So, you got your bachelor's degree? It's great news that you made it past this step in your academic career, yet you might still be looking forward, considering graduate programs that suit your future goals. Maybe you're hesitant to progress your education due to anxiety over one factor that could be holding you back: your below-average undergraduate grades. Even if you functioned under the mentality of "C's get degrees" throughout your undergrad years, you shouldn't rule out the possibility of getting into the right graduate school. Here are some tips to make your application stand out to graduate schools, even when your transcript isn't your biggest asset:
Be candid in your personal statement
A lot of candidates use the personal statement to talk about their achievements, passions and other parts that didn't make it onto their transcript or CV. It's also the perfect space to be honest about your GPA if you weren't exactly a straight-A student.
There are plenty of factors that contribute to an off semester or year. Maybe you had to balance a full-time job with your studies. In this case, leverage your ability to multitask and balance your priorities. Talk about how you reviewed your notes to prepare for exams in between customers at the retail job you worked at. Schools will see your ambition, even if your transcript didn't necessarily reflect it.
Another factor that might have contributed to your poor academic performance during a semester or academic year is a loss or medical issue that happened during this time. If you went through a tough time, it's no surprise that your GPA took a hit, as your mind was likely wandering elsewhere during lectures. In this case, it might be wise to alert the graduate schools you're applying to of exactly what the issue was and how it impacted you. It's no surprise that your transcript doesn't tell the full story; make sure they know it.
Maybe your grades during your freshman and sophomore years were somewhat low, but you were able to pick them up during your junior and senior years. This is something graduate schools may pick up on from looking at your transcript. However, in case they overlook it, you might want to bring to attention the progress and improvement you made, whether it was inside or outside of your academic discipline. Grad schools will acknowledge the hard work and dedication it took you to give your transcript a much-needed makeover, as this shows your strength as a student.
Study hard for the entrance exam
Whether you're taking the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT or any other graduate school entrance exam, make sure to hit the books. If your undergraduate GPA isn't solid but your test scores are exceptional, admissions officers may take an extra peek at your application. Enroll in prep courses and order some books to help you study. You may not have fun spending your evenings with your nose in a GRE book, but doing so can make a significant impact on your chances of admission.
Get hands-on experience
Street smarts go a long way, both in the working world and in your graduate school application. When your transcript isn't the main selling point of your graduate application, you might consider taking a few years to get relevant work experience before applying for your first choice programs. Especially if you're just completing your bachelor's degree, we recommend getting a few years under your belt before embarking on your graduate education, especially if your grades weren't exceptional over the last four years.
What about if your dream job is one that requires a master's degree? No matter what path you're looking to pursue, there are always options that can immerse you in the industry, giving you experience that many graduate schools may see as more valuable than straight A's in undergraduate lecture settings. For instance, if you're planning on applying to law schools with a low GPA, get a few years as a paralegal or legal assistant under your belt. If you strive to become a physician assistant, spend some time as an EMT or medical assistant. No matter what type of master's degree you're going for, gaining some experience in the field goes a long way in your application.
Secure incredible reference letters
Your GPA is a one-dimensional part of your application. The multidimensional parts of it — your personal statement, interview and recommendation letters — are what give life to your application. Show graduate schools what you're made of by ensuring each of these components is in tip-top shape. You might feel that you don't have control over the letters being sent from your contacts on your behalf, but you actually have a great deal of advocacy in this step.
Ask for reference letters from people you know will advocate for you, whether they're former professors, colleagues, past supervisors or any other individual that can make a testament on behalf of your work ethic and skills. Feel free to emphasize to your references that you really need to nail this aspect of the application to make up for your less-than-great GPA. If they're as strong of a connection as you think they are, they'll be willing to go the extra mile to make sure the letter is exceptional.
One of the best people you might ask for a recommendation letter is an undergraduate professor you had twice. Maybe the first time you took a course with them, you didn't perform up to their standards, but the second time you had them, you stepped it up, putting forth excellent efforts. This individual will note the changes they saw in your work ethic over time, giving more explanation to your transcript.
Don't fear the reach school
Do you remember when you were applying for your undergraduate university, and your guidance counselor had you write up a list of safety and reach schools to apply to? That might not seem like something worth doing now. When your GPA isn't the major selling point on your application, you might see a lot of universities as reaches.
What's great about academia is that the admissions officers at different schools have different expectations from their applicants. Sure, a straight-A student with relevant work experience and an exceptional interview might be a shoo-in for a program. But that doesn't mean the admissions professionals selecting students for this program are only looking for the cookie-cutter student. Many admissions officers understand that GPA isn't everything. When you have other things working for you, you just might be able to score an acceptance letter from your first choice. But you'll never know if you don't take the leap!