From B Student to Harvard Business School: How to Overcome a Low GPA

The role of your GPA in a business school application is important, but doesn’t carry as much weight as it does for a law or medical school application, where raw intellectual horsepower is seen as the strongest indicator of success. Success in business, on the other hand, is determined much more by soft skills such as how articulate a communicator you are, and most importantly, how effective a leader you are. Leadership skills are far and above the most important quality that business schools look for.

That is not to say that your GPA is not important for business school admissions, as schools still want to see that you have enough intellectual horsepower to reach the top. It can also signal work ethic, perseverance, and ambition. Candidates with a high GPA have also usually developed a pattern of success, since the most competitive jobs out of college typically filter by GPA. While it doesn’t guarantee the candidate’s success in business, it does make them a safer bet than those with low GPAs. So what is the average GPA for top programs? Class profiles of top programs show that it’s usually anywhere from a 3.5 to 3.7.

If you fall below that average though, not to worry — you just need to address it in the right way, and there are many other ways you can differentiate yourself. If you can show that you have 1) sufficient intellect and 2) work ethic, drive, and ambition despite your low GPA, you can overcome any doubts that it may raise.

So first of all, let’s evaluate your situation and look at what is considered low. When you start dipping below a 3.5, you’ll need to highlight your accomplishments in other areas particularly strongly. If you fall below a 3.0, you face a bigger challenge and will need an accomplishment both unique and significant to overcome that. Here are a few additional considerations:

  • If you didn’t attend a top undergrad, the bar for GPA will be higher. More likely than not, you were in a less rigorous program or your competition wasn’t as high caliber, so expectations are higher.
  • If you had a less than stellar GPA at a top school, don’t sweat it — you’ve already passed the “smart enough” test by even being there, and just need to prove why you have the potential to accomplish great things.
  • The further you are from undergrad, and the more work experience you’ve accumulated, the less important your GPA becomes. So if you’re applying straight out of college or just 1 or 2 years out, your GPA will carry more weight b/c it’s a stronger indicator versus if you’re 3-5 years out, and had a chance to prove yourself in a business environment.

So now that you’ve had a chance to evaluate your situation and where you stand, let’s look at the concerns a low GPA can raise and how to address them.

Issue 1: Insufficient intellectual horsepower

Adcoms know that you don’t need to be a genius to be successful in business, but a sufficient level of intellect is important. You can address this by:

  • Rocking your GMATs; the lower your GPA, the higher you want your GMAT score.
  • Landing jobs at firms like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs which normally heavily filter by GPA; if you can somehow still get a job at one of these prestigious firms despite a low GPA, it shows that someone there believes you have the intellectual horsepower to be successful.
  • Non-academic awards and recognition; maybe you didn’t post good numbers, but you were a rockstar at debate or sales competitions.
  • Getting published in academic journals; again perhaps you aren’t good at test taking, but your research work is recognized in academic circles.
  • Winning academic competitions; whether it was a business plan or engineering competition, it shows that you’re a great problem solver and can think under pressure.
  • Quantitative, technical, and analytical experience in your job; perhaps you weren’t one to do well in school but you excelled at applying analytical thinking in the real world.

Issue 2: Poor work ethic

If Adcoms believe you are intellectually capable, they may then think that your low GPA is a signal that you lack work ethic. There are a few ways to address this:

  • Extensive involvement in extracurriculars that show you can be an effective leader, which is a much better indicator of success than a GPA. Being a leader also inherently requires a strong work ethic. Here are a few examples:
    • You started your own successful business while in college.
    • You ran for a junior government position in your city.
    • You were captain of your college football team and ran a non-profit sports camp for underprivileged kids.
  • Personal issues such as personal illness or illness of a family member. If this is the case, focus on how you were able to overcome this challenge to still achieve what you did, and be careful not to sound whiny or like you are making excuses.
  • Post‐college success breaking into competitive industries and companies. This shows that you have the ability and perseverance to hustle. Also, Adcoms know that jobs at McKinsey, Bain, or any investment bank are demanding, and having that on your resume will appease any concerns about work ethic.
  • Held part or full‐time jobs while in school to finance your own education. Being able to do this is an accomplishment in and of itself.
  • Extensive involvement in collegiate athletics, or military experience. Adcoms know that both of these experiences require rigorous discipline and hard work.

These are all compelling reasons for why you didn’t have as much time to study and get that 4.0 GPA; they also show that you can be an effective leader.

At the end of the day, the best way to overcome a low GPA is being a high achiever in other areas, and essays and recommendations are where that will come through. You want to let Adcoms know that you may not have been in the top 1% of your class, but you’ve proven that you are smart enough in other ways beyond a GPA, and most importantly, you are a leader. Be careful not to sound defensive or to offer excuses, and instead, use this as an opportunity to shift the focus to your strengths and accomplishments beyond your coursework.

Most of you reading this have already finished school, so your GPA is set. If it isn’t as high as you’d like, don’t let that deter you from aiming high. You’d be surprised at the number of students at HBS and Stanford with low GPAs, and had they decided not to apply because of that, they would have missed the opportunity to attend a great school. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Also, really believe that you deserve to be there because of what you have accomplished. That confidence will come through in your essays and be noticed.

Adcoms like taking a risk on the black horse, especially if that person has an extraordinary background, regardless of GPA. Remember — top schools are trying to produce the next Fortune 500 CEO, or the next breakthrough entrepreneur, and they know that many of these people were not academic over-achievers. They know that it’s a leadership track record, rather than a high GPA that equates to the potential to do something great. If you can communicate that in your application, you can overcome any GPA.


Break into HBS The Easy Way: The Essential Blueprint

Within this guide, you’ll learn:
  • How to overcome barriers, such as a low GMAT score, a low GPA, non-blue chip work experience, non-ivy undergrad education
  • The method that the most elite and exclusive feeder firms use to successfully send 100% of their b-school applicants to H/S/W year after year
  • What the elite schools are really looking for that they don’t publish or say
  • Detailed step-by-step instructions for how to write high-impact essays and recommendations
  • An overarching strategy and framework that will simplify how you approach the application
  • Why this proprietary method works for different profiles