Is a Low GPA a Bar to a Future in Finance?

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Q. I am 25 and I have two bachelor degrees, in mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering, though my undergraduate GPA (about 2.0) stinks. Five years from now, I want to be working in the finance industry in either i-banking, corporate finance, trading, M&A or venture capital. With my low GPA, I was wondering whether pursuing a master's degree part-time this fall would boost my chances of getting into a top business school. Would it?

A. If you are hungry for a career at a top-notch financial services firm, you had better set your sights on a top-notch business school-the more elite, the better.

"The perceived quality of the academic institution will affect the universe of firms willing to consider you for entry level employment," says recruiter Peter Gonye at Spencer Stuart. "Without the support of a highly reputable graduate degree from a leading academic institution, your chances of attracting an offer-all other things being equal-are substantially diminished."

You are also justified in worrying about your below-average grades. "Your low GPA could indeed affect the entrance requirements for one of these schools, provided there were no mitigating circumstances, such as pursuing two degrees simultaneously," says outplacement consultant Rod Williams at Lee Hecht Harrison.

But he believes that pursuing a master's in business, finance, accounting or information systems, and earning solid B+ or better, could indeed boost your chances, particularly when paired with a stellar GMAT score.

These accomplishments "could help demonstrate your ability to matriculate at an advanced level," says Williams.

Keep in mind that firms want more than just a pedigree: they want the best of the best. "Academic achievement evidenced by high grades, and/or interesting and provocative thesis papers, etcetera, is frequently almost obligatory to gain entry into many firms' training programs," says Gonye. As for bleaching the stain of your earlier academic record, he says, "If you have offsetting positive accomplishments and recognitions to demonstrate to prospective employers, these will certainly help offset the initial neutral to negative impression created by a weak academic record. Fortifying your prospects with internships and other relevant industry-based experiences can only help your cause."

As far as preparation for a specific job in the industry, Gonye offers a couple of suggestions. If you envision yourself in a trading-oriented role, hone your ability to assess relative value with business experience in bartering, for example, where you assess the value of what you have against something you want to trade for. A degree in quantitative science, applied mathematics, engineering, and things of that nature "would clearly prove a quantitative orientation," says Gonye.

If you are determined to work in sales, however, there is no academic credential that will sell you. "It's more your ability to work within organizations, your ability to gain peoples' trust inside and outside the organization," says Gonye.

While rehabilitating your academic past will be challenging, it may not be as hard as you fear once your harness your determination, now amply seasoned with experience. You have nothing to fear but fear itself, and nowhere to go but up. Best of luck with your journey.

If you would like to submit a question to our panel of experts, ASK THE EXPERT.

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