together a study plan and use the abundance of resources available to help you earn the highest score possible!

Publish in your Topic of Interest

If you’re pursuing a graduate degree that will require research, you could also publish research in your area of expertise. However, this is also time consuming and requires long-term planning, sometimes years ahead! Usually, the best way to go about publishing is to continue the research and writing you did for your undergraduate thesis or a capstone course, but it’s also possible that you pinpoint a topic of interest and pursue it aggressively. If so, good luck!

The more dedicated you are to a subject, the more likely you are to publish, with lots of patience, of course.

Final Thoughts

Remember, having a high GPA doesn’t guarantee admission into any school. This is just as true as knowing that a low GPA doesn’t automatically prevent you from earning admission into any school. By learning how to get into grad school with a low GPA and following these steps, you’ll be putting yourself in the strongest position to earn a well-deserved spot in a great graduate school program!


  • Chris Kado

    For over a decade, Chris has supported students across the globe in fulfilling their college aspirations. Chris started out as a college admissions consultant, where he helped community college students reduce their loan obligations by constructing comprehensive transfer strategies, maximizing the use of CLEP and AP credits, and scoring scholarships. ‍ During his graduate studies at Harvard, Chris held numerous roles in education, including working as a research assistant and advising students on the college admissions process. Chris holds extensive experience in essay development and preparation for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. His guidance has enabled students to gain admission into diverse programs at institutions including UC Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, Michigan, Harvard, Fashion Institute of Technology, Embry-Riddle, Notre Dame, and Duke. ‍ Chris holds an Master's in History from Harvard University and is currently working towards a Master's in Education at UIUC. He also received a College Advising Program Certificate from Columbia University, completed the Independent Educational Consultant Certificate from University of California Irvine, and earned the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) from Cambridge. Nowadays, Chris continues to serve a full-time role as a College Counselor for WeAdmit, write insightful articles for Magoosh, and teach at Education First summer camps!

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