An Inside the AdCom reader recently submitted this question about bringing up low undergrad grades by taking graduate courses. In general, it can be a good strategy to do well in higher level coursework than courses you did less well in. The risk in not doing well is explored below.
“You sort of alluded to this already, but what if an applicant’s grades aren’t strong to begin with (say, less than 3.0) and they take a graduate level class to demonstrate capability, but then end up getting a C+ in that class? How bad does that look, even if the class was really hard? (not that this has ever happened to me, no way)”
This is a difficult position to be in because of the premise that taking the course is intended to demonstrate capability. If this class is specifically relevant (and important) for the grad program in question, then a C+ is likely a setback – even if it was a hard class. Now if you take other similarly difficult courses, or those that address the particular skills developed in that class (quant, analytical, etc.), you can minimize the impact of this single course. Additionally, if there were external factors or circumstances that caused lower performance in this course, you can discuss why it is not likely to happen again in grad school.
Bottom line: earning a low grade in a graduate course that you hoped would strengthen your application will not help you and it may have irreparably harmed the application. The key is to compartmentalize the weak score, and surround it with higher qualifications that can be considered surrogates.
You can submit graduate admissions questions or topics for review on Inside the AdCom and are invited to do so by using the “Submit Questions” link at the top of the page.