I saw some discussion on Twitter that many students feel discouraged from even considering graduate school because of a perceived low GPA, especially in STEM fields and especially underrepresented minorities. I applied to graduate school with (what many considered) a low GPA and it mostly went fine (and also better than expected), so I feel the need to include my datapoint and information I’ve gleaned from the other side.

Important Caveat: I am not a professor or admissions gatekeeper! I can only share what I know from conversations with professors and other graduate students as well as my own experience.

Do you even have a low GPA?

The only way to really know this is to ask a professor you trust. Much of my advice centers around finding a professor you trust, ideally in your research area or at least in your department. They will let you know how your GPA will be perceived when it comes application time.

For your reference, I was told multiple times by professors that my GPA was too low for them to consider taking me on as a research intern. If this happens to you, do not get discouraged, follow the advice in the following sections and generally just keep working to improve your record and achievements.

Ok, so how do I get into grad school with a low GPA?

Note: I have no idea what the success rate of this advice is. It worked for me, and I see other professors share similar feedback. Realistically, many admissions committees only want to accept students with 4.0 GPAs, which you do not have or you would not be reading this post. But, other professors eagerly seek out students who may not be perfect A’s, who may not be great at taking tests but have many other indicators of success in graduate school.

  1. Do really well in the classes that are in your research area, and highlight those classes in your application letter and why you worked harder in them than others.
  2. Ask your recommenders (especially those who have taught you in a class and presumably also know you outside the classroom) to address the low-GPA issue in whatever way you feel appropriate. Ideally, this comes in the form of a clear and open conversation about your goals and why you think your low undergrad GPA will not deter you from success in graduate school, which can then be repeated by your recommenders as appropriate.
  3. (Likely CS-specific) Post code online!! Satya at CMU’s motto is “Working code trumps all hype” and most academics ascribe to this belief system. A class project you post on GitHub or working system you have video evidence of is much more impactful than an A on a final exam, and is also something you can highlight in your application to show that your low GPA is not an indicator of your potential output in graduate school. Putting together a nice website that showcases your projects is a good way to make sure
  4. E-mail professors you may want to work with with a link to the aforementioned portfolio website and some thoughtful questions about their research and future work. ONLY DO THIS IF THEIR WEBSITE ENCOURAGES YOU TO DO SO. (It will be a waste of your time and theirs if the website says “Do not contact me via email for graduate school admissions” and then you do so anyway!) But, if the professor has some text encouraging you to contact them, go ahead, and the conversation may help guide your graduate school process – even if they don’t have slots, they may be able to recommend other professors or programs that are a good fit.

I always have to bite my tongue when I hear the “omg my 3.8 GPA was so low I barely made magna cum laude” olympics going on in grad student circles, especially because there are so many life situations and circumstances that may prevent perfectly excellent candidates for graduate school from feeling qualified because of a lower GPA. If you’re interested in CS graduate school and feel like your GPA is too low and want advice, especially if you are an under-represented minority, feel free to email me or @ me on twitter.