Some students automatically presume that the higher the grade point average (GPA) the better. However, this is not always the case because the role and importance of your GPA changes throughout your academic career. In other words, your GPA can signify different things to different people at different times depending on your current academic progress, your area of study, and your goals after grad school.
GPA Before Grad School
GPA is very important when you are transitioning from undergraduate to graduate study because admissions committees at grad schools perceive GPA as an indication of your long-term performance and potential as a student. Although actual requirements vary, most graduate admissions committees typically expect applicants to have GPAs from 3.0–3.3 for master’s programs and from 3.3–3.5 for doctoral programs. That being said, not all GPAs are weighed equally. For example, a 4.0 GPA on a transcript that primarily includes courses in pottery, belly dancing, and mixology is less impressive on a grad-school application than is a 3.4 GPA on a transcript that primarily includes courses in advanced statistics, research methodology, and rhetoric.
If you are concerned that your undergraduate GPA is too low to successfully apply to grad school, there are several things that you can do to raise your GPA. First, take challenging courses and apply yourself actively to doing the best you can. Second, take summer courses, which generally progress more quickly but which allow you to focus on one course at a time. Finally, you could even consider delaying your undergraduate graduation for a semester so that you have time to take a few more courses to improve your GPA. If this is not an option for you, remember that your GPA is only one element of your overall grad-school application; having strong scores on standardized tests, strong transcripts with a variety of challenging courses, well-written admissions essays, and glowing recommendation letters can offset below-average GPAs.
GPA During Grad School
By the time you enter grad school, your GPA will assume a drastically new meaning. You will likely have to maintain your GPA at a minimum standard to show academic progress, to satisfy scholarship requirements, and to qualify for fellowships, etc., but unlike during undergraduate study, a high GPA during graduate study is less impressive than is evidence of extensive scholarly research (e.g., publications, presentations, research collaborations). In fact, some professors may assume that grad students who have above-average GPAs are focusing too much on coursework and not enough on research. However, the reduced importance of GPA in grad school does not mean that you can totally neglect your grades on your coursework because the role of your GPA may change again depending on your field of study and your goals after grad school
GPA After Grad School
You may be wondering, “Why does my GPA matter after I finish grad school?” The answer depends on what you want to do next. For example, if you plan to continue in academia by seeking a professorship, then your graduate research and GPA will both be important elements of your job applications. Additionally, some nonacademic employers use graduate GPAs and institutional prestige for the same purposes as do admissions committees at grad school: long-term indicators of job performance and potential. On the other hand, other nonacademic employers may prioritize GPAs less highly than extensive practical professional experience (e.g., internships, field work, externships, apprenticeships, practicums). To determine the significance of GPA after grad school in your field, you should talk to potential employers and other professionals who are doing what you want to be doing to determine what qualifications (including but not limited to GPA) you will need to be successful after you graduate.