I’m continuing the “You Ask, I Answer” series where I respond to the most common questions I get from prospective or admitted students (you can find a previous You Ask, I Answer: When Should I Start Graduate School? here and You Ask, I Answer: How to Email the Admissions Office here). If you have a question you’d like me to answer in the next post, be sure to comment below!

This is definitely one of the top two questions that I and my other colleagues in Heller Admissions get (the other one would be “What’s the minimum GRE or GMAT score?”). As I explained in an earlier post, What Does “Holistic Review Process” Mean, Anyway?, this is a hold-out from a mostly-bygone time, when colleges would use “cut scores” (in which colleges wouldn’t consider applications from students with lower than a certain SAT score or GPA) to make the first “cuts” during application reading season. This practice is certainly less widespread now, but still the question persists; I think because students want some sense of certainty about whether or not they have a chance of getting in.

Unfortunately… it really does depend.

But, in the interest of transparency, I’m here today to share with you a little about what we look at when we’re looking at your transcripts, because contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about your GPA.

Challenging yourself. Let’s say two students apply with the exact same cumulative GPA from the exact same college, and majored in the exact same thing. If we were only looking at GPAs, we would hold these students in equal regard, but that’s not always the case. We also look at the courses the students took to determine how we should consider those grades. If Student A was using their electives to take classes like Astronomy, the Global History of Capitalism, and Supply Chain Analytics, and Student B was using their electives to take Tree Climbing, South Park and Contemporary Social Issues, and The Art of Walking (all real classes offered at schools across the US, by the way!), well, we’re probably going to give Student A an edge. That’s not to say that you can’t take a course that’s a little off-beat or pursue a niche subject that you’re genuinely interested in, but we want to see that, for the most part, you used your time in college (or your first graduate school degree, if that’s the case) to challenge and better yourself.

Relevancy of coursework. Don’t get me wrong, students at Heller come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some of the most common include public health, sociology, education, international relations, history, law, economics, social work, anthropology and psychology, but we have students that majored in English, biology, art history, journalism, chemistry, studio arts… the list goes on and on. But with that being said, we want to make sure students are set up to succeed in our programs. For example, if a student were applying to our PhD program, we’d want to see high grades in courses like economics, statistics, research methods, or some other class along those lines; if they received an A in all their other classes, but low scores in those, it might be a cause for concern. Especially in our more quantitative programs, we’ll want to make sure that students have the relevant backgrounds that they need to succeed at Heller, although that can come in many different forms, of which coursework is just one.

Trends or growth. You probably heard this when you were applying to college, but application readers do look at trends in your grades. A difficult first semester in college isn’t likely to tank your chances of getting into graduate school, nor is a tough semester with extenuating circumstances explained in your statement of purpose. What may be more concerning, however, is a student that starts off strong whose grades gradually go down, which might suggest that they struggled with more advanced course material.

If, after reading this, you take a look at your transcript, and you find that there are some yellow flags in your transcript, all is not lost! As I explained in my earlier blog post about holistic admissions, there are opportunities to course correct. It’s probably too late to get a new job to put on your resume, but you can decide who your recommenders are going to be, what to highlight on your resume, and what to write in your statement of purpose. Addressing these issues in your statement of purpose, or demonstrating that you have those skills in other ways, are easy ways to provide context to those grades.