The 'what ifs' are getting to me.
February 23, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

How much would a 3.4 college gpa limit me in terms of grad school?

I'm in my last year of undergrad studying sociology/anthropology and it looks like my final gpa is going to be a 3.4 which is fine but not outstanding for my major. I wasn't (and still am not) planning to go to grad school, but it is very possible that I will sometime in the future if it seems like a good idea in a year or ten.

Because I wasn't planning on going to grad school, I didn't do a lot of things that I could have done to get my gpa higher-- the obvious one being work harder, but also I took a lot of classes outside of my major that I thought would be interesting even though I knew I wouldn't necessarily do well in them, I never took anything pass/fail, I pretty much always took 17 or 18 credits even when I didn't need to, I focused a lot on my part time internship outside of school, I chose to write an optional senior thesis which I didn't get gpa credit for but which took up a ton of my time and affected my grades senior year, and I did a semester study abroad program which lowered my gpa because of different grading standards.

Anyway, I may never apply to grad school, but in my last semester I'm starting to wonder (now that I can't do anything about it) how seriously I may have limited my choices for grad school if I decide to go in the future (in social sciences or in education probably). I go to a school that is pretty well regarded by grad schools, and my writing and references would be good.

so, I guess this is a two part question-- have I limited my options for a good grad program, and if and when I apply to a grad program, should I explain some of the reasons that my gpa is pretty average or would that just be seen as obnoxious rationalizing?
posted by geegollygosh to Education (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know people who have gotten into good grad programs with similar (and worse) GPAs. For their programs - mostly social sciences and humanities - their GPAs seemed to matter less if the person had been out in the working world for a while. Excellent recommendations, being able to express clearly what they wanted out of grad school, and being a good fit for the program seemed to count more heavily (assuming the GRE scores were above the cutoff).
posted by rtha at 10:09 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


the obvious one being work harder, but also I took a lot of classes outside of my major that I thought would be interesting even though I knew I wouldn't necessarily do well in them

So that 3.4 is overall? What's your in-major GPA?
posted by endless_forms at 10:12 AM on February 23, 2011


I had a similar GPA (3.35 at SMU) and really had no problems getting into the grad school of my choice, the trick being, of course, that I knew my limitations and didn't apply at any Ivy League schools. I went in History and got accepted at: UC-Davis, Binghmaton U., University of Delaware, Indiana University (all with full stipend) and Wisconsin and University of Texas (half and no stipend, respectively). What the admissions people will look at, maybe more than your GPA is how you did in the classes that are relevant to the degree program you are applying in, your GRE scores, your writing sample, and, I have been told, most importantly, your letters of recommendation. A letter of recommendation from a respected professor in your field of study will get you further than your GPA or any of the other factors at so-called second-tier universities. I had a letter from a guy named Edward Countryman who is kind of a giant in the field of American Revolution studies and was told "once we saw that you had a letter from Ed, we didn't even look at the rest of your application).
posted by holdkris99 at 10:16 AM on February 23, 2011


In major gpa is ~3.65.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:16 AM on February 23, 2011


As someone who has been in your position (and did a social sciences MA and now has a decent but entirely unrelated job), I am curious: Are you thinking about grad school because you're almost finished undergrad and don't know what to do? You don't really seem to give us any idea why grad school would be a favorable option for you. Do you want an academic career? If not, what sort of career do you want?

To answer the question, yes, you can get into grad school with a 3.4. People with much lower GPAs have gone on to be raging successes. People with much better GPAs have gone on to fail at life. There are too many unknown variables here to give you a solid answer. It depends on what programs and schools you're looking at, what work and research experience you have, etc, etc, etc.
posted by futureisunwritten at 10:20 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had a similar GPA (I think, I don't really remember, but I had a few more B's than A's), applied and got into and went to an Ivy League grad school in a social science. Grad schools don't care about your GPA -- there was a minimal acceptable GPA and then nobody looked at it again (same with GRE scores). Research experience, recs, and the support of/being a good match with a faculty member at the school you're applying to (so start getting in touch with them before you start applying) are way way more important. Personal statements for grad schools are not like job cover letters where you explain things in your past, they're meant to talk about what you want to research and why.
posted by brainmouse at 10:20 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


You're fine.

I'm not sure how it works in your field, but in the hard sciences, people tend to work as research assistants in the field/subfield that they eventually want to study. That, more so than undergrad, is where hard work tends to pay off, in the form of recommendations (top priority) and publications (second priority). GRE and GPA come after that, in that order.

You've missed the cutoff for starting in the Fall. What are you doing after you graduate? Look into research staff openings at your school, or anywhere else you want to live for a couple years.
posted by supercres at 10:21 AM on February 23, 2011


In response to futureisunwritten-- I don't want to go to grad school at this point. The only reason that I would go in the future is if it became necessary career-wise or if I suddenly realized that grad school was actually What I'd Always Wanted To Do (unlikely, but anything is possible.) I probably wouldn't go back to school within the next five or so years unless I wake up tomorrow with more direction in my life. To answer your question-- I definitely wouldn't go just for lack of anything better to do. I'm just having anxiety now about potentially not having left my options open.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:27 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


You should live your life as it actually happens and not worry so much about "what ifs" that are completely uncertain and also at this point outside your control (you can't go back in time and graduate with a 4.0).

When I graduated from college, I assumed I would end up going to grad school or more likely law school. Six years later, I have not felt a strong urge to do either. It's still possible that I might someday pursue a higher degree, but at this point it's more likely that said degree would come out of my career trajectory rather than my once-upon-a-time college major and that my work/life experience would come into play as an applicant more than grades earned many years ago. (And I'm still in my 20's, to put all this in perspective.)

Unless you plan to start looking into grad school options as soon as you finish school (or you're going to maybe take a year to mull it over while working a shitty service industry job), I really wouldn't worry about it.
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 AM on February 23, 2011


If you're looking to do social science graduate school at the PhD level, IME, it is much harder to wander into that world if you weren't already thinking about it as an undergraduate (and doing RAships with professors, doing honors seminars, etc.) There is an entire cadre of people that are working within the system, getting to know their professors, getting research experience and possibly publishing as undergrads. This stuff matters MUCH more than GPA or GRE score (although GPA and GRE score are signals to admissions people, but a letter of recommendation from one of their peers matters much more.)

That is not to say that there aren't people that get into PhD programs after taking time off, or without having that experience as an undergrad, but in this economic climate, it is much more challenging than it used to be.

If I were you, I'd start talking to as many professors as possible about what you would need to do to go to graduate school. Try to get an RAship NOW.
posted by k8t at 11:01 AM on February 23, 2011


I agree with K8t that, if you are seriously considering an eventual PhD in the humanities or social sciences, you should lay the groundwork for that now. In fact, I would even say that every year you spend out in the non-academic world (and especially if you settle into a career that doesn't lead towards a PhD), it becomes a little less likely that you'll return to academia.

Every single PhD holding person or PhD grad student I know started on that path while they were undergrads or very soon after finishing their B.A. If you're not contemplating it now, and have gone through your whole undergrad career without giving an eventual PhD any serious thought, chances are it's already off the table for you.

Which is not a bad thing, by any means - as you move through life, you should be honing in on what you want to do, rather than struggling to Keep All Options On The Table, Just In Case. I really wish someone had explained this to me when I graduated from college.
posted by Sara C. at 11:19 AM on February 23, 2011


Your GPA is fine and you have absolutely nothing to worry about on that front. You'll probably do equally great on the GRE. I myself graduated with an BA in Anth with a similar GPA and got accepted to every MPH program and a few of the PhD programs I applied to.

K8t is right though, if you're going for a PhD, making connections and doing undergrad research is far more important than the numbers you can rack up in classes. The internship and thesis (assuming they are related) were smart moves. For now do as much research as you can right now and build relationships with professors in your dept now (they'll be the ones writing letters of recommendation) and professors at grad programs you want to apply to (they'll be the one reading the letters). Don't hesitate to send an email to a potential mentor asking them if they're accepting new grad students. Maybe forward along a thesis topic to see if you'd be a good fit in their department. Make them know you're name (in a good way).

Finally, narrow down your thesis topic down now. I was outright told by one PhD program that they rejected me because I was basically proposing 6 different directions of research in my application. Getting a PhD in the Anth/Soc world means basically creating your own sub-field, so narrow, narrow, narrow until you have one precise question you want to answer and one clear path of how to answer it. You can always change your mind once you get accepted.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:27 AM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every single PhD holding person or PhD grad student I know started on that path while they were undergrads or very soon after finishing their B.A. If you're not contemplating it now, and have gone through your whole undergrad career without giving an eventual PhD any serious thought, chances are it's already off the table for you.

Anecdatally, this is completely untrue for the vast majority of people I know who are or have been in grad school. Some were out of undergrad for more than a decade, some switched fields, etc. So, you know, it depends. But academia is a very tough and competitive place, and it never hurts to give yourself every advantage possible.
posted by rtha at 11:30 AM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Anecdatally, this is completely untrue for the vast majority of people I know who are or have been in grad school.

Grad school for a PhD in an arts/humanities/social sciences field?
posted by Sara C. at 11:40 AM on February 23, 2011


Anecdatally, this is completely untrue for the vast majority of people I know who are or have been in grad school. Some were out of undergrad for more than a decade, some switched fields, etc.

At the PhD level? Maybe for terminal masters programs this is true, but IME, most grad cohorts are 60% straight out of undergrad and 40% in mid-late 20s with very few being older than that.
posted by k8t at 11:52 AM on February 23, 2011


Grad school for a PhD in an arts/humanities/social sciences field?

I'm in a PhD program in the humanities at an Ivy. Most of my cohort did not come straight out of undergrad, and many came from totally different career paths (law, finance, etc).

Back to the OP's question, I think a 3.4 can be a totally fine GPA for grad school if you meet one or both of two conditions: 1) your in-major GPA is a few points higher; 2) your GPA improved each semester so that the lower grades are clustered near the beginning of your undergrad career.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:06 PM on February 23, 2011


Yeah again with my ivy league social science Ph.D. (no terminal masters degree) program... sure some of the people were straight out of college or a couple years of research after college, but definitely not all, there were several who had switched fields, were older, had non-traditional paths, etc. I think the more this is true for you the less your undergrad GPA matters and the more the other stuff matters.
posted by brainmouse at 12:16 PM on February 23, 2011


i got into a masters program and med school with a 3.4 gpa. It's not impossible by any means, but as holdkris99 wisely pointed out, you have to know your limitations in order to be successful! I also didn't apply to any Ivys. well maybe one, but as a reach school that i wasn't expecting to get into anyway. also, since i couldn't go back in time and change my grades* i simply poured as much energy as possible into prepping for the GRE/MCAT. doing that really pays off- it basically proves that, ok, your grades weren't amazing when you were young and immature, but you're able to pull it together now and perform well with the material. i think if you ever go to grad school, just take the GRE seriously, study hard, and kill it and you'll be totally fine.

*ok technically you can improve your gpa by taking more classes and doing well in them. but committing to killing the standardized test, in my opinion, is more time effective.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:40 PM on February 23, 2011


so, I guess this is a two part question-- have I limited my options for a good grad program, and if and when I apply to a grad program, should I explain some of the reasons that my gpa is pretty average or would that just be seen as obnoxious rationalizing?

I'd say 1) not really, and 2) it would come off as rationalizing. My GPA was actually even lower (even though I wrote that it was a 3.4 here, ha! -- embarrassment appears to have inflated it over the years) and I'm at a top 10 grad program now, although I'm in the natural sciences and the other caveats in that older post still apply.

I chose to write an optional senior thesis

Just wanted to say that this was definitely a smart choice if you might be interested in grad school. If your thesis advisor was happy with your work that could definitely open some doors. (Also they might be able to answer questions about e.g. the reputations of different departments.)
posted by en forme de poire at 1:23 PM on February 23, 2011


Also, I'm not sure people are actually saying this but to be totally clear, I don't agree that you shouldn't apply to Ivy League schools. If you had a 1.7 I might advise you to save yourself the fee, but with your numbers I wouldn't preemptively take myself out of the running. Let them make the decision about whether or not they want you in their program -- you never know what someone might see in your application. Instead, I would build a list of departments you like that covers both less and more selective institutions, just like you would do if you were applying to college (but maybe on a bit smaller scale).
posted by en forme de poire at 1:36 PM on February 23, 2011


At the PhD level?

Yes.
posted by rtha at 4:20 PM on February 23, 2011


I had somewhere around a 3.3 (caveat: I transferred from a school where I had about a 3.0-3.1 to a school where I had a 3.6, so I could at least show significant improvement) and I'm now in a masters program (in international affairs) that is probably in the top 5-ish in its field in the U.S. I'd say that if you have good GRE score, some interesting/relevant work experience, and good letters of recommendation, you'll be fine.( Also: if you build a file of letters now or keep in touch with your professors after graduating, you won't be stuck in the situation I was where 4 years after graduation you're trying to track down professors who only vaguely remember you.)
posted by naoko at 4:48 PM on February 23, 2011


Just wanted to chime in: I know at a couple of top-flight (Ivyish) anthro departments where the average age of PhD students for the past few years has been 24 or 25. I think most people have a couple years of work under their belt or a master's degree. Agreed that life experience should compensate for your low GPA and that your major GPA will be more important anyway. If you do decide to go to grad school, aim as high as you can. You might be out a couple hundred dollars in admission fees, but if you're taking the risk of getting a PhD you want to get it from the best department possible.
posted by col_pogo at 12:55 AM on February 24, 2011


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