Show us a b-school applicant with a 730 GMAT, 3.8 GPA, five years of impressive work experience, and weekends spent raking a community garden and we’ll show you, well, a unicorn. But, for those of you who don’t have a horn and magical powers, or a sparkling application, you’ll need to find a way to highlight your strengths and mitigate or explain your application weaknesses. Remember that even perfect-on-paper candidates need to find a way to stand out among other excellent candidates — it’s called marketing!
There are several legitimate reasons for a low undergraduate GPA, and your first step is to assess what led to your below-average GPA. Did you contract mononucleosis during junior year or suffer a death in the family? Did you have to work long hours to support yourself or a family while you studied? Or, did you fail to take school seriously or were the resident party animal in your dorm?
In either case, to prove to b-schools that you can handle the workload of a rigorous MBA curriculum, you’ll need to do two things: mitigate and explain. To show your academic prowess, you can ace the GMAT (which you’ll want to do anyway) and possibly take a few graduate or undergraduate business classes and ace them. If your low GPA is reflected mostly in your quant-heavy courses, show how you’re currently using your math chops in your everyday work. Your applications will give you an opportunity to explain your lower GPA, typically in an addendum. If you choose to write one, do it conservatively and wisely. Don’t speculate on what could have been, and show humility and learning from your mistakes. For situations beyond your control, such as an illness or a death in the family, state your case plainly and let admissions officers take it from there.
Many schools will require a minimum number of years of work experience because their curriculum lends itself to active class participation from experienced professionals. Even when schools don’t, most business school applicants will have at least a few years of work experience, with competitive MBA programs seeing applicants with at least 3-5 years of work experience. Barring particular school requirements, only you can decide if you’re ready to take on and contribute to an MBA cohort. Be honest with yourself, your current skillset, and your leadership roles. Remember to consider all work experience, including fellowships, internships, and volunteer work when you’re building out your resume, and highlight leadership positions or positions where you’ve taken on significantly more responsibility than your role called for. You won’t be able to change your work experience by the time you apply, but you’ll want to make sure other areas of your application stand out.
Extracurriculars are the seasoning to your meat and potatoes. They give candidates an opportunity to showcase different sides of themselves, and especially for younger candidates, an opportunity to take on responsibility or leadership roles that may not be available in a traditional workplace. Taking on (and sticking with) a volunteer position shows that you are not only altruistic, but also reliable and able to commit. If you have a solid history of volunteer work, use it to show aspects of your personality and skills that aren’t necessarily reflected in your work experience or academic work. A frequent question from MBA hopefuls is whether to take on volunteer experience shortly before starting your application process. If your interest is genuine and you may be able to take on a leadership position, go for it. But know that admissions committees can see through disingenuous attempts to pad your resume.
Nobody’s perfect, not even unicorns (that horn HAS to be a huge pain) so we all need to learn how to manage our weaknesses on our resumes. Have you had to overcome a lower GPA or few years of work experience? Tell us how you were successful.