How to Get Into Grad School with a Low GPA (With Examples)

Girl in Grad School Low GPA

Listen, I understand. Grad school admissions are daunting for everyone. But if your undergrad GPA was less than golden, the process can seem demoralizing. You know you have potential. You know can succeed if given the chance. But is it even possible to get into grad school with a low GPA?

Yes. Absolutely, yes.

It seems like every day some nervous applicant posts this question online, and every day I want to shout through my screen: “Don’t worry! You can do this!”

It does take a strategic effort. It takes a killer SOP and a lot of research. But if the number of success stories on /r/gradadmissions tells us anything, it’s that there’s an opportunity for any student willing to continue improving themselves.

This guide will offer you a detailed breakdown of what admissions committees expect from low-GPA students, what are the best practices for improving your chances, and a few examples of applicants who succeeded despite GPAs they wouldn’t admit to their mothers.

A “Somewhat Not-Gentle Guide”

Seven years ago, an anonymous STEM professor at an R1 university posted a brusque and contradictory, but still very useful manifesto to Reddit. It was called “A somewhat not-gentle guide to getting into grad school when you have subpar grades.”1

At first glance, it was a sobering post. The professor said he immediately ignores any applicants with a GPA less than 3.2. Yet, then the professor contradicted himself by saying there are definite exceptions. For example, if an applicant has a stellar GRE score, and has reached out to him advance, he’ll give them another look.

In the meandering discussion that followed, the professor explained three action items that can move a low-GPA candidate from “rejected” to “admitted.”

1. Research/Internship/Work Experience If an applicant has significant research or professional credentials, this can provide an advantage over students with high GPAs. In the professor’s words:

I have ignored straight-A students for not having research experience. I have accepted students with lower grades than other applicants simply because they had relevant experience (and skills).

2. Retake Advanced Classes and Earn As – If an applicant takes part-time, graduate-level coursework, and earns As in them, this can negate bad grades on an undergrad transcript.

3. Prepare Thoroughly for Interviews – If an applicant is lucky enough to get an interview, they can shine by being more prepared than other candidates. They need to have read plenty of the professor’s work. They need to understand the university, department, and application process. And they need to ask good questions.

Nothing too surprising, right?

Yet, there is immense power in these three action items.

In the last few years, dozens of low-GPA applicants have posted grad school success stories to Reddit. In virtually every case, the candidate utilized some combination of these three items to launch themselves to success. They didn’t simply apply and hope to get lucky (a true fool’s errand). Instead, they took action. They transformed themselves into the kind of students that universities want and need.

Let’s take a look at some of these success stories and break down the applicant’s methods for success.

1. “Low GPA (<2.5 GPA) success story – I’m going to grad school!” (STEM Master’s)2

Credentials: 2.5 GPA; 3 years of research experience post-graduation

This is one of my all-time favorite posts. The applicant earned admission to an R1 master’s program in biomedical engineering despite an atrocious undergrad GPA. How did they succeed?

“Over the next few years, I worked a couple of different jobs, first as a medical scribe and then as a consultant in regulatory affairs. Both of these jobs gave me a good skill set to transition into clinical research, so when I had an opportunity at an R1 university to coordinate clinical trials, I took it. This is the position I’ve been at for the last 2.5 years or so. I work under a PI, who has excellent connections both at the university and in industry…”

I did take the GRE over the winter because it was a requirement for the program I was applying to. Note that my priority was to get a score that met the admissions requirements, not a perfect score.

I talked to a few people about BME to see what my career pathway would look like on that front, and I even sat down with this PD to see what they thought of my background and my current research. This person was very encouraging and seemed supportive of whatever decision I made.

I love this post because it resembles the story of so many STEM students I’ve known. After undergrad, they applied for university lab jobs, worked for 2-3 years, and became professional researchers. When compared to recent bachelor’s graduates, they were far more mature and capable of success, and admissions committees recognized this by offering them a spot in the department.

Scorecard

✔️         Research/Work Experience

❌         Retake Advanced Classes and Earn As

✔️         Prepare Thoroughly for Interviews

2. “My Grad School Low GPA Success Story” (STEM PhD)3

Credentials: 3.1 GPA; 1 year of research experience; 1 year of experience in industry post-graduation

Honestly, this applicant’s GPA wasn’t that bad. But the thing I love about this story is how 50 Redditors told the applicant they had no chance. Yet, one noble soul encouraged them, and that was enough.

How did the applicant defy the naysayers?

1. I emailed professors personally after reading over their research.

2. When a professor seemed interesting or promising I emailed the department chairs expressing my interest in specific professors and their program.

3. I took initiative and made offers to visit schools that felt promising. I took buses, I stayed in crappy hotels and slept in airports. Despite not having money to blow on visits, I made it happen – comfortable or not.

4. I sent pre-visit emails to staff members I saw as potential collaborators and post-visit thank-you’s for taking their valuable time to meet with someone who was obviously not an ideal candidate (but I never painted myself as anything other than confident).

Did it work?

The applicant was admitted to 9 of 10 schools, including #3-ranked Harvard…with full funding.

(Do yourself a favor and read the comments in the post, which is linked in the references below. The OP left a wonderful email template for reaching out to professors.)

Scorecard

✔️         Research/Work Experience

❌         Retake Advanced Classes and Earn As

✔️         Prepare Thoroughly for Interviews

3. “Low (~2.5) GPA success story getting into top grad program” (STEM Master’s)4

Credentials: 2.5 GPA; 4 years of professional experience

You have to read through the comments to really understand the OP’s story, but one fact sticks out: the applicant was admitted to a program with a listed 3.0 GPA minimum.

Let’s say that again:

Minimum GPA of 3.0. Applicant was admitted with a 2.5.

How?

I started taking classes at a very good university near me unenrolled with a Professor I was honestly just hoping to get a LOR from at the time. I busted my ass in the first class, made a good impression, and at the end of the semester went “out on a limb” and expressed that I’d love to work with him, but my GPA is nowhere near the schools standards. He advised me to go ahead and apply and that my work in that class had said a lot.

After working professionally in the field for four years, the applicant decided to take part-time courses in the same program to which they hoped to apply. Obviously, they made wonderful grades. And that made all the difference.

Scorecard

✔️         Research/Work Experience

✔️         Retake Advanced Classes and Earn As

❌         Prepare Thoroughly for Interviews

But are these three anecdotes unique?

Not at all! Three years ago, in a Reddit post titled “Low GPA Success Stories,”5 twenty-two students left comments describing how they got into grad school with subpar grades. The highlights are truly inspirational:

  • 2.6 GPA admitted to a Master’s in Engineering
  • 2.9 GPA admitted to a Master’s in Mathematics
  • 3.15 GPA admitted to PhDs in genetics at UNC, Duke, Emory, and others
  • 3.1 GPA admitted to a PhD in Sociology
  • 2.8 GPA admitted to a Biotech Master’s and then PhD at Johns Hopkins
  • 2.67 GPA admitted to a History Master’s then PhD
  • 2.6 GPA admitted to Neuroscience Master’s at WVU
  • 2.7 GPA admitted to a top-10 STEM PhD
  • Two students admitted to Stanford with 3.3 and bottom-25% GPAs

In many of these stories, the students described how they pursued the exact same action items described in that anonymous professor’s “not-gentle guide.” Many worked for 1-3 years in industry. Others worked as university lab researchers. Others retook undergrad classes (and a few at grad-level) earning all As. And virtually all of these students took the time to prepare thoroughly and deeply for applications, getting to know professors and administrators, and taking every chance possible to highlight their confidence and their strengths.

Rules for Getting Into Grad School with a Low GPA

  1. If you made bad grades in courses related to your major, retake them as a part-time student. Get As.
  2. If you’re in a research-based STEM field, consider applying for industry jobs in R&D, or a technician gig in a university lab. (More and more, this latter option seems like a golden ticket – a true “side door” into a PhD.)
  3. Spend six months learning everything you can about your target program and target professors. Read their work. Compile a list of nuanced questions to ask in your interviews. Never ask questions that Google can answer.
  4. Don’t forget to write a rock star SOP
  5. And finally, don’t worry. You’ve got this.

Conclusion

I know these action items might seem daunting to certain applicants. If you’re starting your senior year of undergrad with a less-than-perfect GPA, and you want to apply in the fall, then it may be disheartening to think of spending one, two, or three years working as a lab technician and retaking Organic Chemistry or Linear Algebra.

But you’ve chosen this path, and the gate is open. It might be a little longer than you hoped, but all you have to do now is follow the steps of those who succeeded before you.

Read the stories linked in the references below. Pore over the comments. I hope that in other’s success, you’ll find inspiration…and a plan. Your GPA might seem like a limitation now, but in a year or two, it might just be the turning point on your path to becoming a scholar of true consequence.

References:

  1. A somewhat not-gentle guide to getting into grad school when you have subpar grades
  2. Low GPA (<2.5 GPA) success story – I’m going to grad school!
  3. My Grad School Low GPA Success Story
  4. Low (~2.5) GPA success story getting into top grad program
  5. Low GPA Success Stories

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