Overcoming a Low GPA

Many employers use GPA as a screening criteria when considering college students and recent graduates for employment.  Setting a minimum GPA is an easy way to reduce the number of applications that must be evaluated to a manageable level. Some organizations have strict requirements (e.g., must have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher), whereas others have general guidelines and will accept candidates with lower GPAs when they have other skills or qualities that the employer is seeking.

Overcoming a low GPA is possible, and typically only an issue when seeking an internship, co-op, or full-time employment directly following college.  After one year of full-time employment, GPA can come off of a resume since employers are now focused on work-related performance and accomplishments.  College students and recent alumni with GPAs that are below the requirements set by employers should consider one or more of the following options to improve the likelihood of being considered for positions.  (Note: much of this information will also apply to students with low GPAs who are seeking acceptance in to a graduate school program.)

Include a Secondary GPA

You should always include your cumulative GPA.  If you don’t, the individuals evaluating your application are likely to assume that it is lower than the actual value.  In addition to your cumulative GPA, list a secondary GPA such as a core GPA (from courses specific to your major), or a GPA from just the past semester or two to indicate that your academic performance has improved.  It is usually best to use your core GPA unless another GPA is significantly higher or exceeds the required minimum GPA when your core GPA does not.

Explain Your Low GPA in Your Cover Letter

When there is an extenuating circumstance that negatively affected your GPA, it is often best to address this in your cover letter.  Extenuating circumstances may include difficulty adjusting to college life, which affected your first year grades; an illness or circumstances beyond your control that caused your grades to suffer for a specific semester; the need to work to support yourself while attending school, which limited the amount of time available to study; or starting out in a different major that you found uninteresting.  If a diagnosed learning or physical disability had an effect on your grades, please see our information for students with disabilities.  Whatever the extenuating circumstance, it is important to communicate that it is in your past and that you are now doing well.  Address a low GPA by acknowledging that it is lower than you desire, explaining the cause, and providing evidence that you are now performing well.  For example, you might say:

You will note that I have two GPA’s on my resume and that my core GPA meets your requirements.  My cumulative GPA was adversely affected by a poor start my freshman year and does not reflect my typical performance.  My core GPA is more representative of my current academic performance, and as you can see, I am now doing very well.         

Even if a cover letter is not a required portion of the application, it is a good idea to write one.  This can show that you are willing to put in more effort than other candidates.

Excel in Your Work Experience(s) and Develop Exceptional References

As you know, the work experience section on a resume is very important because it tells employers about the professional and technical skills that you have successful applied to accomplish real work. It is particularly important for individuals with low GPAs to excel in their work experiences and highlight their accomplishments to stand out from the other candidates vying for a position.  See the developing skills-based work impact statements page for tips on effectively presenting your work experience.

It should also be recognized that working hard and completing high-quality work will produce strong references and may lead to an offer of full-time employment.  About fifty percent of entry-level engineering positions are filled through co-op and internship programs.  Even when a company isn’t able to make an offer of full-time employment, your supervisor and/or mentor will likely be willing to serve as a reference and say positive things about your work.  They may even recommend you to their friends and colleagues or write a letter of recommendation that you can show to other employers.

Use Course Projects to Highlight Skills

Similar to the work experience section, a course projects section can be included on a resume to highlight transferable skills. This is particularly important when a low GPA has hampered professional work experience opportunities. See Example 14 on our sample resumes page.

Seek Positions that Align With Your Strengths

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, grades often reflect certain weaknesses while not giving enough credit for certain strengths.  It is important to understand your strengths and weaknesses and to seek positions that align with your strengths.  If a low GPA is due to struggles with math and science, but you have particularly strong interpersonal relationship skills, you might consider focusing your job search on technical sales, customer services and other relational positions.  Alternately, if your weakness is communication or teamwork, you might focus on highly technical positions.  You should also take steps to strengthen your weaknesses and mention these efforts if an employer shows concern.  For example, if you received a low grade in a writing course, take another writing course to show desire to improve in this area.

Network to Explain Weaknesses and Emphasize Strengths

Networking is a key part of the employment process, and it is particularly important when your resume and cover letter alone put you at a disadvantage.  Communicating face-to-face with a recruiter provides an opportunity to explain your low GPA, highlight strengths and convince the individual to give you a chance.  When a resume is simply submitted online, it is very likely that the recruiter will sort candidates by GPA and start evaluating the higher GPA candidates first.  They may only consider the top 10 or 15 candidates and not make it to the ones further down in the list.

Some employers are much more interested in personality, attitude and fit for a position than they are GPA.  Networking is required to first identify these employers and then expose them to your out-going personality, positive attitude, strong interest in the type of work they do, etc.   Seek out as many networking opportunities as possible, including on-campus events like career fairs and employer information sessions. Additionally, utilize the contacts you already have (friends, family, classmates, professors, etc.) to discover job opportunities that might fit your particular skillset and receive recommendations if possible. More information on networking can be found here.

Apply for Positions That are Likely to Have Small Applicant Pools

Some employers struggle to fill rewarding positions simply because their facility is located in a rural area, their work is not very glamorous, or they do not have good name recognition.  Their applicant pools are typically small and you have a higher probability of being the best candidate for the position.  Talk to employers at a career fair that are not receiving a lot of attention from other job seekers.  Apply for positions in rural areas and consider commuting from a nearby larger town or city if small town living doesn’t appeal to you.  Initiate networking through a face-to-face interaction or through LinkedIn to show a high level of interest in the position and demonstrate that you are willing to go above and beyond the efforts of others.

Consider Temporary Positions

If graduation is approaching (or has passed) and you feel that you are not having success applying the above tips, consider pursuing a temporary position.  One temporary-employment option to consider is an internship or co-op position following graduation.  This could provide a good introduction to an employer that you are pursuing for continuous employment.  If an employer has concerns about your abilities or fit within their organization, they may be willing to give you a short-term employment opportunity so they can evaluate your performance.

Another option to consider is working for a temporary employment agency that provides technical services to other employers.  As mentioned in the introduction, GPA can come off the resume after about a year of full-time employment, so plan to remain in the position for at least a year.  Temporary employment agencies typically pay your salary and provide basic benefits while you are contracted to perform work for another employer.  It is important to work for an agency that can put you in positions that align with your professional interests, even if the work is slightly below your skill level (e.g., engineering technician rather than engineer).  You will need to include this job on your resume, so you need to be performing engineering-related work that will result in the development of skills and expertise that other employers will value.  Some temporary, contract employees are offered continuous positions at the contracting employer when they make a good impression and a position becomes available.

The Employment Process Menu

Introduction

Step 1: Understanding Employers and the College Recruiting Process

    -Maintain a Positive Attitude

Step 2: Determine Career Goals and Skillset

Step 3: Identify Preliminary Target Employers and Industries

Step 4: Develop Effective Marketing Materials

Step 5: Search for Specific Employment and Research Target Companies