GPA vs. Work Experience in Grad School Applications

Both count—and strength in one area can help make up for weakness in the other

A degree from a top-tier graduate school can open a lot of professional doors, and savvy students do everything they can to get into the best program possible. Here's what you need to know about the admissions process and how applicants are evaluated.

Key Takeaways

  • Most graduate schools take a holistic approach to applicants, looking at both academics and other factors.
  • When applying, focus on your strengths but don't neglect to address your weaknesses.
  • Solid work experience may help offset a less-than-spectacular GPA.

How Admissions Officers Judge Applicants

The graduate school admissions process is not always transparent, but a successful application will typically include the following:

  • Undergraduate transcripts, including course grades
  • Graduate school test results (usually the GRE, although some fields have their own specialized exams)
  • A resume with work history
  • Letters of recommendation
  • An essay or statement of purpose 
  • An interview (either in person or by phone or Zoom)

Which of these matters the most to universities? According to many education experts, graduate admissions committees usually take a holistic approach to selecting candidates. They may have certain thresholds for GRE scores or undergraduate grade point averages (GPAs), for example. But as a general rule, they consider all aspects of an application in making a decision.

Recognize Your Weaknesses and Use Your Strengths

The best approach when applying to grad school, according to higher-ed experts, is to work hard to address the weakest components of your application. You may have stellar test scores, a high GPA, and enthusiastic letters of recommendation, but don't be complacent and submit a lackluster essay.

If, on the other hand, standardized tests are your Achilles heel, try to improve the numbers by taking an extra test preparation class. Schedule the exam far enough in advance that you have time to retake it if need be. 

According to ETS, the company that administers the GRE, you can take it once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous 365-day period.

Does this mean that every factor in your application has the same weight? Not necessarily. Vijay Chidambaram, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin, ranked application components from most important to least important as follows:

  • GPA
  • Recommendation letters
  • GRE scores
  • Research/published papers
  • Industry internships
  • Experience as a teacher's assistant

Similarly, a 2014 survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that 44% of graduate school admissions officers said the student's undergraduate transcript was the first thing they looked at.

Unfortunately, if your undergrad GPA is weak, there's not much you can do about it now. But you can emphasize your strengths to help compensate.

Keep in mind that certain fields will have a different set of criteria from others. While GPA is important, some schools may place greater emphasis on a student's work experience, which might trump a mediocre GPA.


Applying To Graduate School: What’s Important?

Avoid These Application Killers

Some all-too-common common mistakes can undermine your application. According to the website, they include:

  • Applying at the deadline. Needless to say, you don't want to apply after the deadline has passed, but even applying toward the end can cause you to miss out on scholarship opportunities or be rejected altogether if the class has already filled up.
  • Not answering questions on the application. Plan to address every question and try to include specific details and examples where possible.
  • Copying and pasting answers. If you're filling out multiple applications, avoid the temptation to repurpose your responses. Instead, tailor your answers to each specific program.
  • Using poor grammar and misspelling words. Don't rush to press "submit." Proofread your application and have someone else read it, too.
  • Using grandiloquent writing. Don't try too hard to impress the admissions committee with your vocabulary. Strive for a tone that's conversational and professional.
  • Not speaking with your recommenders. While you can't write their letters for them, you can provide them with information about the programs you're applying to and remind them why you'd be a great fit there.

The key to a strong application is knowing what the school is looking for and adjusting your application to fit that mold. It's a good idea to seek input from recently graduated alumni about the admissions standards at your schools of choice and to ask them what you can do to set yourself apart.

Article Sources
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  1. ETS. "Frequently Asked Questions About the GRE General Test."

  2. Kaplan, Inc. "Kaplan Test Prep’s 2014 Survey of Graduate School Admissions Officers."

  3. "10 Common Grad School Application Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)."