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Transcripts Not All They Could Be? Try an Alternative

If you're looking for ways to get started on your b-school applications for next fall, here's a suggestion: contact your undergraduate school (or schools) and request copies of your transcripts for your own use.

You might want to sit down before you look at the print-outs your college sends you. It can be a shock when you see the results of 4 or more years of classes laid out on a sheet of paper. Even if you graduated with a respectable overall GPA, you might find yourself suddenly and rudely reminded of an academic misstep that had previously faded to a vague blip in your memory. What's worse is that, on paper, a single sub-par grade can seem to cast a shadow over your entire academic record. That can be a real problem, since that piece of paper is what the b-school admissions committees will use to size up your undergraduate achievements.

Of course, there's nothing you can do to change your transcripts now. All you can do is assess how much of a problem you might be dealing with and take steps to mitigate that weakness in other parts of your application.

If your problem is a single poor grade in a subject that you can otherwise show you have mastered – for example, if you failed a quant-intensive course in college but have since demonstrated your quant skills at work, and got a high score on the quant section of the GMAT – you may not need to do anything more than to explain the circumstances behind the poor grade in an optional essay.

But if your problem is broader than that – say, if you never got above a B-minus in a quant-intensive course and your GMAT score is only average – you'll have to work harder to mitigate the damage.

One option is to create what's called an 'alternative transcript' of additional courses.

You can build an alternative transcript by taking classes at a local college or university, either for credit or on a non-credit basis. A good-quality on-line course might be another option.

"An alternative transcript is a good way to offer 'proof' to an Admissions Committee to support your claim that an undergrad grade, or your GMAT score, is not truly indicative of your quantitative abilities. Without such substantiation, why should they believe your claim?" says Senior Consultant Nicole Witt.

"The fact that you've gone to the effort to build an alternative transcript also communicates to an Admissions Committee that you're truly committed to pursuing your MBA," she adds. "It shows dedication, determination and perseverance – all of which are qualities that can only help to boost your candidacy."

Some questions to ask yourself in choosing classes for an alternative transcript are:

Is this class at the right level to mitigate my application weakness? For example, if your weakness lies in your perceived quant skills, it probably won't do you much good to take an introductory-level mathematics course. You'll need to show the admissions committees that you can handle quant work at the graduate level.

Will this class look credible on my alternative transcript? It won't do you any good to ace a class unless the admissions committee believes it was a credible program. Ask yourself what you would be able to say if asked to give specifics about what material the class covered and what the teacher's qualifications and standards were.

Will this class be useful to me apart from providing an item on my alternative transcript? You'll be committing a significant amount of money and time to the class or classes you take to build an alternative transcript. You may as well get the most back from that investment. Ask yourself whether the material you'll learn will be useful in your work or future studies.

Whatever class you decide to take for an alternative transcript, make sure you commit yourself to doing your best in it. A good grade will not only show that you can master the material in question, but also that you have the motivation and discipline to perform well in a class setting.

– Nicole is a Cornell MBA who has served on the Johnson School admissions committee.

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