Professionals applying to post-graduate programmes may think that a low undergraduate grade point average (GPA) on their academic record might sully their chances at being accepted. But can a clear history of career success outweigh it? Which means more to an admissions officer – a higher GPA or the quality of the professional experience and career progression. And which are the other factors that come into play in admissions evaluation?
Evaluating GPA and career success
The weight of past academic performance and the quality of work experience differs according the programme for which you apply.
Applicants to MBA programmes should have at least two or three years of professional full-time work experience. Since the MBA is targeted at those who aim to grow as managers and business leaders, an applicant’s career track record is scrutinized for evidence of their potential for success. The quality of the work experience and career progression, as well as the challenges and lessons learned, are carefully evaluated through the applicants’ CVs/resumes, application essays, and letters of reference. In addition, since an MBA application can be years after the attainment of a Bachelor’s degree, the GPA does not really carry much weight in the MBA admission process. Of course, an excellent GPA will always make a good impression, but an average GPA will not hurt your chances of acceptance. However, if your academic transcripts suggest an insufficient level of analytical and/or quantitative skills, then you should provide evidence from your professional life or attain an impressive score on the quantitative sections of a GMAT or GRE test.
Master’s degree programmes are typically more academically centered than the more pragmatic MBA programmes, which are focused more on the development of careers and skills in the work place. For this reason, a candidate’s past academic performance can play a bigger role in the Master’s admissions process. On the whole, Master’s degree programmes are more diverse in their admission requirements. Some will require relevant work experience, but others will welcome fresh university graduates. In any case, a Master’s programme is all about mastering a narrow field of specialisation, so you should demonstrate a well-informed choice even if formal professional experience is not required.
Some professionals enter a Master’s programme several years into their career as a way of furthering their career options by improving their credentials in their current field. Even just a few years of successful, practical experience in a professional environment show an admissions officer that a candidate is dedicated to his or her field of study and poised for further success. So how could a candidate with no professional experience prove to an admissions board that he or she is worthy of that coveted letter of acceptance?
Many students enter post-graduate programmes directly after receiving an undergraduate degree, so you know that lack of experience is not a prohibitive factor. You may think that only post-graduate, relevant experience matters in an MBA or Master’s application, but that is not the case. Many different types of undergraduate experience – such as internships (paid or unpaid) or work studies – can matter as well. Even unrelated jobs you took to help pay for your undergraduate studies, for example, can go a long way toward proving to admissions officers that you are able to work hard to achieve results.
Neither of these factors – academic transcripts showing a high GPA or a CV/resume with demonstrated career success – is going to guarantee your admission to the programme. It is just one of a myriad criteria that admissions officers will use to evaluate your application. What are the others?
Other important parts of the admissions application
It is the duty of a university or B-school’s admissions department to find those applicants with the greatest likelihood of success in the programme and the greatest potential to thrive professionally as a programme alumnus. An ideal application demonstrates a candidate’s potential in three areas: academic history and potential, professional or relevant experience in the proposed field of study, and the personal story of your interests, goals, and dedication to the field. There are several parts of the application – apart from a simple GPA or work experience – that combine to shine a positive light on your potential.
Standardised test scores
Many universities and B-schools require a certain Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test score as proof of a student’s ability to succeed in a post-graduate programme. The GRE General Test – one of the most common standardised tests – is not field-specific, meaning that a candidate can submit a GRE score to a post-graduate programme in any field, provided the school accepts it. A GRE Subject Test can be required for some fields of study. Whatever the test, the higher the GRE score, the better are your chances of impressing the admissions council. Students who put time and study into GRE preparation are much more likely to score higher than those who don’t, so if your undergraduate GPA or professional experience are unimpressive, it might be of great benefit to you to get the highest GRE score you can.
Some standardised tests are designed to reveal your aptitude for a particular field of study. For example, the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is designed primarily for students entering business fields. This is not because the content is much different than the GRE, but because the GMAT – according to the test developers – is designed specifically to reveal the potential success of a student within a business programme.
There is another reason you may elect to take a more specialised aptitude test. By doing so, you are demonstrating to an admissions officer your dedication to a specific field. Taking the GMAT, to use the earlier example, shows a high level of commitment to a career in the field of business, a fact you can emphasise in your application if your undergraduate GPA or work experience are not as outstanding as you would like.
Check out: Why Business Schools Require GMAT Scores
TOEFL or IELTS score
International students applying to an MBA or Master’s programme usually must demonstrate fluency in the English language if English is not a native language in their home country (unless they can show that their undergraduate studies were in English and they were successful.) If an international student does not score well on a standardised English language proficiency test – such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) – then it is doubtful that the student will fare well in an MBA or Master’s programme taught exclusively in English, as most global programmes are.
If you are an international student considering a post-graduate programme, do some research. Most B-schools and universities will post a minimum required score on a standardised English proficiency test on their websites. This does not mean a score that exceeds the minimum will guarantee admission, nor does it mean that a score just over the minimum is equivalent to a much higher score in the eyes of the admissions officer. If you barely exceed the minimum accepted score for an MBA or Master’s programme and you have time to study and re-take the test, do so. Work hard to increase your language skills in preparation for retaking the test. This is particularly important if you need to highlight your potential apart from a high undergraduate GPA or professional experience.
Personal essays and letters of recommendation
Personal essays and letters of recommendation – sometimes required by post-graduate programme applications – are where the third element of an ideal application (as mentioned above) can be emphasised. Admissions officers may certainly look beyond a less-than-perfect GPA or a lack of work experience to view the candidate in a very personal way, searching for those traits that reveal a high level of potential to succeed.
In your personal essay, you want to introduce yourself to the admissions board and define those unique aspects of your life that make you a worthy candidate. This may include demonstration of your personal commitment to the field, a clear statement of your goals and ambitions, your motivation for applying to the programme, or some combination of those. You want to personally touch that admission’s officer, evoking a strong sense of confidence in your ability to thrive, both in the programme and after graduating.
Ideally, your letters of recommendation will reveal all the positive characteristics just mentioned as stated by a third party, which could be a colleague, former boss, volunteer coordinator, professor, or anyone who has enough knowledge of your personal character to testify to your potential. An outstanding letter of recommendation – sure to impress any admissions officer – would be from someone with an esteemed reputation in the field of study for which you are applying. If you have a professor with whom you interacted frequently or who you feel was impressed with your undergraduate work, ask them to write a letter to the admissions board on your behalf. Certainly such a letter would make up for a shortfall in the GPA or professional experience parts of your application.
Past success is a good indicator of future success, and either a high GPA or relevant professional experience – or, ideally, some combination of both – demonstrate to an admissions officer that you are a good risk for their programme. If you have neither, do not discount your chances of acceptance. You can still impress an admissions board with other aspects of your application, and an admissions officer’s high level of confidence in your ability to thrive in an MBA or Master’s programme is precisely what you hope to achieve with your application.
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