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How to explain your low GPA in the MBA optional essay

Updated: Feb 1

I speak to hundreds of MBA applicants every year. One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do I justify my low undergrad GPA in my MBA applications?”


The good news is that a low GPA isn't a death sentence for your application. But you MUST be able to clearly explain it. Most likely, you’ll explain it in the optional essay of the MBA application portal.


This is how Yale SOM phrases the prompt:


Optional Essay: If any aspect of your candidacy needs further explanation (unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, academic performance, promotions or recognition, etc.), please provide a brief description here. (200 words maximum)


In this blog we will address how you can justify your low undergrad GPA through your optional essay. Along with this, we’ll discuss other aspects of your profile that you can discuss in the optional essay.



Every year, top business schools publish details regarding their class profiles. These reports include average GPA, GMAT/GRE score, years of experience, demographics and industry information for the incoming class. So, for prospective applicants, this report becomes a useful blueprint for identifying how they compare to their would-be classmates and whether they stand a chance of getting into this school.


From this report, we know for example that the undergrad GPA range for the Chicago Booth class of 2023 is 2.7 - 4, with the average being 3.54. The undergrad GPA range for the Northwestern Kellogg class of 2023 is 2.4 - 4, with the average being 3.7.


This means that candidates who made it to the Booth class of 2023 had undergraduate GPAs between 2.7 and 4.


So I get lots of questions from applicants whose GPA is at the very bottom of the range asking whether they have a chance. And honestly, most often the answer is No, unless your profile is absolutely exceptional.


My advice?

If you belong to an overrepresented group such as an Indian male or north american investment banker, you won’t be successful if your GPA is at the bottom of the range unless you’ve got an exceptional GMAT score and an incredible story.


Applicant: “Can I get into Booth with a 2.8 GPA?”

Sam: “Not unless you threw javelins in the Olympics or distributed polio vaccines in Afghanistan.”


To get in with a lower GPA, you need an exceptional story. One like Raveena’s, who got into Wharton with a low GPA, a below-average GMAT score in Round 3 and (drum roll) with $160,000 of scholarships.





How to explain a low GPA


Points to bear in mind while writing your optional essay as you discuss your low GPA:


1. Valid reasons for having a low GPA: Some reasons for having a low GPA are more valid than others. Partied to hard and failed exams? Nope. Better reasons include health issues, family issues such as parents getting divorced, or entering the course academically underprepared.


2. How to explain it: Focus very clearly on what happened, how you rebounded, and what you learned from the experience.


3. Avoid using long-winded stories. Storytelling can be super effective for the rest of your MBA essays, where you’re trying to demonstrate a strong narrative. However, that’s not the case with optional essays. Since this is not a mandatory part of the application, the Adcom is “doing you a favor” by reading it. So be short, tight and direct.


4. Steer clear of incorporating any stories or fluff. Instead, be direct in putting your point across to the Admissions Committee. If you have a low undergrad GPA, that’s a fact. So, say it like it is, add the reason behind it and discuss what you’ve done to compensate for it.


5. Don’t fill up space for the word limit. If you can explain a low GPA in 150 words, do it. As an extreme example, Rice Jones’ optional essay has a limit of 750 words. Unless you have something to say about every single possible optional essay topic, you won’t need anything like 750 words!


6. Don’t add repetitive content. Make sure nothing you write about in your optional essay has been repeated from any other part of the application. Repetition here is punishable by DING!


7. Don’t make excuses! Instead, highlight the reasons for this gap in your profile objectively and spin it positively. For example, if you have a low GPA because of your parents’ divorce, discuss how you handled it. If you have an employment gap in your profile, point to extracurriculars or a side hustle you pursued during that time.


8. Don’t be tempted to demonstrate the fit. The school has already offered you space to discuss your alignment with the school and/or program in your MBA application. So don’t ignore their instructions and include unnecessary detail in your optional essay.


9. Don’t brush your gaps under the rug. It might seem enticing to take the risk and not address your weaknesses in the hope that the AdCom miss it. In my experience, adcoms don’t miss these things. So don’t leave it to chance. If your focus wavered because of a lack of prioritization, or poor time management, or a genuine personal issue, admitting it will demonstrate maturity.





Example: Yale SOM


Optional Essay: If any aspect of your candidacy needs further explanation (unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, academic performance, promotions or recognition, etc.), please provide a brief description here. (200 words maximum)


I don’t believe my GPA of 2.7 is representative of my academic abilities. My parents got divorced during my undergraduate studies. Since the rest of my siblings had left the country, I was forced to manage their divorce negotiations and my academic performance suffered heavily as a result.


After the divorce was settled, I attended extra classes to catch up on missed material and my grades rebounded. My final year GPA was 3.4, with my last semester being 3.6, which I believe better demonstrates my academic ability.


Unsatisfied with my poor grades, I took on additional academic challenges after my undergraduate studies were complete. For example, diving straight into the CFA level 1.



When should you write an MBA optional essay?


Aside from explaining your GPA, these are the other points you may want to address in your optional essay:


Educational or Professional Gap


Usually, candidates have an educational or professional gap because -

  • They wanted to figure out their passion

  • They were preparing for a certain exam

  • They had a physical or mental health condition

  • Extenuating personal circumstances

  • Covid


So, if you had to take a gap or got laid off and found yourself in this situation, use this space to offer your explanation to Adcom. Focus on how you used your time productively.


Overlap


If you were running a side hustle during school or worked two jobs or did night shifts through your undergrad due to some financial issues, that’s something worth discussing in your optional essay. Otherwise, an outsider won’t be able to make sense of it just by looking at your resume.


Masters or Management degree in your home country


Many candidates go for a Masters in a specific subject or a Masters in Management (MIM) degree immediately after their undergrad. However, to pivot into senior executive roles, they need a formal management degree and apply for an MBA. If you fall into that category, you should offer context in your optional essay.


GMAT/GRE


If you think your current score is an inaccurate representation of your profile, provide evidence of how you can add value to your target school’s MBA class. For example, if you’ve got your GMAT booked for a specific date post the deadline, you can say,


“My current GMAT score doesn’t reflect my academic ability aptly, and I have booked the exam for a specific date.”


Recommender


If you don’t have a recommendation from your current manager, it’s worth highlighting why. Maybe because you can’t tell your current company. Maybe because you haven’t been at your current company very long. Simply offer a crisp explanation and get your point across to the Admissions Committee.


Struggling to write your optional essay? Get in touch.

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Hi, I'm Sam.  I'm the founder of Sam Weeks Consulting. Our clients get admitted to top MBA and EMBA programs.

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