Friday 10 May 2019

How to Overcome a Low GPA and get a Scholarship to Graduate School

Low GPA Scholarship Graduate School

GPA is probably the biggest criteria that can make or mar your graduate school scholarship application. Unlike other Criteria such as Test scores (GRE/TOEFL/IELTS), Research profile, Work experience, Recommendation/Reference letters that can be improved on post-graduation, GPA is cast in stone after graduation. There is no changing it. To very honest, a low GPA is a problem when it comes to graduate school and scholarship applications, but it is not an insurmountable problem. In this post, we would discuss different ways one can possibly surmount the problem of a low GPA when applying for graduate school scholarships.

Get Volunteer Experience

Getting some volunteer experience related to your discipline is a very good way to boost your profile when applying for scholarships and grad school in general. There are a couple of ways you can volunteer. Finding which would both work for you and would make a good case for you is important. Some prospective scholarship and graduate school applicants volunteer to work for professors in their research labs. If this is an option for you, then you should definitely take it. Volunteering to work for a professor who also works in the same area you intend to work in is an absolute gold mine. The experience would give you hands-on research experience which is one of the most influential factors in the eyes of graduate school admission and scholarship committees. It would increase your chances of getting your name on a research publication and I cannot overemphasize how helpful this will be. Even though the work you do there may not lead to a publication, you would likely get an excellent letter of recommendation from the professor you would have volunteered with and this grossly increases your chances of getting your dream scholarship into graduate school.

To many like me, volunteering for a professor may not be an option. It could be that you come from a country that does not afford you the opportunity to do so or maybe you have other engagements like a full-time job and you are not willing to quit the job to volunteer in a professors lab. All hope is not lost. The United Nations Online Volunteering programme enables volunteers from all over the world to contribute to sustainable human development worldwide. UNOV has volunteering opportunities that cut across many disciplines and volunteering is done entirely online. Look out for opportunities that may interest you here:  UNOV awards certificates to volunteers that successfully complete the projects they work on. Most projects take between a few weeks to three months to complete successfully and certificate from the United Nations recognizing you as a volunteer would certainly look good on your application and may just shift the tide to your favor.

Getting paid work experience related to your intended field of study is also really helpful.

Ace the Standardized Tests (GRE/GMAT/TOEFL/IELTS)

The various standardized tests required for graduate school admission and scholarships are an opportunity to show your mettle. Standardized tests show how well you compare with your peers. While acing standardized test alone would not make up for a low GPA, they certainly can help you make a better case. For schools that request them, the GRE/GMAT usually carry more weight than TOEFL/IELTS which is only requested from international students. With some hard work and thorough preparation, anyone can ace standardized tests. Take advantage of the legion of resources, both free and paid, that abound the web. Magoosh, Kaplan, Princeton review, and Manhattan prep are a good place to start. Not all graduate schools and scholarships ask for standardized tests so if you do ace them, you should look out for opportunities where standardized tests are an important factor.

Explain why you had a Low GPA

Be ready to explain the reason(s) you had a low GPA and why you are sure it is now in the past. The reasons you give should be honest and peculiar to your situation. The reasons could be health challenges, financial challenges, loss of loved ones and so on. Do not lie. Admission and scholarship committees are very experienced and can usually see through a lie. Your academic transcripts would give you away if you are not honest. If you had a low GPA because you played away your time in school or you are just in the wrong discipline then you should tell them exactly that and then reassure them that you have that part of you in the past. Simply saying that you have moved on or you are now a better person is not going to cut it. You have to prove it to them. You have to show them the tangible steps you have taken post-graduation that show you have moved on from your past. How you do this is left to you. Scholarships for graduate school usually run into tens of thousands of dollars so you have to tell them why they should make such a huge gamble on you and not candidates with a better academic track record.

Get publications

A good way to boost one's profile is getting publications (either journal or conference publication) in reputable venues or at least good venues. This is no small feat and takes a significant amount of time especially for a first timer. Some people try to get publications by volunteering to work for professors who are more experienced and have a good track record of publications. Some others who are not afforded such opportunity opt to get publications independently. If you are going to try and get publications independently, a good place to start is your undergraduate final year thesis/project. If you did a good job on your final year project/thesis and did something new or innovative then you might just be able to get a publication out of it. At this stage, it doesn't have to be groundbreaking research. No one would expect that from an undergraduate. While attempting to do this, I would advise you get mentorship from more experienced researchers. Do not limit yourself to those in your locality. On LinkedIn, Facebook, you may find researchers who might just spare some of their time to help you if they think you are worth their time. It is worth trying.  Stay away from predatory journals and conferences. There are so many of them who would publish whatever you submit in exchange for money. Only submit your papers to peer-reviewed journals or conferences.

Get mouthwatering letters of recommendations or reference letters

Letters of recommendation or reference letters are probably the most influential part of a graduate school application or scholarship. Your letters can make or break your application. It is very important to get letters from people who know you well, who want to see you succeed and who are willing to write really great things about you. What they should write in their letter depends on the kind of application you are making. If you are applying for a research-based scholarship your letters should be able to attest for your aptitude to do research. If you are applying for a scholarship for future leaders, your letters should attest your ability to lead. It is important to concisely convey this information to them. When looking for reference letters, do not run after titles. Do not ask someone to write a letter of recommendation for you simply because he or she is an important person rather you should seek people who will write great things about you and who know you well. You are advised to seek letters of recommendation or reference letters months ahead. Ask your professors if they are will be willing to write a great letter of recommendation for you. If you need 3 letters of recommendation, ask 5 people just in case any of the first three disappoints you. Ask them up to 3 months ahead to give them ample time to write and submit the letters before the deadline of the scholarship applications. When they have agreed to write you letters of recommendation or reference letters, send them your Transcript, Resume, CV and any other documents that would enable them to come up with a better letter. If you want them to talk about any specific part of your application in the letter, do tell them. Your professor telling the admission or scholarship committee that you are one of the most brilliant students he has taught and you only had a low GPA due to circumstances beyond your control will count in your favor. Be polite when asking for the letters of recommendation and thank them when they submit the letters.

Admission Essays, Scholarship essays, Statement of a purpose or Motivation letter

A statement of purpose or motivation letter is a handy tool for an applicant with a low GPA. This is one part of your application where the content is totally up to you. For a guide on how to totally nail your Graduate school admission essays, Statement of purpose or motivation letter, you should get the book Graduate Admissions Essays, Fourth Edition: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice (Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the) by DONALD ASHER from Amazon. The book is a must-have. When it comes to graduate school admission essays, you probably won't find a better book out there. While it is totally okay to explain why you had a low GPA to admission and scholarship committees in your essays, your essay is not a pity party. You should not spend more than one paragraph explaining the reason(s) for your low undergraduate grades. A good essay takes a lot of time. You should spend up to a month writing one to give you ample time to come up with a really good one. Your essays would probably pass through a lot of iterations. Many parts of your first essay draft may not make it to the final version of the essay. Be as concise as possible and use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If you are going to be making a lot of graduate school admission and scholarship applications then you should get Grammarly.

Make connections

Reach out to professors, graduate students, and past scholarship beneficiaries. The importance of making out connections when it comes to graduate school admissions and scholarships cannot be overemphasized. Reaching out to people in the know can really set you on the right path and save you from spending a lot of time on things that are not necessary. In a previous post, we talked about How to Write a First Email to a Professor for Graduate School.  You should look at that post as it gives detailed explanation of how you can send an introductory email to a Professor. 

You should also reach out past scholarship beneficiaries and ask them specific questions about a scholarship. To find past and present scholars, Linkedin is a good place to look. In my own experience, the students and scholars I have contacted on Linkedin have given me information on scholarships that I did not find elsewhere. Some of them are usually very enthusiastic and willing to help. You can follow the steps listed below:
  • Register or log in to your Linkedin account
  • In the search bar, type as an example "Fulbright scholarship" or "Rhodes scholarship" or "MIT Tata scholarship"
  • Linkedin would display a lot of results based on your search query, then go through the profiles of some the results, check their profiles to see if they are scholars of the particular scholarship you are applying to, if they are, add them to your connections and wait for them to accept your request. You might want to add up to 10 or 12 of them and hope a good number of them would accept the invitation to connect. 
  • When they have accepted, message them and politely start by thanking them for adding you to their connections and proceed to ask your questions as concisely as possible--do not waste their time with small talk. 
Apply to as many scholarships and schools as you can. Be realistic. Do not focus on only Top schools or very prestigious scholarships. You will likely be rejected by a lot of them. But you do not need all of them. Just one that would enable go through graduate school without putting a dent on your personal finances. With hard work and dedication, success is certain.

Related Posts 

How to Write a First Email to a Professor for Graduate School

How To Know if a Department has Full Scholarship or Graduate Assistantship for Master's Students


  1. A very educative blog! Well done. Please I would like your input on which part of my application profile should i focus on which goes as follows:
    Degree: Bsc. Physics (Electronics)
    GPA: 3.24/4.00 (WES conversion)
    Capstone project: construction of arduino microcontoller heartrate monitoring device
    S.O.P: In the works
    I.T. knowledge: Python, MySQL(CodeLagos, W3schools) R(Completed Online course on EdX), Bootstrap(include use of html, CSS, and Javascript) still a learner though
    Interested Masters degree: Data science and engineering/Analytics

    1. Ibrahim, I think your profile is great. I don't there are many scholarships/assitantships in Data science and Engineering/Analytics though. It would be really helpful if you tell me what schools (or countries) you are targeting. You might want to check out the MasterCard Foundation scholarship, I think they have scholarships for Data science aspirants--or at least they did last year.

  2. As you discussed in the blog about how low GPA score student can get scholarship and can pursue his or her study in good college or university. It helps to make their future bright. However, before applying scholarship in any university or college, you should see the requirements and follow the guidelines to avail in the scholarship.


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My name is Solomon Ubani, I'm a computer scientist. I have few years of programming experience. I am happy to learn from you.