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How to Overcome a Low Undergrad GPA When Applying to Business School

Undergraduate GPABack in college, you were probably more concerned with winning at beer pong and meeting one of your many soul mates than you were with readings and exams. No big deal. That's the case for lots of people. Since then, you've hopefully grown up and become an upstanding member of the adult world. But now that you're applying to business schools, you're worried that your undergraduate GPA isn't quite up to snuff.

Indeed, your undergraduate transcript -- specifically your GPA and the grades you earned in particular classes -- is an important consideration for admissions staff at top business schools. They look at it in tandem with your GMAT scores to get a sense of your ability to handle the academic rigor that lies ahead. Lucky for the beer pong champions of the world, there are ways to get around low GPAs. Here's what to do:

1. Accept responsibility for your low marks

Take a good, hard look at that transcript. Notice exactly where you fell short. Was it your stat class freshman year? Or did you just take courses that weren't very rigorous, such as Lanyard Making or Intro to Navel Gazing? Examine every inch of your academic history and note where you're lacking. Admissions staff will no doubt do the same.

"In addition to considering undergraduate GPA, we also look at the reputation of the school, the rigor of the major, grade trends, GMAT or GRE score, and any graduate work or additional coursework," says Isser Gallogly, Assistant Dean of MBA admissions at New York University's Stern School of Business.

After you've taken stock of your transcript and considered what business schools are looking for, then you have to come up with a plan. While you can't change what happened in the past, you can learn from the experience as you move forward. So, think about other ways you can prove yourself to admissions committees. Some of the suggestions below may work wonders to repair any damage caused by a low undergrad GPA.

2. Be ready to explain yourself

Most business schools provide space for an optional essay for any types of comments or information you'd like to share. If you have a low undergraduate GPA -- or even just one that you don't feel reflects your true potential -- you can offer an explanation in this space.

"If you didn't do so well in your elective courses early in your undergraduate career, but reassessed your priorities and performed well in your major when completing the second half of your studies, experienced admissions staff can overlook a slow start," says David Dams, MBA/M.S. Admissions at Drexel University's Lebow College of Business. "Now if you didn't perform well in the classes in which you received your degree, then you might need to address this to the admissions team of the schools you are applying to either in an interview or in your statement of purpose/personal essay."

Admissions experts will tell you to keep your explanation brief, take responsibility without offering up excuses, and share what you learned and how you've turned things around so that you'll succeed in an MBA program. Be prepared with a brief spiel that accomplishes the same exchange of information should your GPA come up in the admissions interview, too.

3. Do well on the GMAT (or GRE)

You can take either the GMAT or GRE standardized tests for admission at many of the top business schools. But you should check which is accepted by your target schools, and if there is a preference, before deciding on one or the other. Keep in mind that until recently the GMAT was the only test most MBA programs accepted, as it's designed specifically for business schools. In other words, those who are trying to prove themselves to MBA programs might go with the more quant-challenging GMAT. Study hard for the test. Take a test prep course or pour over books and other materials available online to make sure you earn the highest possible score. A high GMAT can go a long way to redeem an applicant.

"Strong or above average results on the GMAT or GRE can demonstrate preparedness for MBA study and compensate for a weaker GPA," says Julie Barefoot, Associate Dean of MBA admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. "And, the completion of a rigorous certification process (if relevant to your career) such as earning a CPA or CFA can also be a positive anecdote to a weaker GPA."

4. Take additional courses

If you noticed that you messed up in a particular subject, then take the course again now. Head to a local university or community college and sign up. Be sure to earn nothing lower than a B and preferably an A. Submit those grades, along with your undergraduate transcript. This will send the right message.

"If your GPA is not strong, I suggest taking some upper division or graduate business coursework as a non-degree seeking student," says Mark Bannister, Dean of the Fort Hays State University's College of Business and entrepreneurship. "If you earn A's and B's in this recent work, it can demonstrate your maturity and readiness to do well in a graduate program."

5. Don't sweat it too much

Sure, undergraduate GPA is a meaningful part of your application, but it's not the only part. "I'd recommend that candidates focus on effectively showcasing their well-roundedness and potential for leadership, their ability to connect their professional goals with the school they're targeting, and their potential contributions to the community they hope to join," says Michael Malone, Associate Dean for the MBA Program at Columbia Business School.

What Malone is saying is you can get into a great business school even if you did not have a stellar showing as an undergraduate. Still, don't mention your beer pong championship in the application.