Grades vs. Work Experience in Grad School

Freelance Writer

Jan   2016



The question of what’s more important to grad school admission officers—grades or work experience—has been around for a long time. But like most questions concerning advanced degrees, the answer usually depends on what type of program you’re looking at.

A few people who’ve recently been through the grad school application process shared some of their thoughts with me:

  • Business school: “Grades and experience were both important. Also, GMAT scores. But I think the more experience you have, and the types of experience, the more valuable that piece becomes.”
  • Law school: “Coming straight out of college, I'd say grades probably. That's how it felt anyway. And the dreaded LSAT score. I also had fairly good experience from [my undergraduate] co-op program. Though now I think taking a year or two in between would have been better.”
  • Other types of graduate school: “My program has a really diverse mix of students who have a variety of tangentially related backgrounds. I felt like the application process was focused less on my transcripts and more on my interest in the topic.”

Regardless of what you’re studying, it’s also important to note that the influence of grades on your grad school application may vary based on how recently you were in school. One admission counselor noted, “If the applicant is coming directly from undergrad, grades are definitely more important. However, if an applicant has extensive work experience, that can help to offset some lower grades.” For instance, if you’re applying to an MBA program just as you’re finishing your undergrad degree, having bad grades will hurt you more than if you were applying after working at a hedge fund for five years.

But maybe the either-or question is the wrong one to be asking. According to Investopedia, “The secret, according to many education experts, is that there really is no secret. Most graduate admissions committees take a holistic approach to selecting candidates.”

Graduate school is all about specialization and diving deep into a topic—after all, when you’re done you become a “master” of that topic. So think of your past school and work and volunteer experiences as telling a story. What are you strengths? Weaknesses? What topics excite you? What certifications might help you take the next step? Instead of picking a program and trying to make your qualifications fit, look at your story and pick a grad program that fits you.   

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About Danielle Dulchinos

Danielle Dulchinos is an editor and freelance writer based in the Greater Boston area.