How much emphasis to place on the C+?
December 7, 2012 7:20 AM   Subscribe

How much focus, if any, on my "blemished" academic record, and my change of field, should I place in my personal statements for graduate school?

I am applying for master's degrees in urban planning and policy, in the US. I have an undergraduate degree from a US college in an unrelated social science, say Star Wars studies for instance.

I am working through my personal statements and was wondering how much emphasis to place on two things:

(1) My freshman year, I got a C+ in introductory economics; so, not the field I'm looking to enter, but definitely related, as economics is often a recommended prerequisite for these programs, and urban economics is obviously related to planning/policy anyway.

Including the C+, I averaged a 3.6 the rest of my freshman year, the rest of my grades ranging from B+ upward. My sophomore through senior years, I earned A and A- grades exclusively.

How much explanation, if any, do I need to devote to this C+? I'm not concerned about my freshman year performance in general, which I think is fairly obviously a "freshman year hiccups, shaped up after that" typical academic trajectory. Maybe I'm just paranoid about the C+, but I can't help thinking of it as a blemish on my record. I can speak to exactly why I got a C+ and the lessons I learned from it, but how much space -- if any -- is it worth devoting to this?

(2) As I mentioned above, I'm changing fields. I'm focusing most of my statements on my specific research interests in planning, to demonstrate specific focus and that I know what I'm talking about (especially because I'm changing fields). How much, if any, should I focus on the change of academic fields?

Possibly relevant information for either/both questions:
- I didn't take very many courses in college at all related to planning -- I didn't come to a realization that I was really interested in the subject until after college, although all the signs were there. (D'oh!)
- Very good GRE scores.
- I've done research and work/volunteering related to planning since college, though my main job (generic white-collar job) is not really related to it.
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Previously. I repeat the advice I gave there:
A personal statement is about telling a story whose obvious conclusion is that you belong at that graduate school. The personal statement then starts with, "this is what I worked on and was very interested in. This is what I plan to explore in graduate school. These are my plans and goals after I finish graduate school."
It's generally a bad idea to use your personal statement as an opportunity to make excuses for your early academic stumbles simply because doing so will draw attention to them when they might otherwise not have been noticed.
posted by deanc at 7:24 AM on December 7, 2012 [12 favorites]

I wouldn't even mention that C+. That seems such a small blip that it doesn't need to be explained, and why would you draw attention to it. Far better to use that space to describe what interests you about urban planning, any relevant experience you have, and why you'd be good at it.

FWIW - I didn't have any C's, but I did have multiple B-'s, including in a relevant class, and still got into top-5 grad programs in my field. One prof at a very good school did ask me what had happened there, but that was after they had admitted me. I don't think anybody else noticed.
posted by Metasyntactic at 7:29 AM on December 7, 2012

It is such a small one-time occurrence that you need not and should not discuss it at all. Follow the advice of not drawing attention to something that requires no explanation and would not even be noticed otherwise.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:33 AM on December 7, 2012

You're totally fine. If your 3.6 freshman GPA was the lowest year because of that C+, your overall GPA must be stellar. Put your in-major and out-of-major GPAs on your CV or application (assuming that in-major is higher) and they probably won't even look at your transcript other than making sure that yes, you did actually graduate from college.
posted by supercres at 7:57 AM on December 7, 2012

Don't even bother mentioning it. Many grad programs assume that the freshman year is full of transition and upheaval; whatever happens in freshman year stays there, so to speak.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:00 AM on December 7, 2012

Just to add, one bad grade can more easily be attributed to the professor than the student. Don't mention it, but if it comes up in an interview or something, just say:

"It was challenging subject matter and the instructor was difficult to understand. I worked in a study group, I attended office hours, and frankly I worked DAMN HARD for that C+. I'm proud of it."

Clearly the rest of your academic record speaks to your awesome scholarship.

Focus your answer on how intersted you are in planning.

FWIW, I had GREAT GMAT Scores and a 2.0 TOTAL undergrad GPA and I got into a real grad school. So grades aren't everything, and one grade isn't anything.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:09 AM on December 7, 2012

I failed all my courses my first year except for one. Not a C+, but a C and seven (count 'em!) Fs. Never came up or was a hindrance with regard to getting into grad school. Forget about it. Also, deanc's advice to focus on your strengths is a good one.
posted by futureisunwritten at 8:09 AM on December 7, 2012

Don't mention it. I had a D in a science class (that apparently still counted as passing?) and graduated early so my GPA didn't get to recover like it could have with an extra year of classes. I got in everywhere I applied and even got merit based funding at the school I attend. Keep the personal statement tailored to your strengths and fit with the school. This was for an MPH which I think is similar to a planing program in wanting to see your post undergrad work and interest in the field more than just the numbers (and yours sound great!).
posted by wilky at 8:23 AM on December 7, 2012

How much explanation, if any, do I need to devote to this C+?

None. Based on your description, it doesn't sound worth mentioning. But also, this is not what personal statements are for. If you have things that require explanation (eg, several failing semesters, or a poor performance at one college before you transferred to another) then most applications I've seen invite you to submit a brief addendum to explain them. That's how to address those things. Your personal statement has a different purpose.

How much, if any, should I focus on the change of academic fields?

This, on the other hand, is exactly what (most) personal statements are for. Read what each application says, of course, but in my experience this is what most schools are looking for in your personal statement. "Let me introduce myself and tell you why I want to complete this academic program." If that means your change of direction is a major theme, or if it means that your change of direction will get mentioned in a larger theme about your life or goals, well, that's up to you.
posted by cribcage at 8:30 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't mention the C+. And follow deanc's advice. My own advice for writing a personal statement is to do 3 or 4 things:

1. Indicate why you want to do a master's in urban planning and policy (or whatever the field is). What are your goals, and how will the degree help you attain them?

2. Explain how your previous studies and experience have prepared you to do well in a master's program in the field. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have an undergrad degree in the field; a lot of professional master's programs presume that their applicants are coming from other backgrounds. If the program websites have a list of prerequisites for admission (or suggested preparation), take a look at those and address how your background has prepared you. If your dream programs require an undergrad course you haven't taken, explain your plans to take such a course as a non-degree student the spring or summer before starting the master's.

3. Tell them why their program is a great fit for your interests and goals, so that they know you've thought about what they have to offer, not just about the field in the abstracts.

4. If necessary, explain anything big about your record that might give them pause. One C+ in your first year of college is not big. A semester in your junior year with a 2.0 GPA is something big. In that case, you need to explain why it happened and how you overcame whatever was at the root of the problem.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:44 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, I finally signed up for an account after years to answer your question.
I just received a Masters in City and Regional Planning from Rutgers this past May, and was in precisely your shoes a few years ago. Rutgers is the only top planning program I applied to – in part because I was afraid my humanities undergrad and boring administrative job would work against me – but I was also accepted into UIC, Iowa, and Portland State.

Your overall GPA sounds fine. That C+ shouldn’t go in your personal statement at all. My undergrad was non-traditional, and doesn’t provide GPA on transcripts since we didn’t have grades. I was also put on academic probation after a bit of a nervous breakdown my second semester, which is definitely worse than a C+. I wouldn’t worry about the fact it was econ anyway. My experience was that many people struggle through Urban or Spatial Economics coursework because, for instance, it’s the first time in their life they’ve ever encountered the concept of an externality.

I would say focus on the change of fields a great deal, but embrace your path rather than make excuses for it. What worked for me (and I suspect may work for you) is a compelling narrative account of how you came to want to be a planner and why you care about whatever particular planning issues interest you. For me, the answer to that question was very personal. After a friend died in a bike/car crash, I started thinking systematically about traffic safety and street design. This led me to volunteer with my local transportation advocacy group, which led to some environmental advocacy. Which led me to planning.

Also many (if not most planners) come to the field as a career change, so don’t think of your non-planning background as a weakness, but strength. I studied Philosophy as an undergrad. Some of people I most respected in my program had degrees in Popular Culture (a/k/a Seinfeld Studies), film, and literature. These fields all provide you with some unique way of thinking about things or seeing the world, so think about how whatever social science you studied will help you excel in planning school. For instance, I did way better in planning theory and planning law than my peers, and these were definitely related to my philosophy background.

Anyway, I hope that helps. I created a new email account to interact with MeFi: Feel free to email me there if you have any specific questions, etc.
posted by voiceofreason at 10:03 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a shitty undergrad GPA and I got into 100% of the MA programs I applied to. Nthing the "don't draw attention to it.|"
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 3:12 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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