Highly ranked graduate business schools often admit people who were B students in
MBA applicants who are already professionally accomplished and well-connected can help their classmates find jobs, so B-schools strive to admit these types of applicants. (Getty Images)
Getting accepted at a top-ranked business school isn’t easy. MBA admissions officers at these schools are looking for candidates who demonstrate the originality, charisma, initiative and grit necessary to become business titans.
Nevertheless, it is common for people to get into MBA programs without having straight A’s on their college transcripts. The average undergraduate GPA among fall 2020 students at the top 20 MBA programs in the U.S. News Best Business Schools rankings that reported the grades of incoming students was a 3.53; the average GPA at lower-ranked programs was 3.37.
Many B-schools either refrain from specifying a minimum GPA or set a lenient baseline standard.
Nevertheless, current and former business school officials warn that college grades matter in the MBA admissions process, since a solid undergraduate transcript signals to selection committees that a student is capable of passing MBA courses. Someone who did not perform well in undergraduate classes will need to excel in other ways in order to get into B-school, according to past and present admissions officers.
“Unlike law school and med school admissions, which are really, really based very much on numbers – your scores, your grades – the business school admissions process is really much more comprehensive,” says Deena Maerowitz, a partner and principal at The Bertram Group, an educational consulting firm, and a former associate director of admissions at Columbia Business School.
MBA Admissions Officers Sometimes Forgive Modest Grades
B-schools prefer students who have a history of tackling leadership roles in both their careers and extracurricular activities, partly because those students are likely to be active participants in MBA student clubs, Maerowitz says. So MBA applicants who have led organizations and been civically engaged in their local communities may be able to compensate for a less-than-ideal grade, such as a B- or lower, in a quantitative course.
She adds that MBA applicants who are already professionally accomplished and well-connected can help their classmates find jobs, so B-schools strive to admit these types of applicants.
“The networking is very important,” Maerowitz says. “Even though it’s sort of a taboo thing to discuss in the application process, it’s something that’s considered nonetheless.”
And because B-schools strive to include a varied group of students in every MBA class, they will occasionally choose students with intriguing life stories who weren’t academic superstars in college, Maerowitz says. “There are just times where the numbers aren’t telling the whole story, and so we are willing to look beyond it to create the class we want.”
David Simpson, recruitment and admissions director of the London Business School in the United Kingdom, says MBA programs often receive applications from students from multiple countries, including countries with vastly different grading systems. As a result, it’s difficult to fairly compare GPAs. Simpson adds that even among colleges within the same country, there can be significant grading disparities, so a grade at one college isn’t necessarily equivalent to the same grade at a different college.
Maerowitz says B-school admissions officers want proof that MBA applicants have sufficient math and analytical skills to succeed in business school, so their grades in quantitative college courses are particularly important. Students who earned a mediocre grade in a math-intensive college class can alleviate doubts about their abilities by creating an alternative transcript, meaning that they enroll in a quantitative course or take a series of MBA-prep courses at an accredited higher education institution and perform well, ideally by earning an A.
The Importance of Work Experience
According to Michal Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at St. Mary’s College of California who holds an MBA degree and a Ph.D. degree in marketing, professional achievements are paramount. “Work experience definitely matters, as it should,” Strahilevitz wrote via email. “If someone had experience in a high growth area or (is) doing something game-changing and innovative, that is and should be a plus.”[
Strahilevitz says B-schools are eager to enroll applicants with marketable technical skills in fields like programming, genetic engineering and deep learning. “So this would be more appealing than someone with a high GPA who studied French literature and has been delivering pizza for the past two years.”
Strahilevitz says that unpaid work experience, including volunteer projects, can strengthen an MBA application. “Volunteer work counts,” she says. “Someone who has had an impact on a cause can make an impression with that.”
Selling Points That Compensate for Mediocre College Grades
Beth Tidmarsh, an MBA admissions consultant with Stacy Blackman Consulting and former director of admissions for the full-time MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says an admissions officer might choose to de-emphasize a college GPA for many reasons.
According to Tidmarsh, what qualifies as a low or mediocre GPA in MBA admissions depends on the B-school. “The MBA programs all publish an annual ‘class profile’ – candidates can check their GPA against the school’s average,” she wrote in an email.
She notes that at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, where the average GPA among incoming MBA students is unusually high, even a 3.6 GPA would be below average. In fall 2020, the average GPA among incoming Stanford MBA students was 3.8.
Tidmarsh says MBA applicants who achieve a high standardized test score or who have a track record of success in an analytical job can often convince MBA admissions committees that they can perform well in tough B-school courses.
She adds that B-schools appreciate when applicants have taken quantitatively rigorous and scientific-based college courses. These schools are well aware of the difficulty of technical college majors, so they tend to be more forgiving when looking at GPAs in those majors, she says.
In addition, because many MBA applicants are applying to B-school after several years in the workforce, college GPAs are often less recent and less relevant than the other portions of their application, Tidmarsh says.
She adds that someone who has numerous promotions on their MBA resume and who is advancing faster than peers with a similar amount of work experience is a candidate that B-schools typically find attractive, even if they weren’t an A student in college.
How to Address a Lower-Than-Ideal GPA
MBA applicants can occasionally mitigate concerns about their undergraduate grades by writing a supplemental essay, Tidmarsh says. In that essay, an applicant can point out if his or her grades trended upward from freshman to senior year in college or note if a personal setback interfered with undergraduate academic performance, she says.
Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, says MBA applicants with lackluster college grades should never tell MBA admissions officers that they struggled in college courses because those classes focused on topics they disliked.
“We discourage ‘I under-performed because the subject didn’t interest me’ explanations, because the admissions reader might assume that she or he will have the same problem with less interesting classes in MBA studies,” Blackman wrote in an email.
MBA applicants who didn’t perform well in college will need to reassure B-school admissions officers that they are motivated and disciplined, so they should offer evidence of their work ethic in their application, including in their admissions essays, Blackman says. The goal of an MBA applicant in this scenario is to illustrate that “he or she has become a productive, self-starter with high standards of performance,” she says.
Esther Magna, a principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting, says anyone who has an undergraduate GPA below a 3.2 should offer an explanation in their MBA application.
“A muted GPA can be an opportunity to show self-awareness and introspection about personal experiences and past setbacks,” Magna wrote in an email. “It can be a window into a candidate’s character and values and can be invoked to tug at the heartstrings of the MBA Admissions Office readers. Addressing the reasons for the lower GPA across relevant applicant materials is critical.”
MBA applicants who believe their work experience is a better reflection of their abilities than their college grades should strive to obtain compelling professional recommendation letters, Tidmarsh says. They can also take a business-related course to prove to MBA admissions officers that they are ready for business school, she says.[
Emily Archambeault, director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, advises MBA hopefuls who have finished college to focus on strengthening the credentials they still have the potential to improve, such as work experience, and to avoid fixating on their GPA.
“What I tend to share with applicants who are worried about their undergraduate GPA is to let them know that there is rarely a perfect applicant in this process, and there are a lot of great applicants,” she says.
Daniel Tenenbaum, who earned an MBA degree from Harvard Business School in Massachusetts in 1992, suggests that MBA hopefuls highlight their management abilities when their GPA is mediocre.
Tenenbaum, the founding principal with Pacific Crest Real Estate company in Los Angeles, noted in an email that he earned “an average GPA” while in college at McGill University in Montreal. “However, I made clear in my MBA school applications not only that I had been elected the McGill student body president, but how the work I had accomplished as president highlighted my leadership skills.”
Melis Steiner, an alumna of Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business in Texas and a former assistant within the school’s admissions office, advises B-school hopefuls with subpar college grades to focus on applying to MBA programs whose missions coincide with their own values.
Another strategy is to write a beautiful admissions essay, says Steiner, co-founder of the Brand Partners Collective company. “Find a way to stand out, capture your reader, and tell the story that only you can tell,” she wrote in an email.
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