Should You Discuss a Low GPA in Your Graduate Admissions Essay?

Professor and student reviewing essay in lecture hall
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The purpose of the graduate admissions essay is to permit admissions committees a glimpse of the applicant apart from his or her grade point average and standardized test scores. The admissions essay is your chance to speak directly with the committee, explain why you are a good candidate for graduate study, and why you are a good match for their graduate program.

Beware of Sharing

However, the opportunity to write an essay for the admissions committee is not an invitation to share all of the intimate details of your life. Committees may view providing too many private details as an indicator of immaturity, naivete, and/or poor professional judgment - all of which can send your graduate application to the slush pile.  

When to Talk about Your GPA

In most cases, your best bet is to focus on your strengths and not discuss your grade point average. Avoid drawing attention to the negative aspects of your application unless you can balance them with positive factors. Discuss your GPA only if you intend to explain specific circumstances, courses, or semesters. If you choose to discuss weaknesses such as a low GPA, consider how the circumstances surrounding your low GPA will be interpreted by the admissions committee. For example, explaining poor grades for one semester by briefly mentioning a death in the family or serious illness is appropriate; however, an attempt to explain four years of poor grades is not likely to be successful.

Keep all excuses and explanations to a minimum -- a sentence or two. Avoid drama and keep it simple.  Some applicants explain that they don't test well and therefore their GPA is not indicative of their ability. This is not likely to work as most graduate programs entail many tests and the ability to perform well under such circumstances is valued.

Seek Guidance

Before you discuss your GPA within your graduate admissions essay seek the advice of a professor or two. Do they think it's a good idea? What do they think of your explanation? Take their advice seriously - even if it is not what you hoped to hear.

Above all, remember that this is your chance to present your strengths and really shine, so take advantage of the opportunity to discuss your accomplishments, describe valuable experiences, and emphasize the positive.