GPA – Sure a super high GPA is a nice plus, you worked hard to get that 3.7 or 4.0 and you should show it off. On the other hand, after reading 30 applications how likely is it that the readers will remember GPAs, even outstanding GPAs? Pretty low. That may be bad news if you were counting on your GPA to get you in, but my guess is that for a lot of you, you are more worried about your GPA keeping you out. For the high GPA people you should take this warning, numbers are just numbers. After reading a stack of applications a 3.75 GPA can eventually blend right in with a 3.2. Your GPA matters, but don’t count on it to do any work for you, that’s still your job.
If you don’t have a super high GPA then the above might be better news. It means that your GPA is not the be all and end all that you might think it is. If your GPA meets the minimum required GPA to apply, then your application will be considered. That means that your fate is still in your hands, your work now will be the thing that will make the difference.
****There may be some specific situations where GPA will matter more than this. Particularly if a department has a ton of applications then they may do some kind of sorting of the apps by GPA in order to reduce their workload. The thing is, you can’t do anything about that, and you will have no idea if that will happen or not. Once your application leaves your hands, then anything and everything could happen. Your job is not to get hung up worrying about that, your job is to simply make your applications as polished and amazing as you can right now. Whatever happens after will happen, but there is no use stressing about this now. The message is, for any school where you meet the minimum requirements, then that’s a school that you should consider applying to. You have no idea, for good or bad, what the process will be when they get your package, don’t count yourself out of the game before they even get a chance to read your stuff! ALSO, this advice is coming from a place of experience, I applied to PhD programs with the bare minimum required overall GPA, a 3.00000000000001. I got into four places, big-name important Universities with stuffy reputations to defend, you can do it too.****
So your GPA may not be the sole thing to determine your fate, but it can matter. Particularly you should know a couple of things about the schools you are applying to. The first is whether or not they have a minimum GPA to even be considered. For many programs this may be a 3.0 but there are plenty of programs where the minimum may be a 2.5. Second, what is the average GPA of students who are admitted? Harvard’s minimum GPA may be a 3.0 but the average GPA of the students who get admitted is probably quite a bit higher. Lastly, what is the acceptance rate? Meaning, what is the percentage of applicants who get in each year? You can find out all of these from a couple of sources. One may be the department website if you’re lucky. The second, and probably more reliable source is the department’s graduate coordinator, a person whose job it is to administer the graduate program. In larger departments this may be the sole job of one or more people, in smaller departments, this role may be delegated to a faculty member. In any case you should be able to call the department’s front desk and ask the main administrator who the best person to talk to is. Remember, an email can be ignored easily, a phone call much less so. Don’t stop until you get the info you need! ****(side note: be as nice and politely as humanly possible to any administrators you talk to. They probably won’t remember you, and it won’t impact your chances in a significant way one way or another…BUT… Administrators are the beating heart of a departement. They know all the ins and outs, they know all the paperwork that needs to be filed, who to talk to if you have a problem and in many cases they are in charge of a large number of things that could impact your daily life as a grad student. Admins have a shitty job in many cases, but they also have a lot of hidden power. Do everything you can to not make their life more difficult. Be insistent and persistent about what you need, but remember, it’s not the admin’s fault if a professor doesn’t call you back! Making friends with the admins in any department will make your life, and their life SOOOOO much easier.)****
So now that you have that information about the GPAs what do you do with it? Well, the whole point of having the information is to make the best decisions you can about the limited time and resources that you have to expend. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply to Harvard? No… absolutely not, you should! But you should get as much information as possible, and if you are applying to some places where the admission rates are less than 10%, you should also be looking for a couple places where the admission rates are higher. With a well written essay and materials, you can, no matter your GPA, be a really well qualified candidate. BUT, there will be other well qualified candidates, and there will always be an element of chance, luck, or plain happenstance that lets some people in, and leaves some people out, no matter their GPA. The more places you apply, the more chances you give yourself and your application to find the right place, at the right time, with the right circumstances to be admitted. Give yourself as many of those chances as you reasonably can.