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From Underdog to Overachiever: Getting into an Online Master’s Program with a Low GPA

Don’t let a low GPA hold you back from applying to an online master’s degree program. This guide can teach you how to showcase your academic potential and demonstrate your determination to overcome challenges while pursuing your graduate degree.

Author: Rebecca Newman

Editor: Staff Editor

A young asian man in a striped shirt shouts in frustration as he tears a piece of paper in a well-lit, neatly organized room with decor and furniture.

If you have a less-than-stellar GPA, the idea of applying to an online master’s program may fill you with dread. You may be wondering if it’s even worthwhile. Fortunately, lackluster grades are not as uncommon as you might think. After all, life comes at us fast; maybe you were acting as a caregiver for a loved one, grieving a loss, experiencing a medical issue, or simply prioritizing the wrong things. Whatever your reason, it’s not too late to make an academic comeback in graduate school.

A low GPA shouldn’t discourage you from applying to master’s degree programs, especially with so many available online options. In your application, you can show your growth and academic potential through admissions essays, entrance exams, and dedication to graduate-level work.

There is a path forward for everyone who wants to pursue an education in their chosen or prospective field. To help you move forward, this guide includes strategies for strengthening your graduate school application and working to overcome the impact of a low GPA.

Online Master’s Programs with Low GPA Admission

A low GPA doesn’t necessarily prevent you from qualifying for an advanced degree or attending a respected institution. As information about inequality in education increases, institutions are gaining more awareness that standardized test scores and GPAs are not necessarily good predictors of determining who will be dedicated and successful in graduate school.

For this reason, many colleges have started to use a more holistic approach to their admission process. We’ve sampled some programs that offer accessible online master’s degrees while retaining the integrity of accreditation and industry prestige that can help advance your career.

University of Maryland Global Campus: Master of Business Administration (MBA)

With the resources of the prolific University of Maryland at its back, the UMGC MBA program is entirely online and can be completed in just 15 months. Regardless of residency, all students pay an affordable tuition of $694 per credit hour. The program requires 30 total credits, totaling $21,000. This MBA program is student-centered, with free electronic resources instead of textbooks, without a requirement for GMAT scores.

The fully online MBA program has held continuous accreditation by the IACBE for almost 20 years and boasts a strong alumni network with active student organizations to optimize your networking opportunities to advance in the field. The faculty holds experience in industry, government, and non-profit organizations, and the program even offers some hybrid courses.

Wilmington University: Master of Science in Human Services (MS)

Human service organizations are the backbone of caring for vulnerable populations, whether permanently or during a challenging moment in individuals’ lives. An MS in Human Services from Wilmington University prepares you for a leadership career in non-profit, community, or social services agencies with curated skills like grant writing, budget management, leadership, and implementation of information systems.

For the program, you can select 11 core classes and electives to complete the 33 credit hours required for the degree. At the cost of $524 per credit hour, you can complete the program in an accelerated 12-month program or on a more traditional schedule that lasts 18-24 months. With no testing or GPA requirements, students in the CSHSE-accredited MS of Human Services program complete a capstone project or master’s thesis to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in the field.

Penn State World Campus: Master of Supply Chain Management

Pennsylvania State World Campus

As we learned acutely during the pandemic, supply chains are intricate and crucial parts of our society, and Penn State is an industry leader in Supply Chain Management education. Students should have two years of post-bachelor’s experience in engineering, business, or science to complete this AACSB-accredited, 30-credit program part-time in as little as 20 months. For those who are making a career transition, they can begin with the 12-credit Graduate Certificate in Supply Chain Management, but the earned credits can be applied to the master’s program if admitted.

For part-time students who are taking 11 or fewer credits, the cost is $1,143/credit. Those who are taking 12 or more will pay $13,716 per semester. Since this program heavily prioritizes work experience, GMAT and GRE scores are not required. The program also emphasizes the statement of purpose to learn about the students’ hopes and motivations, so express yourself in your statement of purpose so they can know your talent and aspirations.

How Do Master’s Programs Use GPA in Admissions?

For some admissions officers, GPA can be an indicator of preparedness for a rigorous curriculum or how seriously students may take their courses. Some programs, particularly those with exceedingly high volumes of applications, may use a GPA as cutoff criteria for reviewing applications. However, undergraduate GPAs are not necessarily predictors of graduate success, particularly if the result of the low GPA is due to a challenging course of study with low grade inflation, or a personal issue that has subsided in the interim.

What is Considered a Low GPA in Master’s Programs?

For competitive programs, an undergraduate GPA below 3.5 is questionable, and some programs require a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Some undergraduate institutions even invoke academic probation for GPAs below 2.0 for any given semester, and a student may be dismissed for subsequent semesters with a low GPA. So, it is unlikely that you will have completed a degree program with a GPA lower than 2.0. However, less competitive schools and programs that are building their presence may accept students at a lower threshold, like Rutgers University, Bridgewater State University, or Southern New Hampshire University.

Benefits of Online Master’s Programs for Low GPA Master’s Students

Without the limitations of classroom space or other geographic barriers, online graduate programs can offer flexible admissions criteria and the opportunity for improvement to prospective students with low GPAs. With the ease and accessibility of the asynchronous classes, you can still gain a quality education. The visibility of discussion board posts ensures that the online master’s degree programs solicit students’ participation to ensure that students are paying attention.

Flexible Admission Criteria

Online graduate programs can be open to students of diverse backgrounds and academic histories because they can offer support to so many more students than they once could when limited by seats in a classroom. These constraints may have encouraged denying admission to students with lackluster grades or test scores even though they have more to offer from life experience. However, the new flexible admission criteria allow these students to come together to enrich the learning environment.

Opportunity to Improve Academic Performance

Online graduate programs can offer a restorative academic environment for a student to find their shine. Having the power to select their course of study in an area of passion can allow a student to demonstrate their academic prowess. For students who may need to remediate further before they can take on a graduate degree program, they can embark on certificate programs that are often applicable to the respective degree upon completion.

Engagement

In a classroom, dynamics can emerge that make it difficult for each student to participate meaningfully. However, with the democratization of participation through virtual discussion boards, each student has a voice and must participate as part of their grade. Additionally, asynchronous learning empowers students to tackle their coursework when they feel the most energized, enthusiastic, and prepared.

How to Get into a Master’s Program with a Low GPA

Other accomplishments can demonstrate your potential for success in a master’s program, such as relevant work experience, extracurricular activities or community service, and preparation. Your transcript only tells a two-dimensional version of your story, expressed through figures and facts. These 10 strategies can help you jump off the page as a candidate and display your potential as a master’s student.

1. Ace Your Grad School Entrance Exams

While many programs, online and on-campus alike, no longer require entrance exams, they are still excellent tools to demonstrate your commitment to your prospective course of study. Consider taking a prep course for the GRE, GMAT, or other relevant exam to increase your score to impress the admission committee.

2. Address if a Personal Issue Affected Your Undergraduate Work

If your underwhelming undergraduate work was directly the result of a personal issue or challenge, consider disclosing this to the admission committee. It can be daunting to share something personal, although most admissions officers want a complete picture of prospective students, especially if you can offer a narrative about a setback and how you overcame it, resulting in your efforts to advance your education.

3. Apply to a Master's Program with Low GPA Requirements

The programs to which you apply should contain a variety of safety, good fit, and reach schools based on a variety of metrics, typically GPA or test scores. Within these options, consider adding programs that don’t solely base their decisions on GPA or test scores. Programs that take a holistic approach may be most advantageous for your application and prospective matriculation.

4. Blow the Interview Committee Away

Making a personal connection with a strong first impression may overcome the specter of a low GPA in the eyes of the admissions committee. Take the time to research the leadership of your program and their areas of interest and bring thoughtful questions with you to the interview to demonstrate your engagement. Finally, send an email or a hand-written thank you note by mail (or leave it with reception) after your interview to let them know you value their time and consideration.

5. Boost Your GPA By Taking More Undergraduate Courses

If you particularly struggled in a couple of areas that are central to your prospective degree, consider taking a course to demonstrate your increased mastery of those topics and offer yourself increased preparation for revisiting that content in graduate school. Online education is a great way to take a course alongside your other responsibilities, demonstrate commitment, and bolster the shortcomings in your application.

6. Get Some Quality Work Experience

Pursuing and thriving at a challenging internship or job can allow your entrepreneurship skills to dazzle the admissions committee. Impress with your initiative in taking on projects, diligence, rebounding from setbacks, and ability to collaborate with others, all while earning invaluable quality work experience. Beware of any opportunity that requires you to pay in or invest to collaborate with them but pursue opportunities that will hone your skills and clarify the skills you want to acquire in your online master’s degree program.

7. Get a Glowing Recommendation Letter (or Two)

In addition to letting your accomplishments speak for themselves, enlist the support of a well-respected professor or boss who knows you well to write a recommendation letter on your behalf. This will hopefully highlight your strengths and support how you will make a great candidate for their master’s degree program.

8. Show Your Research Skills

The meticulous nature of research makes it an excellent way to demonstrate your commitment to your studies. If you did some undergraduate research, consider including information about that project and how it makes you a stronger candidate. This may also be an opportunity to solicit a recommendation from a faculty member who supervised the project and knows you and your work ethic well.

9. Take and Excel at Graduate-Level Courses

An excellent way to indicate your preparedness for graduate-level study is to, unsurprisingly, do some graduate-level work. Perhaps, there is a certificate program in an area of interest to you (even better if you could use it as a gateway to admission into a master’s program) to demonstrate your ability to embark on the rigors of master ’s-level work.

10. Use Admission Essays to Demonstrate Your Determination

In our conversations with admissions officers, they speak fondly about moments when they feel captivated by a student’s voice in their admission essay. They read countless overly curated, formulaic, and tedious essays by candidates, and when your fresh voice, perspective, and passion jump off the page, it breathes life into your application and helps them connect with you as an individual. This can also be a sincere, authentic, and thoughtful way to offer a narrative that addresses some of the blemishes in your application, like your lower GPA, and shows your commitment to growth.