Actually, I lied.
Grades and test scores are a few of my least favorite things, but that doesn’t stop the questions from flowing in.
So let’s do a deep-dive into grades and test scores and learn how much they matter, for whom they’re most important, and what to do if your undergraduate BAC was higher than your undergraduate GPA.
The Biggest Myth
If you browse around online, you’ll see lots of questions on message boards that look like this:
“Help! I have a 3.2 GPA and 2000 SAT score from a non-target school, solid leadership activities, and an internship in private wealth management. Can I break into IB?”
This person is misinformed, though, because it doesn’t work like this.
First off, grades and test scores are far more important for university and business/law school admissions than they are for getting into banking.
But even there, grades and test scores play a similar role to what they do in investment banking: they’re a way to eliminate people.
Having extremely high grades and test scores won’t get you into banking, but having low scores could easily keep you out.
So Do They Actually Matter?
It depends on your background – they matter more if you’re from a non-target school (one where most banks do not recruit for front-office, client-facing positions) and if you haven’t had much finance experience.
At the MBA level, they matter even less because banks mostly care about where you went to business school and how prestigious it was.
The “cutoff” for grades is at least a 3.5 / 4.0 GPA in the US, and a 2:1 in the UK; in other countries it varies according to the grading system used, but the general idea is, “You don’t have to be perfect, but you should have at least an 85% overall.”
If you have grades lower than that, you can still break into investment banking – it will just be more difficult, and applying online will not work as well.
Test scores matter even less than the grades, with the possible exception of the A-Levels in the UK – which still come up even for graduate recruitment.
There’s no official “cutoff,” but you want mostly As and Bs, at least in the more quantitative subjects.
With the SAT in the US, anything above a 2100 / 2400 (or 1400 / 1600 in the old system) is considered a “good” score and should be listed on your resume.
Other tests like the GMAT and GRE are fine to take if you have the time, but they matter even less than the SAT and A-Levels.
Each country has different standardized tests, so I can’t possibly cover everything here – but once again, banks look for that “85% or above” range.
Why I Can’t Stand This Topic
Back when I was in high school, a school photographer posted an embarrassing picture of me online. I had horrible hair, I wasn’t looking at the camera, and it looked like I was stoned.
I spent hours trying to take it down and emailed and called countless people to get him to remove it, but none of it worked (years later, it finally came down naturally when the site went offline).
And that’s why it’s stupid to obsess over your grades and test scores: you cannot change the past.
Short of inventing time travel and hopping through a wormhole to the past, you’re stuck with the scores you have.
There are much better, more productive uses of your time than worrying about grades and scores you earned in ancient times.
What to Do If Your Grades and Test Scores Are Low
“But wait,” you say, “What if my scores are really low? No bank will ever hire me! My future is ruined!”
First, that’s probably not true unless they’re really low (i.e. under a 2.0 GPA).
And even if they are that low, you still have a number of options available:
Retake the Tests
If you’re in the US, you could retake the SAT if you bombed it – but elsewhere in the world it’s not always possible to retake standardized tests.
If it is possible and studying for the test won’t take an inordinate amount of time, retaking the exam is the fastest way to fix your scores.
If you can’t do that or your grades are the key issue, keep reading.
Switch Your Major / Study More / Take Easier Classes to Boost Your Grades
It is much better to pick an easier major and earn high grades in it than to pick a difficult one and earn grades below the “cutoffs” above.
Engineering, math, physics, and related majors are generally the most difficult – so if your GPA is low and heading lower, switch to something like accounting or finance, earn higher grades, and turn your original major into a minor instead.
If you’re partying all the time and never studying, stop drinking and start thinking – yes, it’s good to meet people, but if you can’t maintain decent grades you’ll have a very difficult time getting a high-paying job in finance.
Another approach is to take easy classes to boost your GPA whenever possible. At my university I made up for a difficult major (engineering) by taking lots of language classes that were easy A’s.
Get Other Certifications / Take Other Tests
Yes, you read that correctly: I’m actually suggesting certifications for once.
The main one that carries weight in finance is the CFA, which I’m not a huge fan of – but it is an option.
But if you’re already out of school and you want to re-brand yourself and apply to banks but you have a low GPA, the CFA might almost be a good idea.
You could also take other tests – namely the GMAT or GRE – to hide lower grades, SAT scores, or A-Levels.
Unfortunately, none of this will work 100% because they’ll still look at your undergraduate GPA and test scores from high school / secondary school.
But seeing a 710 on the GMAT may make it a little easier for banks to accept that 600 on your math SAT.
Complete a Master’s Program
This one doesn’t work if you’re already in an MBA program, and it can be expensive and time-consuming – but you also get plenty of other benefits, such as better access to recruiters.
They will still look at your undergraduate performance, but doing well in a top Master’s program makes it easier to accept a spotty track record before that.
I would not recommend an MBA program just to fix low grades or test scores – it’s so expensive that it’s only worth doing if you truly need it to break into the industry.
Network Like a Ninja
This is the ultimate – and not-so-sexy – solution to low grades and test scores.
Rather than going through official channels by applying online and through your school’s career center, go around them by contacting bankers yourself, setting up informational interviews, weekend trips, and even cold calling.
Networking works in the US and UK, but in other regions it may be less effective – it’s still worth a shot, but your results may not be as good elsewhere.
Here are a few interviews with readers to get you started on your way to networking like a ninja:
You’ll see that many of the interviewees had low grades and test scores, but got in anyway through persistence and never taking “no” for an answer.
It’s time-consuming and ego-bruising, but if nothing else works, networking is the only way to get around low scores.
More on Grades and Test Scores
For even more, check out these articles on the topic:
Thanks for reading, and see you again in a few days.
P.S. Get here from an email forward, a friend’s link, or a random Google search?
This lesson is part of The Banker Blueprint newsletter – which gives you all the tips and insider information you need to break into investment banking. Learn more about it and sign up here.