by Brian DeChesare Comments (37)

How to Overcome a Low GPA in Investment Banking Interviews

Low GPA Investment Banking

What’s the single most difficult weakness to overcome in an interview?

You might think of a long list: Lack of work experience, lack of finance knowledge, a non-target school, or the inability to work 80+ hours per week consistently.

But I’d say the most challenging one is a low GPA.

For any other weakness, you could think of reasonable explanations – for example, you couldn’t afford a top school, or you got interested in finance very late.

By contrast, there are almost no good explanations for why you earned low grades consistently over a long period, such as 2-4 years.

Most online advice on this topic tells you to “network intensely” or “use your activities and work experience to compensate for low grades.”

Yes, sure, that’s all well and good… but even if you do that, you’ll still need a cover story to address your grades and explain why they don’t represent your potential.

Here’s what I recommend:

First: What is a “Low GPA”?

Most people would say that anything below a 3.5 / 4.0 in the U.S. and anything below a 2:1 in the U.K. counts as “low” (for other countries, you can make the conversion).

Grades below those levels don’t necessarily mean that banks will reject you right away, but they do make it harder to win interviews through the normal process.

But there are limits to that statement; for example, if you have below a 3.0 GPA in the U.S., then banks may reject you just based on that.

Grades are also more contextual than people acknowledge.

For example, if you attended a top 5 university, majored in engineering, and completed 2-3 finance internships, a 3.3 – 3.4 GPA is not the end of the world.

But if you went to a non-target school, majored in history, and completed 0 finance internships, then a 3.3 – 3.4 GPA may be the end of the world.

There’s more tolerance for lower grades if you picked a difficult major (math, science, engineering, etc.) or went to a top school, and less tolerance if you went to Podunk U. or majored in something perceived as “easier.”

Also, low grades are more of a problem for the most “prestigious” front-office roles: Investment banking, private equity, etc.

You could still win middle or back-office roles with a lower GPA, and you could also win non-IB-but-still-revenue-generating roles such as ones in commercial real estate or real estate lending.

The Cold, Harsh Truth About Low Grades

If you’ve earned a low GPA over several years, industries such as investment banking and private equity are probably not right for you.

Earning good grades in university and performing well in entry-level finance roles require the same skill sets: Picking the right classes (groups), completing assignments (models and presentations) on time, working under time pressure, and following instructions from your superiors.

You can certainly get a high-paying job even if you have low grades – plenty of salespeople earned a 3.0 on the academic scale but a 4.0 on the social scale.

But you’re probably not the right candidate for a high-paying job in highly structured industries such as finance.

“But wait!” you say, “I have a great explanation for my low GPA!”

To which I respond, “Think again.”

Why You Can’t Explain Away a Low GPA

To understand why most explanations come up short, think about how an interviewer might respond to you:

Attempt #1:

You: I had to work full-time to support my family while taking classes and participating in activities.

Interviewer: So, you’re saying you can’t multi-task and handle stress effectively?

Attempt #2:

You: I wanted to pursue medicine in my first year, so I took a lot of biology/chemistry classes that I wasn’t that interested in – but my grades improved a lot after that.

Interviewer: So, you’re saying you can’t do well with tasks that do not interest you personally?

Attempt #3:

You: One of my immediate family members died in my first year, so I had to take some time away from school – but my grades improved in the next semester onward.

Interviewer: OK, understood. But that was just one semester. You did so poorly that you earned a 3.0 overall GPA over several years?

Attempt #4:

You: My university has grade deflation, so a 3.0 there is like a 3.5 from other schools.

Interviewer: OK, but couldn’t you have taken easier classes to boost your grades? Also, can we hire someone from your school who earned a 3.5 GPA instead?

Attempt #5:

You: I had a crazy girlfriend who tried to kill my cat, and I got so stressed out that I had to take time away from school.

Interviewer: This interview is over. Please leave.

In my view, there are only two not-completely-terrible explanations for a low GPA:

  • Own Up to It and Explain How It Doesn’t Represent Your Skills – Admit that you weren’t as focused as you should have been, especially in your first year, but that the results from your work experience prove that you can perform on the job (e.g., top salesperson, only intern to receive a return offer, stock pitches that returned 30% in one year, etc.).
  • Tell a “I Screwed Up Once, But Have Improved Since Then” Story – Say that you switched majors or socialized too much or had another issue early on that you quickly resolved, and point to your improved grades or other results (standardized scores, CFA, GMAT, etc.) since then.

These explanations work if your GPA is low, but not terrible.

For example, if you have a 3.3 after 1.5 years, an interviewer might believe that a single bad semester was responsible.

But if you have a 2.5, this story would not work so well.

What NOT to Do

It’s almost easier to explain what to avoid since there are so many terrible ideas out there:

  • Leave Your Grades Off Your Resume/CV – This is a terrible idea. If you do not list your grades anywhere, people will assume the worst.
  • Lie – The potential downside (a rescinded offer and being blacklisted at other firms) far outweighs the potential upside here.
  • Give Long/Complicated Explanations for Your Grades – The more detailed your story, the more you draw attention to the problem and give the interviewer chances to find plot holes.
  • List Your “Pro-Forma Adjusted GPA” – It’s OK to list a Cumulative and Major GPA, but beyond that, don’t play games with showing grades only from certain years, or, even worse, “expected grades.”

So, What Do You Do?

Even if you come up with a not-so-terrible explanation for your low GPA, you’ll still need something to offset it.

Also, if you anticipate low grades in the future due to a difficult major or other circumstances, you should think of ways to address the issue.

A few ideas include:

1) Front-Load the Easy Classes

Since IB recruiting now operates on a hyper-accelerated schedule where banks recruit interns 1.5 years in advance, your GPA in your first 1.0 – 1.5 years makes the biggest difference.

So, front-load your schedule with as many easy classes as possible and save the harder ones for later in undergrad.

Even if your 4-year GPA isn’t great, you might already have a full-time offer by then.

2) Take the GMAT, GRE, or CFA – If You Have the Time

This one is not a great idea if you’re a first or second-year student concerned about a potentially low GPA.

Studying for these exams takes up a lot of time, and your time is better spent on networking and winning internships at this stage.

However, if you make it to your final year, your GPA isn’t great, and you have some time because you already have a full-time offer lined up, completing one of these exams could be a good idea.

It’s possible to receive questions about your GPA even in private equity recruiting, and your explanation will be stronger if you can point to a 750 GMAT score.

3) Complete a “Summer Finance” or Other Continuing Education Program

You can sometimes compensate for a lower GPA with this type of program, and if you find one that only lasts for a few weeks, you can fit it in between internships.

There’s a good story from a student who used this strategy to make up for a 3.4 GPA and an unknown school right here.

4) Perform Exceptionally Well in Accounting/Finance Classes

If your cumulative grades aren’t great, you could take classes that are directly relevant for investment banking (accounting, finance, etc.), earn perfect grades in them, and use that to counter objections about your GPA.

This one might be viable if you didn’t do well in your first year and you’re now preparing for internship recruiting in your second year.

5) Use Cold Calling Rather Than Cold Emailing

Cold emailing tends to work well if you have a top university name, you’ve worked for well-known companies, and you have good grades.

Also, students tend to be more comfortable with cold emailing because they’re scared of using the phone.

But if you have a low GPA, or you went to a non-target school, or you have other academic issues, you might get better results with cold calling.

The advantage is that you don’t need to give your full academic background upfront – you can give a quick introduction, and if you’re persistent and good at handling rejection, you can get results.

Our best “cold call story” is this one, from a reader at an unknown state school.

He did have a good GPA, but he still faced objections over his grades because bankers tend to assume that a 3.8 at an unknown school is equivalent to a 2.0 at Harvard.

6) Use Your Work Product to Network

In fields like equity research, you can get good results by contacting professionals and attaching an example of a report or stock pitch you’ve written – as long as it’s halfway decent.

You can do something similar for hedge fund roles (though contact information is harder to find), and potentially even for consulting and private equity at smaller firms.

This strategy won’t work well for IB roles at the large firms, but if you have a low GPA, it won’t matter since you’ll have to focus on boutiques.

Low GPAs – Mission: Impossible?

Earning low grades makes it very difficult to win traditional investment banking roles.

You can still do it if you can find a way to explain your results and counter objections, but it’s not easy.

And with recruiting moving up earlier, many “I messed up in my first year but improved since then” stories will become less viable.

To get around a low GPA, you need to be brutally honest with yourself – do you not have the work ethic or focus required to earn good grades?

Or can you find a reasonable explanation and point to success in other areas to prove that you can do the job?

If it’s the latter, you might find a front-office role despite your grades.

If it’s the former, then you might want to start thinking about non-finance roles. Sales is always hiring!

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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Comments

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  1. Hi Brian,

    I am from a target school in Hong Kong with a quantitative marketing and buisness management degree. I have a gpa of 3.0/4.0. I want to aim for operations/ marketing or supporting roles or corporate banking rather than front office. I have a year long experience as an intern in HSBC insurance finance team, and a sales/marketing internship in a marketing company. I did okay in year 1 (3.3/4) but in year 2 because of some medication I was taking (at the time I did not realise until i was off the medication) was making be depressed and lethargic. I am back at school as a third year student and so far my midterms indicate I will get at 3.5-3.7 range this semester. How do you see my chances of getting a supporting role in a bank and how would you advise I strategize so I can overcome my gpa?

    1. I don’t think it will be as much of an issue for corporate banking or other supporting roles, so you won’t need to spend as much time thinking about how to explain it.

      1. Hi Brian, Thank you so much for the quick reply. It is very appreciated.

        How do think my chances are for getting into those supporting roles? Should I consider perhaps giving up career aspirations in banking altogether?

  2. Brian,
    Thanks for addressing this issue. I am an undergrad in my third year from a top target school in Canada. I started as a mathematics major and recently switched to economics and finance honors program. Both programs are GPA killer. Having a 3.5+ in these programs are very rare. I have a cGPA of 3.2 but my finance GPA is 3.9. I had one terrible semester, where I had a 2.0 due to personal illness. I had more than five solid internships (including investment banking & big 4 corporate finance) in canada and middle east. I got almost perfect score last semester.

    I am having a difficult time to recruit for any top IB internship in Canada. I believe that I have a great resume but my GPA is not helping me win first round interviews. I networked a lot too.

    What do you advise? I have a lot of experience in this field and I am really set on IB/PE.

    Thanks a lot.

    1. Yes, Canada is a small market, so it tends to be very competitive even if you’re at one of the ~5 best schools there for IB recruiting. If you’ve already networked a lot and applied to everything you can, other options might be:

      1) Apply to pension funds or other finance roles outside of IB (https://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/canadian-pension-fund-jobs/).

      2) Go beyond Canada and apply to roles in the U.S., U.K., or other places that have more firms and hiring opportunities.

      3) Apply for a top Master’s in Finance program in the U.S. or U.K. and use that and a higher GPA there to move into finance.

  3. Thanks for the article,

    I’m a rising junior at a target school for many of the large banks, but I’m more interested in the middle-market banks. I have a 3.0 GPA, but I’m also an Economics major at a top 10 university. I’ll admit I screwed around a couple semesters but since, I’ve been locked in and I’ve been keeping up with Wall Street Journal, the stock market, virtually everything finance you can think of, everyday, and I’d like to say I’m well-informed, and I have grit and drive to succeed. What’re my chances landing an IB internship?

    Thanks

    1. Impossible to say without knowing your internship history, activities, amount of networking, etc. One thing to be aware of is that you are already late because summer 2019 recruiting started in *February 2018*. So if you are already about to be a junior, you need to start networking ASAP to have any shot of winning the roles that are left.

  4. Monkeyboti

    Hi Brian.

    I’m a sophomore pursuing dual degree in Statistics and Finance in Agribusiness at Chicago MM target school (UW Madison, Illinois, IU, etc). I have 3.35 GPA and doing corporate development(M&A) internship this summer. My plan is bring my GPA by 3.5 next semester and prepare for SA recruiting for the next Summer. When i ask my supervisor and coworkers, who used to be bankers, they told me my experience so far looks solid. Do you think I have a good chance to land SA position?

    1. If you network heavily, yes.

      1. Thank you for your answer. I heard some people said that don’t even start networking if I have a low GPA. Is this true? Or should I start networking a year before SA recruitment?

        1. I would say that’s bad advice because a 3.35 GPA isn’t that bad – it’s not ideal, but it’s not like a 2.5 GPA. You can just round it to 3.4 if asked about it. Recruiting starts so early that you have to start networking early because summer spots start filling up *over a year in advance* in the current environment. It’s much better to start networking earlier than to wait and boost your GPA from 3.35 to 3.5.

          1. I really appreciate your comment Brian ! Also, do you have any advice how to utilize my supervisor’s connection from my internship? He was in JP Morgan for 10 years, so he seems to know A LOT of people in M&A industry who are vP or higher. I’m just not sure how to ask my supervisor to refer me since he’s so busy.

          2. I don’t know, just ask him. Use one of the email templates on this site if you don’t know what to say.

  5. Hi Brian:

    Thanks for your information and your sites have been super useful to me.
    I am a recent graduate and had previous summer experience in a consulting firm. I am scheduled to talk with a senior MD of an IB boutique firm. I know they are now recruiting for summer internships already. Given my status, should I talk him about my interest in off cycle internship or FT job? I am open to both as long as I can be sure that one has a higher chance of getting an interview than the other. I am a math and econ major with finance and accounting backgrounds and I went to a relatively good liberal arts college. I know I can do the job but do you recommend going for internship instead? Do you think they provide internship in say August? And training in that internship? Thanks

    Next is a product question so you can reply to my email if it is better for you. I really wanna get your interview and networking guide, but I don’t think I can afford it as I am currently unemployed. Is there a possibility that I can get the access on a monthly basis? Thanks.

    I wish much success to you and have a good night.

    Best
    Sidney

    1. I would ask about an off-cycle internship because you have a higher chance of winning one. The timing varies, but it’s possible they could do it in August. Training is extremely unlikely at a boutique firm.

      We don’t offer a monthly plan for those courses, but you could potentially pay in 2-3 installments if you contact us via the contact form and ask about it.

  6. Hi Brian,

    I’m going into my junior year and currently have a 2.99 GPA at a target school. I’m taking two summer classes this summer and hope to have a 3.11 by the time the fall rolls around. I am not working this summer, yet I interned at a hedge fund during the fall. Would you recommend taking advantage of the early application deadlines or do you think I should wait to get my grades back from both of my classes? Also, do you think I will have trouble trying to acquire a front office role?

    Thanks!

    1. A 3.0 vs. a 3.1 won’t make a significant difference, so you need to apply ASAP to have a good shot. Many summer 2019 roles are already taken, but there might still be some left. I think you’ll have a tough time at large banks with a GPA in that range, but you might still be able to win IB offers at smaller firms via networking.

  7. Hi Brian,
    I am from India and have completed my MBA.
    I could not get the roles what I wanted and I am heading towards WUSTL MSF.
    I have done a 5 month internship in IB controls division of a BB and two small internships in the field of valuation and risk management.
    Is it possible for me to break into IB/PE roles.

    1. I think you’re going to have trouble explaining why you completed an MBA and then enrolled in an MSF program. If you can get some type of school-year internships that are relevant for IB/PE, then yes, maybe, but it will still be difficult because of the MBA/MSF issue and the fact that WUSTL is not much of a target for IB roles.

      1. Thanks for the reply.
        So which schools according to you are targets for IB/PE roles for masters candidates.

  8. How is a low undergrad GPA regarded when recruiting from a top business school? I am attending an M7 next year, yet my undergrad GPA was a 2.97. I hope to offset it with a 770 GMAT in the recruiting process, but do you think that this will hinder my ability to recruit?

    Than you and as always, your advice is much appreciated

    1. It could still come up and hurt you, but it will be less of an issue if you’re at a top business school and you have a high GMAT score. I would just round your GPA to 3.0 and, if it comes up in interviews, explain it with a “I wasn’t focused in my first year of undergrad” story.

  9. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the insight. I am an avid supporter of your articles.

    I’m from a target school (top 2 uni) in Australia. I graduated with a 3.0/4.0 GPA ( 1.8 GPA in the first year, 3.8 GPA in the second and third year). I really messed up the first year. In my CV, can I state a 3.8 GPA (excluding first year) after a 3.0 GPA?

    I have an incoming Summer School (Finance, M&A), which lasts two weeks. I hope to put Summer Finance GPA on my CV. I also plan to study CFA, find some solid internships and network well. Am I on the right direction? Thanks in advance Brian!

    1. Yes, that sounds fine.

  10. Thanks for this article. I have a 3.6 and thought that I screwed up my life and that it would be considered “too low”. I now feel much better about where I stand.

    1. A 3.6 is generally fine. You may get some questions if you’re from a non-target university, but it won’t be an interrogation.

      1. Yes. I figured. It’s really weird though because all of the other students had said that it’s awful but all of the people that I networked with either said nothing or said that it was good/ok.

  11. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for addressing this; I feel like a lot of people are left in a pool of ambiguity, struggling to get into banking with a low GPA. I have a 2.9 GPA from a state school but a 3.7 (currently still enrolled) in my MBA program at a different university in state. I enrolled in the program partly to offset my undergrad gpa. I have an opportunity to work at a large insurance company as a financial advisor of sorts, where they said they’d sponsor me for all of my FINRA licensing. My question is, where exactly do I stand with investment firms with my MBA and could working at this insurance company help at all or even hurt me?

    1. I don’t think the insurance company role would help you that much because it tends to be difficult to move from insurance/financial advisory into the roles normally discussed on this site. You might be able to use it to win a similar role at a large bank and then move somewhere else from there. But I would not recommend this if you have other options, such as corporate finance, Big 4 firms, or even working at a small asset management firm.

      If you have full-time work experience, the MBA should help you. But it will still be tough to get into banking since large banks only recruit from the top few MBA programs. Outside of those, it is tough to get in unless you target regional boutiques.

      In short, I think it would be tough to move into a traditional IB role, but you could probably win other front-office roles with your background.

  12. Does this hold true after graduation as well? Or will banks care more about your work experience, especially if the experience is in something related (Valuation etc.)?

    1. Questions on your GPA could still come up after graduation, but work experience tends to matter more and more. It’s not unheard of to get questions about your GPA even a few years after graduation, though, especially if it wasn’t that high.

  13. Its Time for The Perculator

    Thanks for doing this! I was going to address my issue on another article.

    Im at this regional boutique for almost a year now and Im wondering how much of a problem it would be for me in terms of my 2.3-2.5 GPA. Im focusing on MM or other relatable boutiques or IBABs. I know that BBs and EBs would be a stretch a perhaps a waste of time to gun after? I havent been able to take the GMAT because I have not considered an MBA. What other means can I go about this? Taking classes on ones I messed up on in college at an accelerated program at a community college? I managed to do well in my interviews and case studies for the role I landed (M&A financial modeling and DCF). They tackled my GPA problem where I was at and managed to mention all my IB internships and finance competitions as a gauge that I can do the work. Thanks in advance Brian!

    1. Unfortunately, you’re guaranteed to get questions about a 2.3 – 2.5 GPA even if you have full-time work experience. Without knowing your background or explanation for those grades, it’s tough to say what to do, but the best strategy is probably to say that you really messed up in your first year of university, but your GPA does not represent your skills since you’ve done well in this IB role over the last year. I’m not sure classes would help much at this point. Maybe studying for the CFA or mentioning it would help a bit. I think this would fall under the category of “Point to other evidence that you can do the job well and don’t try to explain your grades that much.”

      1. Its Time for The Perculator

        Thanks Brian for your response and advice there especially where you mentioned “pointing to other evidence that I can do the job”.

        One last follow followup question I have is in terms of a bad GPA on a resume. I have been told to keep it off because it can only hurt you to include it, but what you consider adding “currently studying for the CFA, or below education include the series exams I have passed so far? Perhaps they wont dinge me if my resume mirrors the position nicely but perhaps they will address it in person so Im ready. Again, thanks Brian for your help!

        1. In this case, I think it might actually make sense to leave off your GPA if it’s 2.3 – 2.5. I would definitely add the CFA note under Education.

          1. Its Time for The Perculator

            Thanks so much Brian greatly appreciate your help!

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