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Identifying Weaknesses — Factors to Consider

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Identify Weaknesses in Your Candidacy

Successful applicants understand that an admissions officer should not be the first person to critically evaluate their candidacy. The first in-depth review of a candidate’s attributes and potential shortcomings must be completed by the candidate themselves. If the admissions committee does this before you do, your chances of being accepted are reduced dramatically.

To be competitive, a candidate must make a full and sober assessment of his attributes. He must pinpoint his strengths and decide how he can leverage them for maximum effect. But even more importantly, he must determine the full range of weaknesses that he possesses and address them. Identifying weaknesses is an in-depth process with more nuance than most candidates believe. A frank and effective assessment will not only include a list of the particular weaknesses you possess, but also identify if and to what extent your candidacy suffers from each of them.

Poor Grades

This is often the area that gets the most immediate attention from applicants. Candidates with completely average scores and grades (those who espouse the “C’s get degrees” mantra) typically have uncanny clairvoyance about their chances: Top schools will be quite difficult to gain admission to, and if they desire to attend second-tier programs, their exam score (GRE or GMAT) will need to be very strong.

This reality is easily seen by most applicants. What most candidates have greater difficulty grasping is how to interpret middling grades (i.e., a GPA between 3.1 and 3.4). Are these good grades? Are they sufficient for some schools and not others? Can they be overcome with strong test scores? As always, it depends.

GPA is typically regarded as a proxy for the ability to succeed in a rigorous graduate school environment. Since your GPA is fixed and cannot be altered during the application process, unlike, say, a test score or volunteer experience, it should be differentiated from other elements of your candidacy. To know if this is a weakness for you, assess your GPA using these four measures:

What is your overall GPA?

  • 3.5 or above: You are in very solid shape.
  • 3.1 - 3.4: You may be a good candidate, but you may be at a disadvantage. If you are looking at the highest echelon of graduate schools, this GPA is a problem. If not, a comparison of your GPA to your school’s mean (which is often publicly published) will indicate whether this is a significant issue.
  • 3.1 or less: This is a real problem for any graduate school student.

Did you receive a C grade or lower in any class during your undergraduate years?

  • Yes, but just one: This isn’t a major weakness.
  • Yes, at least two: This looks like a pattern; you might be in a bit of trouble.

The negative impact that comes along with having a C grade or lower in multiple classes isn’t necessarily offset by a high overall GPA. For example, imagine there are two students who both have a 3.5 GPA. One student consistently gets half A’s and half B’s each semester, while the other gets mostly A’s but has several C’s on their record. The first student, who has consistently moderate performance, is in better shape than the student with sporadically poor performance.

 

How many quantitative classes did you take and how well did you do in them?

  • I was a STEM or business major: This weakness most likely does not apply to you.
  • I took 4+ quantitative classes during undergrad (one per year) and performed well: You’re probably fine. You have demonstrated analytical ability.
  • I took <4 quantitative classes during undergrad or did not perform well in my quantitative classes: This may be a problem for you, depending on how you answered questions one and two above.

Quantitative classes are viewed as more difficult, and most graduate school programs will examine your grades through this lens. If you were a STEM or business major (finance, accounting, statistics, etc.) in undergrad, then your quantitative ability is often assumed. However, if you weren’t a STEM or business major and don’t meet the appropriate standard outlined above, this is a major weakness for you.

What is your trajectory of performance?

  • I have performed consistently over my four-year college career: You’re good!
  • I performed poorly during my first few semesters, but got the hang of it and brought my GPA up: Although this isn’t as good as performing well from the start, it is a positive slope. Admissions committees will take this as a sign of improvement.
  • I performed well at first, but my grades dipped as I approached graduation: This is not good. A negative slope is a red flag for admissions officers.

If you started college with a 3.6 in your first year and followed that up with a 3.7 in your second year, only to have your GPA fall in your third and fourth year to 3.3 and 3.2, respectively, then you have a real weakness here, even though you still have a 3.5 GPA overall. Essentially, a slope of 0 (consistent performance) is good, and so is a positive slope (improving performance), but a negative slope (decreasing performance) is a bad sign.

As you can see from this section, not all GPA’s are created equal. And the differences between various GPA trajectories and GPA breakdowns by subject and class are precisely the reason. A 3.5 is not always a 3.5. And GPA’s can look different depending on the angle you view them from. When you assess whether GPA is a weakness in your own application, you must take every angle into account.

Work Experience

How your work experience is assessed is directly tied to the type of degree and program you are pursuing. For many graduate school degree types, like law or computer science, you are not expected to have full-time work experience. Thus, if you have two years of experience after graduation, you possess a bonafide asset!

However, if you were pursuing a full-time MBA at Wharton and had two years of full-time experience, you’d be far behind your peers and your journey towards acceptance would be quite steep. Thus, choosing to pursue an MBA over a Master’s in Analytics yields a different assessment of the same work experience.

Looking for points of comparison between degree types may reveal the correct way to assess your work experience. And delving further into a specific kind of program within a degree type can be useful. For the MBA example offered above, there are different requirements for a full-time MBA program and an executive MBA program. Although this is an extreme example, it is informative.

If you have five years under your belt, you have the ideal amount of work experience for a full-time MBA applicant. You have a clear asset around which to build the rest of your application. However, if you are targeting an executive MBA program and have the same amount of experience, you are likely three years short, at a minimum. In that case, your work experience may be a fatal flaw that reverberates through your entire candidacy.

 

While it's important to identify and mitigate the major weaknesses in your candidacy, identifying your assets can be just as important. Don't forget to highlight what's unique about you. Watch the video below to learn more about optimizing assets.

Watch the Video

 

Employment Gaps

In terms of assessment, employment gaps are a subcategory of work experience. If you are targeting degree types where work experience is a bonus, and is generally not required of applicants, one or two employment gaps are not relevant. However, if you are seeking a degree where other competitive applicants do have work experience, you must assess this area with care.

Let’s readily dismiss one concern: If your time between jobs does not exceed three months, you do have a real gap. It is not recognized as a weakness to work at one organization until November and join another organization in February of next year without working in between. That is not an issue. But if you start that next job in March or April, it begins to become an issue. Now a 3-month gap has become a gap of four or five months.

A standard rule of thumb is that you can allow for one employment gap of less than six months in every three years working with no impact on your candidacy. Once you exceed that ratio, no matter how short each gap's duration, you have a potential problem.

If, for example, you have five years of total work experience, but this includes three gaps that are each four months long, that’s cause for concern. In contrast, if you graduated in 2015 and have had four years of consistent work up until now, except for one period where you couldn't lock down a job for five months, you’re fine. Just don’t let it happen again in the next two years.

It’s important to note that any gap over 6 months is a concern, no matter how rare. Even one 6-month gap is a red flag for admissions officers, so you should strongly consider how you will mitigate this weakness if it applies to you.

Switching Jobs

Don’t do it. Okay?  Great. Next section!

...well we wouldn’t leave you hanging like that for long. As much as the above statement is true, the topic of switching jobs can get a little more complicated. So, let’s dive in. The most common rule of thumb in regards to changing jobs is that you need at least two years at any employer before moving on. If you’ve switched jobs more often than this, you will appear unsettled to admissions committees and it is a massive application weakness.

For example, if you have six years of experience and you have had more than three employers, you are likely to be seen as unfocused by potential schools. Your candidacy is in danger. But even if you do meet the rule of thumb, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. It’s a different standard to be competitive relative to your peers than it is to merely make the first cut.

Although it depends on the school and degree type, you generally need at least three years per organization to not be disadvantaged in your applicant pool. Three years is viewed as showcasing commitment to a particular path and offers you enough time to be promoted. Whatever the reason for it, being framed as a job-hopper will be destructive to your admissions candidacy and potentially your career. It will certainly impede your path as a viable applicant. However, you can offset this and other weaknesses using the strategies outlined in this video.

Low Standardized Test Scores

This topic is similar to GPA in that the extremes are clear, but the rest is not; the middle is a gray area. Differences between schools are important, so you should review your target schools to determine their average scores for admitted students and assess their beliefs about what constitutes a strong score. Furthermore, it’s important to distinguish between two different levels of success in terms of your test score: threshold and competitive. "

Threshold

Your GRE or GMAT exam score needs to reach a certain level before admissions officers believe you can survive and handle the work at a particular school. If you do not receive a score that is at or above this threshold, it is a weakness that is irrevocably fatal to your candidacy for that particular school. This threshold level is typically 310 for the GRE and 600 for the GMAT at most moderately selective graduate school programs.

As you move up the ranks and into the “Top 20,” you’ll find admissions officials require a higher threshold due to the more rigorous demands of those programs. So, this higher threshold level will be about 650 for the GMAT and perhaps 320 for the GRE. These are the scores below which an admissions committee member cannot “afford” to become invested in your candidacy, and an alum will not use her political capital to help you get in.

Competitive

This is the next standard to which you should compare your score in order to determine whether it is a weakness. And what this exact standard is depends completely on the particular school you are targeting. If you are looking at programs where the mean is 325 for the GRE or 710 for the GMAT and you have a 680 GMAT score, you are at a disadvantage. Your score is going to be a blemish, undoubtedly. But how much of an issue will it be? That depends on the rest of your metrics and your application, along with the quality, popularity, and reputation of the school.

Generally, a gap of 20 points for the GMAT or 5 points for the GRE is the level at which this weakness can be offset by the aforementioned areas. If your GMAT is 650 and the mean is 670, you are within the appropriate range and have a manageable weakness. If the mean is 710 and you have a 670, your weakness is now potentially fatal to your entire candidacy. Exceptional pressure will be put on the other aspects of your application to make up for it. And you will not be in a position to make this difficult push towards acceptance without major help elsewhere in the application.


Extracurricular Activities

Your extracurricular activities are always important, but the reason why varies across degree types. For more technical degrees (e.g., data science or computer science), the extracurricular designation is often measured by how it showcases your interest and accomplishment in your intended field. If you’re thinking about pursuing a Master’s in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, helping your university computer science club code face-sorting algorithms underscores your interest in the topic.

Alternatively, if you are pursuing an MBA, your options are much more broad. While a Master’s in Computer Science is meant to be specialized, MBA programs are built to give their students general knowledge of growing and relevant fields. For this reason, most extracurricular activities can fit the bill for an MBA application, depending on his level of involvement.

Leadership is highly valued for this degree type. So, extracurricular involvement that doesn’t include a hefty dose of leadership is considered a massive weakness. For that School of Computer Science hopeful, leadership within a club is not important. But having no extracurricular activities within her field of interest would be a major weakness.

To be an effective applicant, you need to shore up any weaknesses in your foundation prior to enhancing your strengths. Your candidacy is most likely to fail based on measures that get candidates cut from the pool. You need to survive these weed-out rounds more than you need to stand out from your remaining peers.

Begin by understanding and managing your weaknesses; then work on building up your strengths. Focus on the core issues of your candidacy, as you’ve discovered them in this article, in order to better-position yourself for getting into your dream school.

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