But experts say it is possible for grad school applicants to overcome the stigma of unimpressive undergraduate grades if they have excelled since graduation or if they are college seniors who have dramatically improved their academic performance since freshman year.
Stephanie Shyu, an alumna of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says her admission to the institution is proof that low grades don't necessarily prevent someone from getting into a top law school.
"I had an extremely low GPA during my first two years in undergrad at Duke University," Shyu said via email.
"I was able to drastically improve my grades my junior and senior years of college. My final GPA upon graduation was still remarkably low and way below the median for top law school programs, but the upward trend in my grades paired with a compelling essay explaining my low grades landed me admission to UPenn Law School," she said.
[Find out how to overcome a low GPA in law school applications.]
The key for applicants with a GPA below the norm at their target grad schools, experts say, is having some kind of positive accomplishment -- such as high GRE scores , eloquent recommendation letters or successful graduate-level coursework-- that outweighs their past academic performance .
Klint Kanopka, a first-year doctora l student at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education, says he compensated for his B average in college by subsequently achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA in a master's program.
This postcollege academic achievement, Kanopka says, helped him show that he was a more serious student, bolstering his case for admission to a doctoral program at an elite graduate school of education.
Here are three strategies experts suggest for prospective grad students who are concerned about their undergraduate GPAs.
1. Gain relevant work experience: Timothy Jaconette, founder of the consulting firm Advanced Admit College Admissions, says grad school hopefuls with lackluster college transcripts can make amends for that failing by achieving professional success.
"This work experience will help you stand apart from the crowded applicant pool," Jaconette says. "Professors are looking to find someone who can share insights with the rest of the graduate cohort."
He adds that entrepreneurial work experience, which involves starting or leading a venture, is one way to impress grad school admissions committees enough that they will forgive low college grades.
Kanopka says that doctoral hopefuls who were not A students in college should do significant writing and research before applying to doctoral programs. "Any opportunities you can take to develop your research interests, identify some questions you want to address and get some experience doing some actual research will help move your application up the pile," he said via email.
[Use these three techniques to offset a low GPA when applying to MBA programs.]
2. Write thoughtful, creative and honest admissions essays: Experts say it's crucial for grad school applicants with low college grades to write admissions essays that clearly explain their reason for wanting to earn an advanced degree, since admissions officers may doubt their level of motivation and discipline.
Kanopka says the personal statement is a great place for applicants with low college GPAs to demonstrate their determination.
"It's the thing that they're going to read to really most understand what your logic is and what your thinking is," Kanopka says.
Supplemental essays are additional opportunities for prospective graduate students to overcome their low undergraduate GPAs. Penn Law student Shyu says she included a supplemental essay in her law school application since she knew her college grades were lower than the typical Penn Law candidate.
In that essay, she explained that she had initially felt lost in college, described how she discovered her sense of purpose when she took a semester off and discussed how pausing to reflect on her life goals spurred her to improve as a student and grow as a person.
3. Apply to schools without GPA requirements: Experts say prospective graduate students with low college GPAs should target graduate programs that have a holistic admissions policy, meaning they look at an application in its entirety before making a decision.
"Thankfully, most schools now are considering much more than just the numbers you submit," Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of the Going Ivy admissions consulting firm, said via email. "If your grades or test scores weren't the best, you want to accentuate the positive in the rest of your application--showing some unique leadership experience or research or life perspective and maturity."
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Ilana Kowarski is an education reporter at U.S. News, covering graduate schools. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.