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How to Assess and Fortify Your Academic Record for MBA applications

As you contemplate your MBA candidacy, you might wonder whether your academic record is strong enough. Admissions committees evaluate this element of your application because it is an important predictor of your ability to handle the rigors of an MBA program. Standardized testing is another essential component in this evaluation, but in this post, we focus on the academic record from your undergraduate studies and from any other graduate programs you have already pursued. 

So, where should you start with your assessment? First, check your overall (or cumulative) undergraduate GPA. Compare this to the average GPA of the most recently accepted class at your target programs. To find this information, check the schools’ class profiles on their websites. 

If your GPA is above the average, you should be fine, but you should still review your transcript in detail to check for anomalies. As you do, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Did I have any individual courses in which I received a failing grade? Or a D grade? 
  • Do I have only a small number of quantitative courses on my transcript? (Typically, these are courses in math or statistics but can also include finance, economics, and accounting.) 
  • Did my GPA drop significantly in any individual term, semester, or quarter? 
  • Do I have multiple “withdrawals” on my transcript? 
  • Did I transfer schools? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you will most likely want to explain the issue in an optional essay. You might also want to consider pursuing additional pre-MBA coursework. For more on this option, check out this blog post: Boosting your Academic Profile with Supplemental Courses

If you answered “no” to all these questions as you evaluated your transcript, and your GPA is above average, the admissions committee should view your academic record positively. Although the caliber of your undergraduate university and the rigor of your major will play some role, the top MBA programs accept applicants from a wide range of universities and majors, so neither of these factors should be a significant hindrance on their own. You should be good to move on to preparing other aspects of your applications! 

If, however, your GPA is below the average for your target programs, the degree to which this will affect your odds of acceptance depends on how far it falls below the average. At most leading U.S. business schools, having a GPA under 3.3 (out of 4.0) will make your acceptance odds much more challenging. After asking yourself the aforementioned questions to identify any issues you should address, you will need to reflect even more deeply on your academic background. Consider the following questions: 

  • Did I struggle with certain types of courses? 
  • Did I perform better in the courses for my major? 
  • Did I have a rough start my first year? 
  • Did I perform better after switching my major? 
  • Did I check out early in my final year? 
  • Did my low grades coincide with other events (e.g., heavy extracurricular activities, health problems, family troubles, other personal issues)? 
  • Was I distracted by working to pay my tuition or by demanding athletic commitments? 
  • Was I lacking maturity? 

This reflection is not intended to help you come up with excuses but rather to heighten your self-awareness about factors that negatively affected your academic record. Once you have pinpointed the relevant issues, you must decide how to mitigate them. For most applicants, this includes a combination of the following tactics:

  • Invest more time in preparing for standardized testing (achieving an above-average test score is the best way to balance a weak academic record).
  • Take supplemental pre-MBA courses (and get A grades in them!). 
  • Pursue professional certifications (e.g., CPA, CFA, Six Sigma). 
  • Write an optional essay (download our free Optional Essays Guide).
  • Secure a supplemental reference letter (e.g., from an academic advisor).
  • Wait to apply until you have more work experience (to show more maturity).
  • Use your resume to highlight quantitative skills, and ask your recommenders to highlight your quantitative skills.
  • Adjust your list of target schools or apply to more safety schools.

An appropriate mix of these strategies should help you proactively manage any weaknesses in your academic record. 

We also want to address some special considerations for three specific groups of MBA applicants. 

First, if you have already earned a graduate degree (e.g., Master’s in Management, Master’s in Engineering), that is part of your academic record, too. Although making class average comparisons for master’s program GPAs is more difficult, having a weak GPA could be a hurdle. On the other hand, a strong master’s program GPA can offer a nice boost to your academic profile. Most business schools ask you to list all undergraduate and graduate institutions you have attended, so if you started a master’s program but did not complete it, you will still need to include this information in your application and explain the situation in an optional essay. 

Second, if you are an international candidate, your GPA might not be on the standard 4.0 scale. WES (World Education Services) can “translate” your transcript, but be aware that this is just directional; it is neither a perfect translation nor required by business schools. Also, carefully check the English language requirements for your target MBA programs because you might need to take another exam (e.g., TOEFL, IELTS) to demonstrate your English proficiency.

Third, if you were ever put on academic probation, involved in an academic or disciplinary hearing, or dismissed from a school, you must be up-front about the situation and carefully craft an optional essay to explain the circumstances. These kinds of academic violations can be a significant concern for admissions committees. Depending on the severity of the issue(s), you might even want to consult legal counsel.

To summarize, we find that MBA applicants often think that admissions committees will not pay much attention to weak areas of their academic records. Or that simply not bringing attention to them is better. But trust us; these issues will not go unnoticed! Your best plan of action is to be self-aware and proactively address any concerns the admissions committee could have about your academic record.

If you would like to receive targeted guidance on your business school application, simply sign up for a free 30-minute consultation with an mbaMission admissions expert.



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