Overcoming a low grade point average: what does and doesn’t work

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, so I’ve taken the GRE, maybe I’ve already done the tutoring program, and I’m great. But I have my target applications that I’m sending out, and I’m a little nervous. What I’m worried about is one thing: on the application, I have to supply my undergraduate GPA, and I’m not too happy about that. So, what are my options? What can I do? Talk to me.

Orion: Yeah, I have many students come to me with this very issue. Interestingly, they don’t usually approach it in the order you just described. Often, when students are concerned about their undergrad GPA, they say, “I have to perform really well on the GRE to compensate for my low GPA.” At this point, I often share some disappointing news: a performance on a four-hour test (soon to be a two-hour test) cannot negate years of academic performance. Four years is a significant duration, and the GPA is an average from numerous classes over this extended period, making it a reliable metric. In contrast, the GRE represents a singular performance in time. Graduate school admissions won’t weigh these two metrics equally; they’ll give more weight to the undergrad GPA.

To me, these are the only two quantifiable, objective metrics on a grad school application. This is why admissions personnel value them: they offer a rationale to reject otherwise qualified applicants based on these numbers, one of the few remaining aspects of an application that isn’t subjective or demographic-based. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense. So, I’m reminded of other things we’ve talked about earlier in the podcast. You’re right that the order of operations best serves a person when they’re looking at their potential places they want to go. Is it true, for example, that you’ve recommended looking at the median GRE score of successful applicants for whatever program you’re considering? Is that kind of data available? Is it also a good waypoint to determine whether I could even apply to a place if I have a GPA that’s lower than, say, the median average of people who were successfully accepted before?

Orion: Yeah, so programs will also generally publish their median GPAs along with that GRE data. And that’s something to keep in mind. You obviously can apply, but the more your GPA deviates negatively from that median, the more you’re fighting an uphill battle. There are a few things you can do. Personally, I never thought I would go back to school after I graduated with my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in drama all those years ago. And I didn’t take undergraduate school all that seriously either.

So I didn’t have an abysmal GPA, but I didn’t put as much effort into that course of studies as I subsequently did when I went to grad school. So it was on the lower side, though I think I had like a 3.0 or 3.4. So with very little background in psychology, I took one introductory psychology class and got a B-minus in it. So I did not have a very good academic pedigree with respect to graduate study in psychology. So there are a few things that folks can do. One of them is, it’s possible to take classes at university continuing education departments; a lot of major universities have a college or a department specifically devoted to adult learners, and these are legitimate classes. You will enroll and you will get a grade, and that can be factored into your undergraduate GPA to kind of increase your average over time. So if you spent a year taking eight classes at this level and you aced them all, you can dramatically improve your undergraduate GPA, and potentially get rid of a number of prerequisite classes that may be required if you didn’t major in the field that you subsequently want to study in.

Davis: No, that’s really a helpful and useful hack. I hope everyone was paying attention to that. It’s something I’ve taken advantage of before, as well as continuing education. And while studying what you want may not go towards a degree, if you’re set on graduate school, or if you’re just interested in the material in general, it’s a great option. As noted by Orion, it can positively offset your GPA. Now, regarding the GRE, for example, you mentioned in your case, going into a psychology grad program having taken very few psychology classes previously. Is that level of detail in your transcript a reference point for admissions personnel to look at and say, “Oh, he only had a 3.4. But let’s see what it was in relation to the relevant material.” Some applications split up the GPA; they state, “Here’s my overall GPA, and here’s the GPA relative to my major.” Some applications do that. And if they don’t, you can always include an explanatory note with your application. This is something I also encourage people to do.

Orion: Well, you can write a brief note, probably not more than a paragraph, explaining your GPA. You can parse it out in different ways. For instance, maybe you aced your major-specific classes and you want to point that out, but you didn’t really put a lot of effort into some other courses, which lowered your overall GPA. If this distinction isn’t provided in the application, you can clarify it for them. Additionally, you might have a legitimate reason why your GPA suffered.

The idea here is to provide an explanatory note for circumstances like serious illness, or perhaps a family loss, which most would consider extenuating circumstances. In this case, you’d write a paragraph saying something like, “I recognize that my GPA isn’t as stellar as it might be. Here’s the reason why.” In the following sentence, you would address why that reason no longer impacts you, either because time has passed or you’ve taken measures to resolve the issue. Then, express your hope that you can demonstrate your excellence in this program in the future. You don’t want to overemphasize the issue, but you also don’t want to ignore it.

One more thing I will say: when I mentioned continuing education, you were actually very generous. When someone presented that option to me, I thought, “I may have to go back to school before I can go back to school? There’s no way I’m doing that.” So it’s a path that some people can take, but I wasn’t prepared to do that.

There’s another thing you could potentially do. For example, most of the programs I applied to required six or seven psychology prerequisite courses. I had taken none of them. However, they also provided a loophole: if I scored above a certain point on the Psychology GRE Subject Test, I could bypass all seven of those prerequisite courses, essentially saving me a year of time and tuition. So, I spent a month or two preparing for the Psych GRE Subject Test, achieved the score I needed, and effectively bypassed all of those prerequisites. This also made my application more compelling. Many people aren’t aware that GRE Subject Tests exist in around eight fields. These tests can both exempt you from prerequisites in numerous programs and enhance the appeal of your applications, especially if you didn’t major in the field or if your GPA isn’t so hot.

Davis: That is some great information, Orion. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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