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What GPA Do I Need for a Top MBA Program? And What Should I Do If Mine Isn’t Great?

by Vantage Point MBA, Dec 22, 2023

As MBA admissions consultants, we’re commonly asked, ‘what GPA do I need for a top MBA program?’ We get it – it’s easy to be concerned that a low GPA (which you have no ability to change at this point) will prevent you from being accepted to the MBA program of your dreams.

To begin, let’s define what we mean by ‘low’, and this is dependent on a few things, including the program(s) you’re targeting. For instance, the average GPA of HBS’ last incoming class was 3.7 whereas the average GPA of Georgetown McDonough’s last incoming class was 3.3. While that is not a huge range, the difference is significant.

Another factor to consider is the competitiveness of your ‘peer set’ in the application process. Say for instance, you come from the finance industry (i.e. investment banking / private equity). Business schools receive enough applications from those with this background that they could fill their entire class with them…but they won’t. There is a (loosely) defined number of seats in each class for finance applicants. To compel the adcom to offer you one of them, you might need to outperform the class average. Not to mention that the cohort of finance applicants probably has a high average GPA to begin with, as academic success was likely a prerequisite for getting their job in the first place.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that the answer to ‘what GPA do I need for a top MBA program?’ is ‘it depends’. But generally, if your GPA is below the class average for your target program(s) – with slight adjustments up or down for the differentiation of your profile – you should pay close attention to the advice we’re about to share.

Whether it was because you chose the toughest major at your university, had a little too much fun, or were so involved in extracurriculars that you didn’t have enough time to study, the good news is that, despite being something you can’t change, a low GPA can be one of the easier weaknesses to mitigate in your MBA applications.

But First, Why Do MBA Programs Care So Much About My GPA?
If you’re like most applicants, college was several years ago and you’ve come a long way since then – you’ve begun your career, earned a promotion or two, and maybe even started managing a team. While these accomplishments help demonstrate your leadership potential and perhaps your analytical skills, they don’t tell the admissions committee whether you can handle a rigorous academic environment.

Though MBA programs often emphasize the “programmatic” nature of the degree (the internships, seminars, experiential learning opportunities, conferences, trips, and networking), an MBA is still a master’s level degree with master’s level classes. The coursework demands that you can study, apply theories to cases, write essays, and pass tests.

The time-honored way for the admissions committees to assess your skills in this area is by looking at the combination of your GMAT or GRE score and your GPA. So, what can you do if have a low GPA – one that is not at or above the average for your target schools? The key is to focus on two things: 1) explaining and 2) overcoming.

My GPA Isn’t Great, What Should I Do Now?
What if your answer to ‘what GPA do I need for a top MBA program?’ is ‘not the one I have on my transcript’? The first thing you should absolutely plan to do is leverage the optional essay to explain the situation. Note that we did not use the word “justify”. Explaining is not making excuses; explaining is simply stating what ‘it’ was and why ‘it’s’ better now (whatever ‘it’ was).

Don’t sweep anything under the rug or be cagey. If your low GPA was mainly because of your first two years when you were struggling with over-committing and not managing your time well, then it’s OK to say that it took you awhile to perfect your time management skills and learn to prioritize effectively. In fact, it shows a great deal of maturity and self-reflection.

However, you must immediately follow that statement with how you’ve overcome that issue (e.g., earned a top-notch GPA in another master’s program, successfully managed multiple projects at work, etc.). Be brief but specific – you don’t want them to assume that you are being vague because the real reason for your low GPA is that you just partied too much.

Beyond Explaining, Offer Proof of Your Ability to Succeed in Their Program
In addition to explaining why you had a low GPA in undergrad, you also want to use the optional essay to share what you’ve done to demonstrate your academic ability.

A strong GMAT or GRE score is a great counterpoint to a low GPA, so if you’re considering a retake because you think you might have room for improvement, go for it. In an ideal world, your test score overachieves the school average if you are applying with a GPA that underachieves the school average.

Other credentials like having passed the CFA exam (even Level 1) can demonstrate your ability to learn large volumes of quantitatively complex material, as you will in business school. The same goes for highlighting elements of your job that are analytically rigorous. Bonus points if your recommenders can reinforce your ability to get up to speed with quantitative or challenging concepts quickly.

Proof Might Involve Taking Supplemental Coursework
The best “proof” is having earned a stellar grade in a post-grad class to show the admissions committee that you can handle the academics like a champ. Fortunately, there are great options for every work and life schedule.

On the higher end of commitment level are live classes through a local community college or university continuing education department. These work well for people who learn best in a group setting and want to be held to a more concrete schedule.

Self-directed online courses offer more flexibility. On the lower end of the commitment and time spectrum, MBAMath.com costs $149 for modules covering topics like statistics, accounting and finance that can be completed in 20-40 hours. On the higher end of commitment and time is Harvard Online’s CORe program, which costs $2,250 and is estimated to take approximately 150 hours to complete. Of note, many estimate that a rather large percentage of HBS admits have taken CORe (this is anecdotal, of course). Other popular options include Wharton’s Coursera courses (target the graded versions) and UC Berkeley’s Extension.

Focus on foundational quantitative subjects you didn’t study in college (or performed poorly in) like accounting, statistics and/or calculus. By doing well in one of these courses, you can ask the admissions committee to look at your additional coursework grades as an indication of your ability to succeed in the classroom instead of your undergrad coursework. Typically, this demonstration, paired with a strong GMAT score, will help an admissions director to feel more comfortable with a low GPA.

Aside from increasing your chances, taking additional coursework shows your commitment and willingness to prepare for the MBA experience, which signals that you are ready to get as much value out of the program as humanly possible (and the admissions committee likes that!).

Interested in a personalized answer to ‘what GPA do I need for a top MBA?’ or help with your applications? Reach out to request an initial consultation.