What Is a Good GPA for Grad School?

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When you graduated college, you were probably relieved that GPAs were finally over and done with — alas, that’s not the case if you’re applying to grad school. While there’s no overall minimum GPA for grad school, it can be tough to into grad school without stellar grades, no matter how passionate you are about your chosen field. Still, it’s not impossible!

Come with me as we investigate the GPA needed for grad school and why GPA is such an important part of your grad school application. We’ll also teach you how to search for GPA expectations by program and give you tips on what you can do to make up for a low GPA.

Feature Image: Blondinrikard Fröberg/Flickr, resized from original

 

What Is a Good GPA for Grad School Overall?

Aside from a 4.0 (which all grad schools love), what else is considered a good GPA for grad school? Unfortunately, there isn’t a precise answer because the exact GPA needed for grad school depends on the program you’re applying to. While some programs are OK with 2.5 or 3.0 GPAs, others balk at anything lower than a 3.5! As you can see, grad school GPA expectations can vary widely among programs, just like those for GRE scores.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any major trends, though. Unlike undergrad admissions, it’s very common for grad schools to have specific GPA cutoffs. A GPA cutoff is the lowest GPA you can have in order to be considered for admission. And based on our research, one of the most common grad school GPA minimums is a 3.0, or a B average.

For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UCLA both require a minimum 3.0 GPA (for the junior and senior years) for admission into any grad program at their respective schools. While individual programs can vary in their GPA expectations, many grad schools possess school-wide GPA minimums.

On the other hand, some schools are a little more lenient with what GPAs they’ll accept — provided applicants can make up for their deficiencies in other ways. One example is North Carolina State University, which states, “Provisional admission may be granted to students with related bachelor’s degrees from accredited institutions whose scholastic records are below the standards for admission.” In this case, applicants who don’t meet GPA requirements can still apply but will consequently face higher scrutiny as grad students if accepted.

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Lastly, some schools don’t have GPA cutoffs at all. And this isn’t limited to smaller, less competitive schools, either; even prestigious schools, such as Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, don’t always have minimum GPAs for their programs. Instead, they’ll review all applications, regardless of GPA! Pretty neat, eh?

To summarize what we’ve learned so far, a 3.0 or higher is an overall solid GPA for grad school. But will you always need exactly a 3.0? And what kinds of factors affect grad schools’ GPA expectations anyway?

 

What Determines a Grad Program’s GPA Expectations?

Whether or not your GPA is good enough for a particular grad program depends on the following three factors:

  • The competitiveness of the program you’re applying to
  • The type of degree you’re seeking
  • The field you’re entering

Below, I explain each of these factors using examples of real-life grad programs.

 

Competitiveness

First, let’s take a look at competitiveness. While a majority of grad schools require a minimum 3.0 GPA, others, mainly less competitive ones, accept GPAs in the 2.0s. For example, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette requires a GPA of at least 2.75. Even lower GPA minimums, such as the 2.5 GPA required for West Texas A&M University’s master’s program in interdisciplinary studies, are relatively rare but do exist.

On the flip side, more competitive programs typically require GPAs higher than the basic 3.0 minimum. Purdue’s doctoral program in mechanical engineering, for example, strongly recommends a minimum 3.2 GPA. Generally, any grad programs at extremely prestigious institutions, such as Harvard or MIT, will have some of the highest GPA expectations, often 3.5+.

 

body_graduation_boy
Kids get degrees from kindergarten these days? Yeesh, I’m getting old.

 

Master’s or Ph.D.

Graduate school GPA expectations also depends on whether you’re applying to a master’s or doctoral program. Typically, master’s programs accept lower GPAs than doctoral programs.

For example, at Illinois State University, the minimum GPA required for admission is 2.8 for master’s students and 3.0 for Ph.D. students. In commenting on this trend, USC’s Department of Psychology has stated, “Many master’s programs [in psychology] require a 3.0 GPA just to apply; many doctoral programs a 3.5 GPA.”

Clearly, it’s not atypical for grad programs to hold prospective doctoral students to higher standards than they do prospective master’s students.

 

Graduate Field of Study

In addition to competitiveness and degree type, your particular field of study can have an impact on how high your GPA needs to be for grad school.

Popular or lucrative grad fields, such as computer science, tend to command some of the highest GPA expectations, no matter the school or program. The University of Arizona requires a minimum 3.2 for its master’s program in computer science. Meanwhile, Purdue’s master’s program in computer science requires a minimum 3.5 GPA, and Stanford’s doctoral program expects at least a 3.6!

All of these GPA expectations are higher than the general 3.0 minimum, which is likely due to the fact computer science is so popular (and thus competitive) these days. In 2016, computer science was named one of the best grad degrees for securing jobs.

 

Why Is a Good GPA Important for Grad School?

Another question you probably have is, why are GPAs so important for grad school admissions? Undergrad GPAs provide one of the most objective senses of how you are capable of performing at the university level and how much academic potential you have. Because most grad programs require students to maintain a certain GPA (whether to satisfy program or fellowship requirements), it’s critical you prove — via your undergrad transcripts — your ability to earn consistently high grades.

GPAs also show grad schools how seriously you value your education and academia as a whole. Simply put, a high GPA emphasizes your preparedness for grad school in addition to your ongoing commitment to learning. (Likewise, a low GPA makes grad schools question why you feel you can succeed in grad school — an arguably much more difficult academic environment — if you struggled to find success as an undergrad.)

Furthermore, some schools value high GPAs because they are used to calculate school and program rankings. In short, high GPAs = high-quality students. And high-quality students, at the most basic level, indicate a high-quality program. (Of course, a program’s quality isn’t determined solely by the undergrad GPAs of its students; in reality, schools and programs are assigned rankings using rather complicated methodologies.)

But what about your major GPA? Do grad schools care about your major GPA the same way they do your cumulative GPA?

 

How Important Is Your Major GPA to Grad Schools?

How important your major GPA is depends on the particular program you’re applying to. While many programs request only your cumulative undergrad GPA, other programs will specifically ask you to supply your major GPA. Some programs may even state a specific major GPA they’re expecting applicants to apply with. These expected major GPAs are usually much higher than the minimum GPA required for admission.

The good news is, if your cumulative GPA isn’t particularly high, an impressive major GPA might be able to make up for the deficit, as it proves you have the skills necessary to succeed in your chosen field (assuming your major is the same as the field you’re entering).

On the other hand, if your major is unrelated to your chosen field of study, a major GPA isn’t really any more useful than a cumulative GPA. In this case, it’s best to stress the most relevant grades you have. For example, if you were a biology undergrad who is now applying for an M.F.A. in creative writing, bring attention to all of the high marks you received in any English literature or creative writing courses you took as an undergrad.

 

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My chosen FIELD of study.

 

4 Simple Steps for Finding GPA Info for Grad Schools

Although you’re probably tempted to dive right into your grad school applications, take a little time to first research the GPA expectations of your programs. This way, you can weed out any programs you’re clearly unqualified for and get a sense for which ones you’ll need to work extra hard in order to prove you’re a worthy candidate.

To find the GPA expectations of your grad programs, follow my short step-by-step guide below.

 

Step 1: Make a Table

Begin by organizing all of your information into a simple table. In the leftmost column, fill in the names of each school you’re applying to or thinking of applying to. Then, across the top of the table, write “School,” “Minimum GPA,” “Major GPA,” “Average GPA,” and “Notes.” Finally, record your undergrad GPA somewhere at the bottom (preferably, both your cumulative GPA and major GPA, if available).

Let’s look at an example. Ava majored in English, earning a 3.4 cumulative GPA and a 3.7 major GPA. Now, she wants to get a doctorate in English literature; however, she has no idea how her GPA stacks up against the GPA expectations of the programs she’s applying to.

Here’s how Ava would fill out her table:

School Minimum GPA Major GPA Average GPA Notes
Ohio State
USC
UC Berkeley
University of Chicago
My GPA: 3.4 | My Major GPA: 3.7

 

Step 2: Check School Websites

The simplest way to dig for information on your programs’ GPA expectations is to peruse your schools’ websites. As you do so, pay particular attention to FAQ and admissions requirements pages. If you’re not sure where to look online, you can also try searching for “[Your School] [Your Program] GPA.”

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But exactly what kind of information are you hunting for? Basically, anything related to undergrad GPAs. Online, GPA expectations are typically offered in one of three ways:

  • Minimum GPA: the lowest GPA with which you can apply to a program; usually required (or strongly recommended) for admission
  • Major GPA: the recommended GPA for your major field (if the field you’re entering is the same as the one you majored in); usually higher than the minimum GPA
  • Average GPA: the average GPA of incoming students; usually higher than the minimum GPA

Not all schools present information in the same way and very rarely do they list all of the types of GPA expectations described above. That said, a majority of schools should clearly state whether they have a minimum GPA requirement for prospective grad students.

Minimum GPA requirements are almost always set in stone. So if the minimum GPA for a school is 3.0 and you have a 2.95, you will not be considered for admission (unless, of course, you convince the school to make an exception for you). As previously stated, some schools are less strict about GPA requirements than others, but in the end a low GPA will still pose a challenge to getting accepted.

Let’s return to Ava for a moment. While looking at the webpage for Ohio State’s English program, she discovers there is a 3.0 minimum GPA requirement for the grad school. She continues reading until she hits the following sentence: “Normally, applicants [to the English doctoral program] should have a GPA of at least 3.4 overall and 3.6 in English courses.” In other words, 3.0 is a required minimum (for the grad school), 3.4 is a strongly recommended minimum (for the program), and 3.6 is a strongly recommended major GPA.

Ava writes down what she’s found:

School Minimum GPA Major GPA Average GPA Notes
Ohio State 3.0 (school)
3.4 (program)
3.6 N/A
USC
UC Berkeley
University of Chicago
My GPA: 3.4 | My Major GPA: 3.7

 

Next, Ava shifts her attention to USC. USC’s English literature program doesn’t have any GPA minimums or major GPA expectations, but the grad school requires all applicants to have at least a 3.0 GPA.

Ava then looks up UC Berkeley’s English program. This grad school, too, requires a minimum 3.0 GPA. In addition, its English doctoral program boasts an average GPA of 3.85. Ava records all of this in her table:

School Minimum GPA Major GPA Average GPA Notes
Ohio State 3.0 (school)
3.4 (program)
3.6 N/A
USC 3.0 (school) N/A N/A
UC Berkeley 3.0 (school) N/A 3.85
University of Chicago
My GPA: 3.4 | My Major GPA: 3.7

 

Unfortunately, Ava is struggling to find GPA information for the University of Chicago. After doing a little research, she encounters a short passage concerning GPA on the university’s English department webpage: “The Admissions Committee does not have specific cutoff levels for GRE scores and GPAs.” As there are no specific GPA expectations, Ava must now take an additional step and start conducting some research on the competitiveness of her programs.

 

body_competitive_chess
Find out which schools are the queens and the pawns. And, uh, the bishops and the rooks and the knights. Wait, this analogy didn’t work.

 

Step 3: Compare Program Competitiveness

If a program you’re applying to offers little or no concrete GPA information, it’s time to compare the competitiveness of your programs. I recommend starting with U.S. Newsa helpful and robust resource with loads of information on grad programs and their rankings.

Here’s what you’ll do, in order:

  1. Find a list comparing all major grad programs in your field. Try to find something no older than five years.
  2. Pinpoint all of your programs on the list and record each of their rankings in the “Notes” column on your table.
  3. Use the information you’ve found to estimate how high of a GPA you’ll need for the unknown program(s).

As we’re aware, Ava is struggling to find GPA information for the University of Chicago’s English doctoral program. She decides to look up English program rankings on U.S. News. Right away, she locates this 2017 list of the top English graduate programs (note that the list does not differentiate between master’s and doctoral programs).

According to this list, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago are tied at #1, Ohio State is ranked #30, and USC is ranked #33. Because the University of Chicago is one of the most highly ranked English programs, Ava can therefore assume its GPA expectations are similar to those for UC Berkeley (and, likewise, more difficult than those for Ohio State and USC).

Ava returns to her table and records her programs’ rankings in the “Notes” column. She then records estimated GPA expectations for the University of Chicago using the rankings she’s found and the GPA information she wrote down earlier for Ohio State and UC Berkeley:

School Minimum GPA Major GPA Average GPA Notes
Ohio State 3.0 (school)
3.4 (program)
3.6 N/A Ranked #30
USC 3.0 (school) N/A N/A Ranked #33
UC Berkeley 3.0 (school) N/A 3.85 Ranked #1
University of Chicago None >3.6 (estimated) 3.85 (estimated) Ranked #1
My GPA: 3.4 | My Major GPA: 3.7

 

Step 4: Determine Which Grad Schools Are Accessible

Now, you have a clear sense of which schools you can apply to and which will be more challenging to get into than others.

Ava’s 3.4 GPA is noticeably higher than the GPA cutoffs for all of her schools, so she shouldn’t have any problem getting her grad applications looked at; however, her chance at getting accepted varies depending on the program.

Her 3.4 GPA and 3.7 major GPA are both high enough for Ohio State’s English program and likely good enough for USC, too. On the other hand, a 3.4 GPA is markedly lower than the average GPA of current English doctoral students at UC Berkeley and (most likely) the University of Chicago. As a result, Ava will probably have a much smaller shot at getting admitted to these two schools than she will Ohio State or USC.

A table based on GPA alone can’t say for certain where you’ll get accepted, though. In reality, we can’t predict what programs will think of certain applicants. But through the simple process described above, you should be able to develop a clear idea of which schools you can apply to as well as which ones you’ll have to work extra hard for in order to stand out.

But what if your GPA isn’t high enough for any of your programs? The battle’s not over, I promise! Read on for the steps can you take to maximize your chance at getting accepted into grad school — even when your GPA just isn’t cutting it.

 

body_high_jump
The best way to make up for a low GPA: jump as high as you can. Trust me, it works.

 

How to Make Up for a Low GPA: 6 Options

Let’s get something out of the way, first: a low GPA doesn’t always mean you’ll get rejected. If your GPA is significantly lower than a school’s minimum, then, yes, you’re highly unlikely to get accepted. But if you can make a compelling case for yourself, or if your GPA is only slightly lower than a program’s GPA expectations, an admissions committee might be willing to make an exception for you. So whatever you do, don’t freak out — it’s not totally impossible to get into grad school with a low GPA!

Besides GPA, though, what other factors and materials can prove you’re truly ready for grad school? Answer: a ridiculously strong application. Here are our top tips for putting together a fantastic grad school application — even if you have a low GPA.

 

#1: Get a High GRE Score

Many grad programs consider GRE scores to be one of the most accurate indicators of your ability to study (and therefore comprehend) grad-level material. If you can score highly on every part of the GRE (or, at the very least, on the section more relevant to your field of study), your application will certainly stand apart from others!

In order to perform well on the GRE, you must first understand what constitutes a good GRE score overall. For specific sectional scores, refer to our guides on how to set a goal score for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections.

Furthermore, be sure you know how to study efficiently for the GRE. Quick tips for studying include using high-quality GRE prep books and taking as many practice tests as possible to hone your test-taking skills. And if your score isn’t high enough, there’s absolutely zero shame in retaking the GRE!

All of this goes for GRE subject tests, too. If your programs require a GRE subject test, study as diligently and as often as you can so you can approach test day confident you’ll receive an excellent score. If you want to get an idea of how high to aim, take a look at the current GRE subject test percentiles.

 

#2: Discuss GPA in Your Statement of Purpose

Applicants with below-average GPAs are usually expected to discuss their grades in their statements of purpose. Don’t think of this essay as a time to make excuses but rather as an opportunity to explain why you received poor grades and how you intend to make up for the low GPA as a grad student.

Whatever you do, don’t lie! Even if you’re embarrassed by your GPA or the reasons behind it, be as honest and as humble as you can be. Above all, emphasize your commitment to the program and your chosen field of study. How will this program ultimately assist you in reaching your academic and professional goals? What can you bring to this program that other applicants can’t?

Oh, and don’t forget to show off your exceptional writing skills! Typos and awkward grammar are a sure-fire path to rejection, but eloquence and cogency will place you in a brand-new light.

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#3: Secure Quality Letters of Recommendation

Another step you should take is to secure excellent letters of recommendation. Most of the time, these letters should be from (former) professors; however, you can also request letters from employers, mentors, or coworkers who can write about your academic interests, work ethic, and overall commitment to the field you’re trying to enter.

While you won’t be able to see the letters your recommenders write for you, you can make sure the letters they compose are high quality. To do so, only choose recommenders with whom you have positive, professional, and memorable relationships. Don’t just opt for the professor who gave you an A your sophomore year; carefully select people who can speak honestly and enthusiastically about your abilities.

 

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This guy took my advice literally. Three weeks later, he’s still “reaching out” to professors.

 

#4: Reach Out to Professors

Contacting professors of the program you’re applying to is a great way to establish connections and ask questions about the application process.

When contacting a professor directly, always take the time to introduce yourself first, explaining why you’re interested in the program and why you’re contacting this professor specifically. Then, explain why you’re worried your low GPA isn’t high enough for the program. At this point, feel free to ask directly if the program has ever accepted applicants with similar GPAs or if there is anything you should include in your application to make up for the deficit.

Remember, professors are busy people and not all are open to divulging admissions information, so don’t expect a step-by-step guide on what you must do. Just be courteous and genuinely enthusiastic about the program and you’re sure to get some help!

 

#5: Get Experience in Your Field

Not everyone has the time or money to do this, but getting a little work or research experience in your field can give a humongous boost to your application. Most, if not all, of the time, a relevant professional background is a big plus to grad schools, as it demonstrates your dedication and overall zeal for the field on a career-driven level.

If you’ve conducted research in your field as part of your undergraduate career, you can compensate for a lower GPA, especially if you created notable research findings or published papers.

You don’t need to have years and years of experience, either — just enough to prove the field is an important part of your life. If you can’t find any paid positions or prefer something more short term, opt for (unpaid) internships.

 

#6: Take Open-Enrollment Courses

If you have a semester or two to spare before grad school applications are due, consider registering for individual courses at a local university. This is an excellent opportunity for you to showcase your commitment to studying the field. It also shows your ability to handle a college workload and perform well in an academic environment.

If your undergrad major is different from the field you want to enter, taking classes in the field is a convenient way for you to acquire some of the basic knowledge you’ll be expected to have for grad school.

 

Recap: What Is a Good GPA for Grad School?

The most common GPA needed for grad school is 3.0, though exact grad school GPA expectations can vary a lot by program. Some schools do set strict cutoff GPAs, which generally range between 2.5 and 3.5, but you may be able to apply (and potentially get accepted!) even with a lower GPA.

To determine what a solid GPA for grad school is, we must look at the following three factors:

  • How competitive a program is
  • What degree you’re seeking (master’s or doctorate)
  • How important GPA is to a program

Strong GPAs are important to grad schools because they emphasize your dedication to academia and your chosen field of study. GPAs also provide schools with a clear idea of how well you’re likely to perform at a more demanding educational level.

Occasionally, grad programs may want to see your major GPA, but the importance of a major GPA varies depending on the program and what you majored in.

Not all schools require a certain GPA for grad school applicants, but if you’d like to figure out what your programs’ GPA expectations are, follow these steps:

  1. Make a table for organizing what you find
  2. Search for GPA information on school websites
  3. Compare the competitiveness of your programs

Worried your GPA is too low for graduate school? Here are some tips you can use to increase your chance at getting accepted:

  • Score highly on the GRE (both general and subject test, if required)
  • Open up about your low GPA in your statement of purpose
  • Secure quality letters of recommendation, preferably from former professors who know you well
  • Contact professors
  • Get some practical experience in your field
  • Take individual courses in your field

In the end, don’t spend too much time worrying about graduate school GPA expectations. If you’ve got a high GPA, great! But getting into grad school with a low GPA isn’t impossible, either — it just takes a little more elbow grease.

With that, I wish you the best of luck on your grad school applications!

 

What’s Next?

Confused about grad school? Read our article on what grad school is and what it can offer you to learn about the differences between a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

Wondering if you should take the GRE? Our detailed guide answers all of your questions about getting into grad school — with or without GRE scores!

Got questions about the GRE? Check out our comprehensive GRE FAQ, and get information on how the GRE is formatted and what it tests you on!


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Author: Hannah Muniz

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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