"I Feel Like a Number:" Gradepoint Average and Admissions


The most commonly-used criterion for admission to graduate school is undergraduate gradepoint average (GPA). (If you are unfamiliar with the concept of GPA, click here.) The thinking behind the use of GPA is that past performance is a reliable predictor of future achievement.

How Does A Graduate School Use My GPA?

Actually, the first question to ask is "Which GPA does a given school use?" Some schools use an overall undergraduate GPA as an admission criterion. Others calculate and use a GPA in second half of one's undergraduate work, with the idea that a GPA that takes in primarily the work done for one's major is a better indicator of one's capacity for advanced study within the field than is overall undergraduate GPA. Some schools narrow the focus even further, and concern themselves primarily with the GPA in the applicant's major.

As to what weight a GPA carries in the admissions process, that depends on a number of factors:

  1. the competitiveness of the admission process (the more competitive the application pool is, the more weight will be placed on GPA, generally).
  2. the other criteria used in admission (if your proposed degree program regards work experience as important in admission, GPA can take on less weight).
  3. the reputation of undergraduate institutions. If University X is regarded as a higher quality institution than University Y, an applicant with a lower GPA from University X may be admitted over an applicant with a higher GPA from University Y.
  4. the reliability of admissions criteria as predictors of success in graduate school

One safe generalization about GPA as an admission requirement is that the minimum GPA for admission to a graduate degree program is significantly higher than the GPA required to graduate with a bachelor's degree. Many schools require a C average to receive an undergraduate degree. Most graduate programs require at least a B average for admission, and applicants to highly competitive graduate programs often have GPAs in the high B and A ranges. If an applicant with a comparatively low GPA is admitted, it is nearly always because there are other indications that she or he is capable of graduate work: strong test scores, or strong grades on post-baccalaureate coursework, etc.

What Happens If My Undergraduate GPA Is Low?

Undergraduate GPA is the most common criterion used in admission, but it is not, as mentioned above, an infallible predictor of graduate success. This is because there can be non-academic factors which affect academic performance.

One such non-academic factor is the student's maturity on entering college. The undergraduate experience is qualitatively different from high school, and many people take some time to adjust to it. (This is why there is frequently a drop-off in GPA from high school to the first term or terms in college.) And some students don't take college seriously, not realising at the time that this will have ramifications when they decide later to pursue a graduate degree. In addition, the need to work to pay tuition, and/or family situations can have an indirect but significant effect on GPA.

If you discover that your GPA is low, either in terms of being below the minimum required for admission, or low by comparison with other persons applying to a particular program, you need to find some ways to offset the lack of a high GPA. Since graduate programs often use multiple criteria for admission, this is not as difficult as it may seem at first. By gathering strong recommendation letters, scoring well on admissions tests, doing internships or post-baccalaureate employment in the field, you can offset the effect of a low GPA.

It is also appropriate to call attention to non-academic circumstances which may have prevented your GPA to accurately represent your capacity, so as to place your record in an appropriate context. If circumstances affected your performance, you can describe them and indicate what steps you have taken to overcome those circumstances. Such explanations can either be incorporated in your statement of intent/purpose/reasons for graduate study or written up as a separate statement to be included with your application form. The important thing is to phrase your explanation so that it does not sound like excuse-making. Having others read and critique your statement can be very helpful here.

If your GPA was the result of a learning disability or other such condition, you will have to decide whether or not to disclose the disability in explaining your academic performance. Federal law prohibits discrimination in admissions on the basis of disability. It is even illegal to require applicants to disclose disabilities on an application form. But many students feel that disclosing their disability in the admissions process places them at a disadvantage. I can't argue that they are wrong.

I will say this: if you can show that, once your disability was identified and you began to receive necessary accommodations, your performance was much stronger than it previously was, or better yet equalled or exceeded the minimum required for admission, you have placed yourself in a strong position. If you show that reasonable accommodations put you on an equal footing with the other applicants to the program, the program can't disqualify you on the basis of your disability.

What Happens If My Undergraduate School Doesn't Calculate A GPA?

If you don't have an undergraduate GPA because your school doesn't give letter grades, the other criteria assume greater importance in the admissions process. If you have transferred work or post-bachelor's work from a school that does give grades, that will often be taken into consideration. The school's academic reputation will also come into play. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

What's My GPA?

A GPA is typically calculated as follows:
  1. a numerical value is assigned to each letter grade. The 4.0 scale is common: A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0.
  2. The number of gradepoints earned for each course is determined by multiplying the numeric value by the number of credits earned: A 3 credit course in which a grade of A is earned yields 12 gradepoints; a 3 credit B earns 9 gradepoints, etc.
  3. A cumulative GPA is calculated by dividing the sum of credits earned into the sum of the gradepoints earned.

There is a lot of variation in grading scales. Some schools have grades in between A and B, between B and C, and so forth. The values assigned to these interim grades vary: some schools make no distinction (A- = 4 gradepoints just as A = 4; B+ = 3 gradepoints just as B = 3, etc.), and others add or subtract varying fractions of a gradepoint for a + or - grade. A few schools are not on 4.0 grade scales, and other schools do not give letter grades at all.

Some schools that use the ABDCF grade scale do not calculate numeric GPAs. In such cases, a GPA may be calculated for admissions purposes by the schools to which you apply. At UW-Milwaukee, what we do for such applicants is assign a numeric scale to the grades, calculate an average, and then report the GPA in terms of a grade range. For instance, if we calculated a GPA to be 3.7 on a 4.0 scale, we might report the GPA as "high B range" (or "A- range" if the school assigns A- grades).

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Reliability of GPA as Predictor

Generally speaking, graduate schools find GPA to be the most reliable predictor of success in graduate school. But no single criterion is infallible as a predictor of graduate success; this is why most schools use multiple criteria in admissions.

The research I have seen on this topic, done by the Educational Testing Service , suggests that the statistical correlation between any one admission criterion and success in graduate school is rather less than 0.5; the correlation gets stronger as additional criteria are added. Interestingly enough, the correlation seems to vary across some fields of study.

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Last revised: 09012000