GPA vs. Work Experience: An Overview

A qualification 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. The graduate school selection process is not always transparent but, in many cases, a successful application will require the following components: 

  • Undergraduate transcripts including course grades
  • Grad school test results (usually GRE, but some fields have their own exams)
  • A resume with work history (see 5 Ways to Make Your Resume Stand Out)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • An essay or statement of purpose 
  • An interview (either in-person or by phone)

Which of these components matters the most to universities? According to many education experts, most graduate admissions committees take a holistic approach to selecting candidates. They may have certain thresholds for GRE scores or undergrad GPAs, for example, but, as a general rule, they consider all aspects of an application.

1:45

Applying To Graduate School: What’s Important?

Recognize Your Weaknesses and Use Your Strengths

The best approach when applying to grad school, according to education experts, is to work extra hard to address the weakest components of your application. For example, if you have stellar test results, a high GPA and a rock-solid essay, don't be complacent and submit a mediocre letter of recommendation that fails to make you shine.

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

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 the most important to the least important as follows:

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

Unfortunately, there’s little you can do about your undergrad GPA if it is weak, but you can emphasize your strengths to compensate. Keep in mind that some fields will have a different set of criteria than others. While your GPA is important, some schools may place a lot of emphasis on a student's work experience, which might trump a poor GPA.

Key Takeaways

  • A credential from a top graduate program can be a boost to one's career.
  • Grade point average (GPA) as an undergrad is a key quantitative metric that admissions committees will consider.
  • Work experience, however, shows qualitative understanding of a field and a commitment to hard work and job pressure similar to what grad school demands.

Application Killers

Avoid common pitfalls when completing your application. According to College Choice, a leading authority on college rankings and resources, the most common mistakes include the following:

  • Waiting until the last minute: If you miss a deadline for an application, you might miss out on a scholarship or early approval status.
  • Not proofreading: Don't rush to press “submit.” Proofread your application and have someone else read it too.
  • Writing a generic essay: If you want to stand out, make your essay count.
  • Lying about grades or extracurricular activities: Your high school transcripts will be examined, so don't risk your application being rejected.

(Source: CollegeChoice)

The Bottom Line

Each applicant is unique and will appeal to a school for different reasons. The key to a strong application is knowing what the school is looking for and using your strengths to fit that mold. It's a good idea to talk to alumni, obtain their insights and ask them what they recommend.