Graduate Admissions Insider Tips Top Tips

Get Into Grad School With a Low Undergrad GPA

By: Dr. Kristen Willmott

We are often asked “How can I fix my undergrad GPA?” by those considering grad school admissions consulting. How low is too low? What’s the cut off and why don’t more programs publish that? How holistic is a “holistic graduate admissions review?”

How does a 3.2 or 3.4 happen? It’s more common than you’d think.

  • Perhaps it’s a family situation that meant missing a high number of classes and finals;
  • OR initial difficulty adjusting to college life and challenging freshman year courses with high expectations,
  • OR, a needed switch of college majors and fields,
  • OR, as is unfortunately the case more and more often these days, anxiety and mental health challenges that were not addressed until later in the game.

Any of the above can result in a smattering of B- grades on an undergraduate transcript (it doesn’t take many of those to pull you under a 3.4!), and the trouble is, when you apply to graduate school, they want the full transcript, not just the GPA. So, the letter grades are reviewed, the course levels are reviewed (please don’t take all 100-200 level courses even if your advisor lets you!), the major GPA and undergraduate cumulative GPA are also reviewed, but that GPA is not the only data point (of course, there is the GRE, GMAT or LSAT, but that’s a topic for another post.)


The good news is that almost everyone on the planet needs some time to adjust to college life (new bed, new room, new location, new people, new community, new food, new weather, new freedom, new rules –ahh!) and coursework freshman year, and graduate school admissions officers and faculty know that and have lived it themselves; their children might even be living it right now. The other good news is that the undergraduate transcript and the GPA are not the only pieces that make up a complete graduate school application. The trick is using that fact to your advantage when you apply, and determining what ELSE you can submit that bumps you in.

Sometimes I chat with potential applicants who are considering graduate school but they’ve been out of college working for years and they’re concerned that B- and C grades will again fill their graduate transcript despite working hard, OR, they want to be 100% certain of their selected graduate school field, and even institution, before they jump into a set 1-2 year program, or 4-7 years for PhD programs.

I remind them:  you don’t have to jump into the graduate school pool until you’re ready.


You could start by dipping a toe in as a non-degree student taking graduate school level courses, either for-credit (they might transfer!) OR non-credit, online OR on campus. There are tons of options –you just have to know where to look and when.

When you take a grad level course for credit online or on-campus pre-grad school, you walk out with:

  • A letter grade
  • A (hopefully) solid faculty connection
  • Connections to peer scholars in your field
  • Access to unique campus offerings like advising and writing services/coaching for that term of the course, even for online students
  • A potential supplementary letter of recommendation
  • And, a graduate level transcript that gets virtually tacked onto that undergraduate transcript you may previously have preferred to keep under lock and key.

So, how can this really play out?

  • An A grade in a 4-credit Global Sustainability Anthropology graduate level course from the Harvard University Extension School cannot “fix” or erase the 2 C grades you have on your undergraduate transcript freshman year in 2012, BUT it shows your commitment to the field and offers evidence that the older, newer, more professional and dedicated YOU can ace a graduate level course in your targeted field. (That’s a win for your Tufts University application to the Environmental Policy and Planning Master of Science)

Here are 5 examples of graduate level courses you could take and key info on how it works:

  • Back story: You’re targeting a Master’s in BioTech and you’ve worked in a lab for a while but you’ve been a bit out of the game in terms of academics. You work 60 hours a week so an online, non-credit but graded course is your best option.

Course to take: Take MIT’s EdX course called The Science and Business of Biotechnology. It starts 2/12/20, is 16 weeks long, requires 10-12 hours of work per week, and is only $50 total to earn a grade and a course certificate from the 3 top MIT faculty who teach it. Bonus: you get to add it to your resume/CV pre-application and the course description and this video make it seem like a truly beneficial and unique course.  Weird thing about this option: if you live in Iran, Cuba or the Crimea region of Ukraine, you can’t take it  –mysterious.

  • Back story: You’re graduating college this May, but you want your next step to be a graduate program in data analytics. You’ve switched majors 3 times (the norm!) in college and you’re not certain of the field, but you believe data analytics is the one. You’re looking at spring application deadlines (April 2020 –they do exist) that would let you start graduate school in August but your spring schedule at your college is locked, though you’d love to explore more.

Course to take: Register for the 4-week Graph Analytics for Big Data Coursera online course via UC San Diego. It’s a self-paced, graded (though non-credit) course with an added option to earn a course certificate to note on your resume/CV. The professor, Dr. Gupta, is a research scientist at the UC San Diego Supercomputer Center. They’re doing some neat things over there right now, like helping the world predict future carbon dioxide levels on our planet (hugely relevant only to those who breathe, smile).

  • Back story: You’re targeting a Master’s in Psychology and have hit a wall professionally where graduate school is the next needed step but you want to “try before you buy.”

Course to take: Apply (by 4/15/20) to Teacher’s College at Columbia University as a non-degree post-college student to then take graduate level courses there. Take the summer session A (May 21-July 1, 2020) Psychology of Thinking graduate course for 3 credits online OR the on-campus (in NYC) Summer A 2020 Psychology of Memory graduate level course for 3 credits.

  • Back story: You’ve worked in healthcare engineering for several years post-college and you’re moderately ready to tackle an MBA but you’re not 100% certain, especially as your undergraduate transcript features some grades you’re not proud of, though you co-launched a successful healthcare management app recently that you are proud of.

Course to take: Apply to NYU as a non-degree graduate student via NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering  (where you can take up to 9 credits) and take the summer 2020 online course called Operations Management May 26-July 12 for 3 graduate credits.

  • Back story: You’re planning to apply to top Economics programs. Your resume/CV needs a boost to show you’re still an academic and your undergrad GPA has some red/yellow flags on it you fear. Also, you majored in French Literature and have never taken an economics course, so you’re about to embark on a big field switch.

Course to take: Consider an online, hybrid or on-campus (if you’re local to Cambridge, MA) Harvard University Extension School course. If you moved fast and applied by 1/23/20, you could’ve started in their spring 2020 term (1/27/20). Take Economic Justice for 4 graduate credits online and on-demand. (“On-demand” is great as you can do the course requirements on YOUR time, no required log-in times.) Another 4-credit graduate course to consider there this spring (there are summer options too!) is MacroEconomic Theory. It’s taught by Dr. Christopher Foote, Professor of the Practice of Economics at Harvard. (Might be good to have him in your corner; he’s also a senior economist and policy advisor in the research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston –bet he knows a thing or two about econ.)


The above are just examples so they’re not personalized selections for you. Let us do that FOR YOU though! We’d love to review your transcript and resume/CV with you, your graduate school aims, and the various components that could and would be woven in your stellar graduate school applications. Many of our past students have had great success getting a good amount of their previously completed graduate level credits to transfer into their eventual Master’s (and even doctoral) programs. That’s a win/win for everyone in terms of effort, time, and financial savings, all while showing your scholarly commitment to your targeted field and offering concrete evidence that you can and will obtain A grades in top graduate level courses.

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