Grades

Note in this section I refer to grades in the form of a Grade Point Average, or GPA. When translating between grading systems, remember to translate via grade tags (e.g. A to E) rather than by number (50-100%), so a High Distinction (HD) in Australia is equivalent to an A+ in the US, even though their percentage values can vary by a large amount (80% versus 97%). To avoid confusion, I’ll be using the most common US 4.0 GPA system.

How much does GPA matter?

As a general rule of thumb, GPA is a bar you need to cross but gives diminishing returns the higher you go above that bar. For many programs, the minimum required GPA will be a 3.0. More selective programs may set a higher bar at 3.5, and perhaps even higher. Your major goal is to clear this bar otherwise your application could be rejected without much of a glance, even if you’re an otherwise strong candidate.

It’s also important to remember that GPA and similar metrics are aggregate scores, as in, they measure some average achievement over all courses taken. Depending on your academic record and what you’re applying to do, this score may not be all that interesting to an admissions committee, and they might instead focus only on a subset of your record, typically the most relevant classes for your area of proposed research.

There’s also some wiggle room for an “upward trajectory” where your grades improved as you progressed through your degree. It’s very common for first year undergraduates to go through an adjustment period which results in lower grades. If you have done well in later courses, particularly those that build upon the more basic courses, that can be taken as proof of your competency and effectively “override” your earlier grades.

Mine is lower than I’d like. What can I do?

It depends! What’s your goal, what’s the minimum bar, and what’s your current GPA?

If you’re below the bar then there are a few major options (that I’m aware of):

If you’re still enrolled as an undergraduate student,

  1. take more advanced versions of classes you did poorly in and ace them. This works well if your degree is quite a linear one, with advanced courses building from the introductory ones.

  2. re-take classes you did poorly in. If you failed the first time then the re-take may completely replace that grade. Otherwise, the two grades (original and re-take) may be averaged. You should check your university’s rules and/or ask your academic advisor before you enrol.

  3. apply to have bad semesters/terms removed from your record. If you suffered from a particularly bad and acute crisis, you may be able to apply to have that period of time scrubbed from your transcript. This can be especially useful if you had to withdraw from all courses at one point. The rules around this vary by a huge amount, and I’m not sure how common the option is (although I do personally know someone who did this), so you will have to do your research on it!

If you’ve already graduated,

  1. enrol in a post-baccalaureate (post-bacc) program. These are typically “non-degree-seeking” in the sense that you’re not awarded another degree at the end. You use this time to either re-take classes or to take more advanced versions. You will have to pay for the classes you take and this may be more expensive than during a degree, so check first.

  2. enrol in a Masters degree. In many countries (e.g. European) this will be required before you can apply to a PhD anyway. A Masters degree in a country where they are not required can be very expensive and funding may not be guaranteed or even common, but this can be a good way to take advanced courses and get more research experience all while earning a higher degree (unlike a post-bacc), so it may be worth the cost for you.

Whether you’ve graduated or not,

  1. you should always email both the graduate admissions team at target programs and/or any prospective supervisors so they (a) have a heads-up about your lower grades, and (b) can make sure to fish your application out of any auto-reject pile and give it a proper look-over. Be prepared for them to come back with a solid “no”, though. An assurance that they will read your application is no assurance that they will accept your application.

If you’re above the bar and are just disappointed in your GPA for personal reasons then you can certainly do all of the above, but many of these options will cost money and time. The best thing to do is to get a better gauge on your competitiveness as a candidate. Ask the graduate admissions team at target universities, ask your professors, and reach out to the wider community! You may find that your GPA, while technically sufficient for entry, is a lot lower than the median of accepted students. Or you may discover that your GPA is really very competitive, and so no extra work is necessary or warranted.

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