How Can I Use A Cover Letter To Explain My GPA (Or Other Application Weaknesses)?

Posted on December 31, 2010


The cover letter, in addition to demonstrating your understanding of your fit with the firm, can also be a very important tool to explain any weaknesses in your application. It’s your one chance to explain, in your own words, any shortcomings.

I learned that recruiters tend to have a mental list of checkmarks to determine qualifications. “Haven’t been convinced of a felony” is an obvious example of a check, but more subtle examples are “Has at least a 3.5 GPA” or “Had a consulting internship.” If your application doesn’t meet any of these
checkmarks, suddenly they’re questioning your ability in some area. The result is you look like a weaker candidate, on paper, compared to someone for whom they checked all of their mental boxes.

You will never know where you got dinged; you will simply be notified that you weren’t invited to an interview. So you need to be proactive, and address these weaknesses head-on.

Consider this: For two of my applications, I explained my 3.4 GPA in my cover letter, and for four applications I didn’t. I got an interview with both firms (and ultimately an offer) where I explained my GPA, and didn’t get a single interview with firms I didn’t explain my GPA. One interviewer for a firm where I had explained my GPA in my cover letter explicitly told me “You know, you’re the only person I’m interviewing today that has a GPA of under 3.5. The people reviewing your application must’ve thought you were pretty special.”

I was a strong candidate, except in the GPA department. I believe this created doubt in some recruiters’ minds, and when I didn’t explain that I was in a more difficult curriculum (engineer), had a high ACT score (34), and performed well in case competitions (won one), I looked weaker by comparison on a key attribute they were looking for.

So how do you explain that you’re a still a smart guy/gal, even when you don’t look so smart on paper? As an example, here’s the exact wording I used:

“I am aware my GPA is slightly lower than a 3.50, which is the stated minimum for this position. I hope that my strong analytical course work at Northwestern University, my excellent ACT score, and my superior performance in case competitions are enough to address any concerns you may have regarding my 3.43 GPA.”

Feel free to embellish, but never lie. For example, I believe it can be easily argued that engineering is heavily analytical, my ACT score was “excellent” (because it was in the 99th percentile), and my case competition performance was “superior” (because most other students have not won a case competition).

Here is a list of things a high GPA can imply about you; in what other ways can you demonstrate these traits? This will help fuel your “explanation”.

  • Academically curious ‐ because you’re likely to do better in course work you’re curious about.

    >>Sample counter‐point: What academic research have you done, and what were the results?

  • Works well independently – You take tests/write papers independently, and at least do some
    parts of homework assignments independently (divide/conquer).

    >>Sample counter‐point: Have you worked independently in previous jobs? For example, your boss gave you a deliverable, you clarified the objective, and then you worked on it for a couple days to complete it, getting around roadblocks as they came up. You then turned it in, and s/he did a happy dance because it beyond what they were expecting.

  • Intelligent – Students with higher GPAs might be assumed to be more intelligent than students with lower GPAs.

    >>Sample counter‐point: How have you scored on standardized tests? Is your major likely to be perceived as more rigorous? How have you done relative to other people in that major?

  • Achieving – A high GPA, especially at a tougher school and/or major, is an achievement in itself. It may be enough to catch a recruiter’s eye to see what other achievements you have.

    >>Sample counter‐point: Performance on case competitions, or examples of quantifiable results a team/organization achieved under your leadership.

While I can’t prove the causation between explaining how I had some brains despite my lower GPA and securing interviews, it appears to me to be a strong correlation, and it can’t hurt to directly address any perceived weaknesses that you have can not immediately improve.

Posted in: Cover Letters