Are you Applying To Graduate School? Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond

Are you applying to graduate school or professional school? Not worried because you have excellent grades? That’s great, but you still need other things going for you if you want to get into graduate school.

Successful applicants usually do several things that the unsuccessful applicants don’t do. Most students submit all the required components of their application (i.e., transcripts, standardized test scores, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, application fees, etc.) and then sit back and hope for the best. This passive approach almost always ends in failure!

Think Beyond Your Grades… Way Beyond.

The most common misconception that students have when applying to grad school is this belief that outstanding grades are all one needs to get into graduate school. It’s simply not true! Many students mistakenly assume that admission to graduate school depends on surpassing some minimum grade-point requirement. The idea makes a lot of sense – after all, it is the main qualification for admission to a bachelors-degree program at most colleges or universities. But the truth is, the criteria for getting into graduate school are numerous and varied.

Grades definitely are important, but so are many other factors. Admission to graduate school is not an entitlement that comes with even the best grade point average (GPA). Success in graduate school requires much more than just academic ability, and the people who decide who gets in and who gets rejected are well aware of this fact.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the factors that determine the success or failure of a graduate school applicant, but many of them are perceived character attributes of the applicant – such as maturity, ability to work with others, independence, and many others.

Whether your application is successful often depends on whether you are perceived to be a potential asset to the graduate advisor (the professor who supervises your Ph.D. work). Most (but not all) professors learn through experience that they prefer working with certain types of people, and prefer to avoid certain other types of people at all costs!

In most graduate programs, if the professor you want to have as a graduate advisor does not want you as his or her student, then you will not be accepted into the program. It is as simple as that. Professors are not forced to work with any student they do not wish to work with, so you need to convince them that they would be better off with you than with one of the other applicants.

The letters of recommendation (aka reference letters) you get to support your applications to graduate school will be the main source of information about you as a person.

Your grades say nothing about the kind of person you are, at least not along the dimensions that matter. Are there two or three professors (aka referees) at your school who know you well enough that they could convince someone else that you have the right stuff? If you do that’s great, but what if you don’t have any or not enough referees? What’s your plan for finding some? You have to get yourself out there and in the situations where you can be evaluated so that you can get the letters you need. Read this blog post on how to find valuable volunteer or research experience in preparation for grad school or professional school.

Even if you have an outstanding GPA and the highest grades in your graduating class, you cannot afford to be complacent or overconfident in your approach to graduate school application. Your outstanding grades are no guarantee that you will be accepted into the graduate program of your choice…or even into any graduate program at all!


  1. Can I ask you a quick question since you seem very knowledgeable in the criteria on which graduate schools base their choice. I am having the same trouble of identifying if my grades are good enough to apply to a fairly competitive grad school and I am debating if I can hope at all that they will accept me.
    My grades are nowhere close to the best in class, but I do pass the cutoff for the majority of schools in Canada. By the cutoff I mean 3.1 on the 4.0 scale. I still have one more year to go, so I am hoping to boost it up to 3.3.
    Since the GPA is good, but not great, I am doing my best to get to know professors and being currently involved in two research labs.
    Would you say my admission, considering that I would have a strong letter of intent and recommendations can be realistic to such schools as UfT or McGill?


    1. Based on the information you provide, I would say you have a very good chance of being accepted. A lot will depend upon other steps you take, such as choosing the right potential supervisors, making contact with them before you apply, putting together a good personal statement, along with other important steps. I don’t know if what discipline you are in, but you mention your experience in research labs. Chances are that you are student of some natural science or a social science. If so, then you need to understand that the decision about whether or not you get into a graduate program will depend mostly on whether or not the person you choose as your potential graduate supervisor agrees to accept you. That person will only agree to take you on as a new grad student if there is something in it for him or her. Specifically, as a graduate student, you will be expected to help them accomplish their research objectives. Your grades don’t matter very much to this person, as they say nothing about your promise as a researcher. What is far more meaningful is the letters of recommendation from other people who have been in a good position to see how you perform in a research context, your interpersonal skills, communication skills, and things like that. The grades are only an issue if they are below the cutoff, and even then, exceptions are made and some students can be admitted to any program if there are other things going for them and someone really wants to have them as a student. I know of many students who got into a graduate program even though their grades were below the cutoff. And it really can happen anywhere. One of my favourite true stories involves a student who graduated from the Psychology department that I teach in, and although his grades were below the cutoff for Cambridge University, he applied anyway, and was accepted into a Master’s program. This was Cambridge University! His GPA was around 3.1, much lower than what most think is NEEDED to get into a grad program at one of the top universities in the world! But, this sort of thing happens all often at universities everywhere. McGill and U. of Toronto are not really any different from other universities that people assume are easier to get into. It is a normal thing, and something that happens every year, for students to be accepted into a program at McGill or Toronto, while at the same time being rejected by U. of Regina, or U. of Winnipeg, U. of Lethbridge, U. Waterloo, or any other university that the lay-public thinks is somehow “lesser” than McGill or U. of Toronto.


  2. I have been voraciously reading all the posts in this blog. My less than competitive undergraduate marks have always been the chief obstacle in not having ever applied to grad school. The other obstacle is that I’ve been aimlessly wandering through the academic hallways for more years than I care to count, without any specific goal as to what I wanted to do in the future. A few weeks ago, I had a ‘Eureka’ moment and finally realized what career I had to pursue, only to be told that my chances are slim without at least a M.Sc. I realize that I may still have a chance (albeit small) of getting into a graduate program at Concordia. Your blog has given me a lot of food for thought and has motivated me to work on making my application to grad school as strong as I can.


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