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I've been to school, now I'd like an education!
October 5, 2011 9:14 PM   Subscribe

After years of mulling about, I've come to realize that I want to to go to university and gain a proper liberal arts education. For the first time in what feels like eons, I feel enthusiastic and motivated. Trouble is, my first attempt at doing so was three years ago and under much different and more trying circumstances. It seems that the consequences of my halfhearted younger self have severely damaged my future possibilities. What can this 21-year-old do to demonstrate his new-found ardor for all pursuits academic?

-- Background --

I attended a top 100 school in my home province of Ontario starting in fall 2008 studying software engineering, a field I didn't necessarily hate but didn't so much care for either. My disdain for the school and my field wouldn't have been as strong had they not been essentially chosen for me (a common theme in much of my life). I had ok grades in my first three semesters and managed to achieve a ~3.2/4.0 GPA earning 50 or so credits. After this, everything went to hell and I fell into a depressive haze interrupted by bouts of stimulant abuse (and sometimes the other way around). As such, the three subsequent semesters were a disaster that led to me failing every single class. It wasn't until my GPA dropped to a benthic 1.7 and I was thrown out of my program earlier this year that I became wise to just how fetid the funk I was so mired in was.

Back when I previously wrote about my situation, all I knew was that I wanted away from my parents as much as possible. Since then, I've taken the advice of several posters and left home and moved cross-country and am now (barely) supporting myself. Removing the biggest stressor in my life made it so much easier to organize my thoughts, get help, and pull myself out of disarray. In the intervening months between then and now, I've had time to think about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to and have concluded that this is indeed what I want.

I have been a very high achiever (and borne an equally high burden of expectation) all my life. Naturally I had dreams of attending one of the big names in schools (The Ivies, the Oxbridges, etc.). However midway through high school began the tedious cycle of self-destructive behaviour followed by feeling sorry for myself that sapped all what passion I had for learning. My grades were decent enough that I could afford to cruise for a while without doing much in the way of work until the aforementioned ejection from my program. This detrimental attitude has all but extinguished that dream. An admissions counsellor glancing at my transcript or resume would be remiss to admit me to any respectable school or program therein (I have achieved literally nothing since 2010).

-- Question --

This is where I need your help! What can I do between now and the next several months and years to demonstrate to a university admissions board that I am fully win or at least enough win to approve a transfer? Enrolling in community college, yes? Which ones? (Citizen of Canada, btw). I don't have any specific university in mind at the moment to eventually transfer to, but I'd like to keep my options as wide as possible. Any suggestions, tips, advice, anecdotes, or reprimands?

(Also, since I'm sure someone will bring it up): My university did give me the option of applying to another program on probation to bring up my grades with the goal of eventually completing my degree. However this would most certainly mean moving back in with or at least close to my parents and this, as I mentioned previously, is simply not something I either want or need in my life right now. Perhaps someday I'd like to repair relations with them but certainly not now.
posted by shoebox to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, going to community college at first to prove to a bigger university that you're able to maintain a good grade average is a great route to take. I don't know anything about the differences between American and Canadian colleges, but I go to a community college for a similar reason and it's turned out great for me-- and from what I know, community college courses (can be) easier than the bigger college courses. I wonder though... if you already have 50 credits if the courses you need will be available at a community college. How many of those credits were related to your old major?

Really, your best course of action would be to talk to advisors at both bigger universities you're interested in, as well as advisors from community colleges. I'm sure they'll have more specific advice on such things. Good luck!!
posted by camylanded at 10:18 PM on October 5, 2011

Ok, I know you're in Canada, but still... come to Evergreen.

(I know this is sort of a shot in the dark, but, er, it's more of an 'education' than a community college, and enough of a tough/real school to give you a leg up for a transfer if you like... or you could just stay). They take almost anyone motivated to go. Ok, so my point is, it's a school focused on self-motivated learners, second chances, and a true liberal arts education. The students are awesome, the rain is... well, not that bad, and you can go as high as you want to take yourself (lots of emphasis on Independent Study and lots of interdisciplinary, fascinating programs). It's like perfectionist college drop-out heaven. Well... except with bad(dish) food and rain. If possible financially, I think it's a much better use of your educational energies and will keep you motivated and engaged/in charge of your learning.

Ahem. We're super-awesome? Or something.
posted by reenka at 10:55 PM on October 5, 2011

Getting good grades in community college could work, but how about some awesome life experience? Like, if you want to study psychology, you could get a job in a school or a research lab. If you want to study film theory, you could get a job on a movie set.

This would demonstrate personal initiative and sustained passion -- both qualities that admissions directors like.
posted by hungrytiger at 1:25 AM on October 6, 2011

1) In the U.S., some Ivy League schools have non-traditional programs. Such as Penn has one called LPS. It is designed for people like you (and me). When I met with the admissions recruiter, he said they look most closely at recent academic record. They also ask, in their application, for you to explain any breaks in going to school and if your transcript accurately reflects your academic ability.

I would say that going to a community college, working hard, and getting a 4.0 will be the best sign to an admissions board that you will succeed.

But also take a look at the schools you might want to go to and meet with their admissions recruiters. They will have the best advice on what would make them more likely to admit you.

And check if any of those schools has a program for non-traditional students. They are a bit easier to get into because they weigh each applicant as an individual - they don't have a specified number of slots to fill like the normal undergrad.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:35 AM on October 6, 2011

I went to college for three years the first time, dropping out essentially in the middle of a semester and failing three of the four classes that semester. When I decided to go back to [another] school, I asked the transfer admissions director (just via email) about my situation to get a sense of how I might fare with such a transcript.

He explained that they never accept students who have recently failed courses; he suggested I go to a community college, take math & science courses (this was an engineering school) and get As or Bs, and then apply. Honestly, that seemed ridiculous to me, so I explained that I had already gotten plenty of As in math and science courses at a very rigorous liberal arts college. I hadn't gotten any stupider since then, and in fact I was now an even better student because I had a new-found motivation for college that had been missing before.

The transfer director sort of begrudgingly said okay, send in your transcript and I'll take a look. I did that, and I threw in my standardized test scores as a bit more evidence of "I'm actually a good candidate for your school." He soon said I could apply, so I did, I was accepted, and I went there for two more years of school to get my BS with no trouble.

So as you know, the bottom line is that it is up to you to convince a few people at a given school that you are a good candidate for admission there. You need to be able to explain convincingly how your past performance was shaped by certain factors that are now mitigated and point to evidence showing that you do have the intelligence, skills, motivation, etc. to succeed at their school. Community college could be one way to demonstrate some of that. But also think about what you could do or say to show that the problems that led to all of those Fs are gone or under control. Start drafting that now, in fact. Write it down, figure it out, and think about how best to present that.

For example, you say you've achieved nothing since 2010, but supporting yourself, barely or not, is an achievement itself. It's definitely not easy, and you did it yourself. And from that, haven't you learned a thing or two about what is important to you? When you go back to college, isn't that going to be always in the back of your mind as a concrete motivator that most undergraduates lack? I can tell you that, having been there and being a professor now myself, so many students who go straight into college don't really know why they're there. You will know, and that alone is worth a lot.

And finally, yes, directly contacting admissions counselors / directors will be very important here. That's part of what can show them you have the needed motivation. Do not just send in an application. Write to or talk to people, be persistent, and always make it absolutely clear that this is your goal and you can and will achieve it.
posted by whatnotever at 6:36 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My path looked like this:
1. nearly fail out of high school
2. community college
3. admitted at several good university
posted by prefpara at 8:12 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

4. fail to learn how to proofread
posted by prefpara at 8:12 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you really care about the liberal arts, you will find that your academic experience at a middle-tier university (like York in Toronto, where I went) can be just as challenging and educational as it will be in the Ivy League. The professors are just as smart, just not as famous. The other students won't be as prepared or as engaged, so you will have to work to enrich your own experience and seek out challenges, but if you establish good relations with your professors you should find a great deal of encouragement there. Remember, these are people who have worked their butts off in obscure areas of study: they are estatic when people really care and want to learn. You will have fewer opportunities to study languages or to do original research, but they are there if you actively seek them out.

I've been to grad school in the liberal arts at a high rated school - my advice would be to go to whatever undergrad university you can get to easily/cheaply with a solid program in your area of interest (medieval history, Contemporary English literature, continental philosophy - whatever - you can tell it's solid by the course offerings) - and THEN work your butt off and really study. Redo your whole degree, if necessary. If you come out with an excellent performance, you will be competitive to go to grad school just about anywhere in the world.
posted by jb at 10:30 AM on October 6, 2011

Thanks, guys. So far this has been helpful.

camylanded: How many of those credits were related to your old major?

About 15 or so. The rest were general science/engineering/mathematics and 9 credits in German.

reenka: They take almost anyone motivated to go. Ok, so my point is, it's a school focused on self-motivated learners, second chances, and a true liberal arts education

Suggestion much appreciated. This is more or less what I've been looking for.

the rain is... well, not that bad

Then I'll bring an umbrella.

Well... except with bad(dish) food and rain.

Then I won't bring an umbrella and catch a cold instead so that the food won't bother me.
posted by shoebox at 6:28 PM on October 6, 2011

prefpara: Would you mind expanding a bit? I've been trawling through the archives looking for such stories; always nice to hear from others in similar situations, especially when most everyone I still know from high school seem to be on the verge of graduating. A memail is fine too.

jb: That more or less is the crux of my plan: to be competitive to go just about anywhere in the world. It's just that at this point, my transcript shows a massive string of F's for the last three semesters that I attended my previous school. So I'm not even sure what (if any) undergrad institution will let me in easily, much less cheaply.
posted by shoebox at 6:29 PM on October 6, 2011

Depending where you are in Canada - talk to the local big university (UBC, UofT, UofA, whatever) and find out whether they have any special programs for non-traditional students. UofT has a couple for people who haven't completed high school; York had a special policy as well.

Having some university might put you at a disadvantage -- you may also want to contact your original undergrad institute and find out whether you can petition to remove some of those fails from your transcript; given family problems, mental health issues, etc universities may allow you to drop the fails - it will be on a case-by-case basis and will also need for you to demonstrate that a) you had a serious problem that interfeered with your academics and b) you have changed your life and are ready to do better if you come back. (I have a friend in a similar situation - several failed courses - who is going to return to her original university and petition to have them removed).
posted by jb at 6:45 PM on October 6, 2011

Would you mind expanding a bit?

Absolutely! I had terrible grades in HS, including Fs, and got into zero colleges. I went to my local community college and took 2x the full time credit load (I had to get special permission from an academic committee) balancing out real classes (math, French) with easy A classes (poetry writing seminar). My GPA was 3.8 or 3.9 (fucking calculus). I applied to universities during my first year instead of waiting the usual two (could. not. stand. living. at. home.) and got into three. My personal statement for every application was always about my dramatic transformation from near drop-out to overachieving homework machine. I deeply regret this: I did not apply to any of the universities I really wanted to go to (oh, U Chicago...) out of the fucked-up feeling that I didn't deserve to attend a really good school. So I will never know whether or not I could have gotten in to a top-top school. The college I ended up at is ranked in the top 30-ish on US News (whatever that means) and I was admitted to #29 and I think another one but I forget now which.

Feel free to memail me if you have more specific questions. My words of encouragement are these: the worse your past grades are, the better your new good grades will look. Take heart. A swing from B to A is boring. A swing from F to A is exciting and dramatic. The admissions dept will be rooting for you and interested in your story. Your prior poor performance is the golden ticket to your future magnificent successes. Just give it 1-2 years of significant improvement.
posted by prefpara at 7:49 PM on October 6, 2011

jb: Great idea, thanks!

prefpara: Much appreciated. Thank you as well!

If anyone else reading this later on has any more stories or school suggestions, please feel free to post or memail me.
posted by shoebox at 11:27 AM on October 9, 2011

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