How much does it matter to graduate with highest honors?
March 29, 2017 3:25 AM   Subscribe

I know it's probably an absurd question, but if I don't graduate with highest honors from my university, how badly have I hurt my chances of getting into a top grad program? I have a very checkered academic past, and I worry constantly about needing to prove that I've turned my life around. I'm working on coming to terms with that, and with what I understand to be a very common confidence problem among students, but just for the sake of hearing it, how much does it matter to graduate with highest honors?

For most of my life I was the classic underachiever. The short explanation is that I had undiagnosed mental health issues. Some teachers in high school told me I'd never go anywhere in life, and the nice ones said "well, you're just meant for a different path" than school. I dropped out and got my GED when I was 17. After that, I spent years failing classes at community college. Eventually I started turning things around, but my GPA for that period is still only about 2.1.

Today I'm at a good public university with a 4.0 GPA and a lot of A pluses. I've just been accepted into a fantastic scholarship program that will fund me as I research and write my senior honors thesis under the mentorship of one of the top scholars in her field (I'm expecting to graduate Fall 2017). I absolutely love my research, and every professor I've talked to has said that yes, I would be an excellent candidate for grad school.

But at my age (31) and with the current job market, I worry about the value of going to grad school unless I can be fully funded at a top university. And with my academic past, I worry about the bar being that much higher for me.

So I worry about little things like graduating with distinction. The required GPA for graduating with Highest Distinction (equivalent to summa cum laude) at my university is 3.947. As a transfer student that means I can only afford to get a single A-, or I'm automatically below the cutoff.

I recently did poorly on an exam. I wasn't feeling well, and I just wasn't thinking clearly. It may put me into B+ territory in that class, which means I would not be able to graduate with Highest Distinction (my GPA would drop to something like 3.93). Part of me recognizes that it's sort of an absurd and arbitrary thing to worry about. I know there are other factors that matter as far as grad school applications go, but part of me is still hung up on having thought of myself as a loser for as long as I did. I know I'm doing well now, but frankly, the thought of doing poorly on an exam makes me think of all the times my teachers took me aside to tell me I was screwing up. On a practical level, part of me worries that I have to be perfect just to prove to prospective grad schools that I've truly turned my life around.

I'm aware that I'm putting an absurd amount of pressure on myself. You can bet I'm talking to a therapist about this. That's the internal aspect of this, of letting things go and accepting that imperfection doesn't prove I really was a loser all along. I'm working on that -- but it would also be nice to hear from someone who could weigh in on how much it really matters to grad schools if I don't graduate with highest honors.

I do have professors and advisors who have been absolutely wonderful to talk to about these issues, but I'd like to ask you all, too, since I imagine this is not an unheard-of situation, and I'd like to know what it sounds like to someone who doesn't know me. I will probably be embarrassed by this question in the long run, but I figure it's also probably pretty relatable for some people.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Education (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Hang in there. I understand how you're feeling. Academia is a pressure cooker, and can nudge already self-critical people into overdrive. I once cried to an adviser and lost a considerable amount of sleep over getting a C- on a test in a class I was already doing poorly in, knowing this would cement my final C grade (my! worst! ever!) and presumably destroy my entire future. Spoiler alert: it did not.

The "With Highest Distinction" category is usually reserved for the top 3% or so of the graduating class. But there are two other categories below it, "With High Distinction," and "With Distinction," which are reserved for the 3-4.99% and top 5%. So worst case scenario you'll probably still get to have some fancy pants words on your resume. I did feel a pang at the ceremony when most of my friends were in the Highest and High distinction categories, and I was in the lowly "With Distinction" group? Yes. Yes I did. Seven years on has it had a distinguishable effect on my future? Nope.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 3:46 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


Personal recommendations from respected figures in your field is worth approx 1000 times more than this or that grade. I had a middling undergrad experience, certainly less stellar than yours, but I was able to start my PhD at a fancy university because I worked for a little while with a respected professor there. I got THAT job because one of my lecturers in undergrad was willing to go to bat for me. You'll be fine even if you fuck up a few classes, just maintain your professional connections.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 3:52 AM on March 29 [27 favorites]


None of my friends or I graduated with any sort of distinction from our giant public undergrad university, and several of us just graduated from our fully-funded phd programs - a few from the top universities in our field (including a few ivy leagues). So, no, it's not going to make or break you.

Far far more important are your research background and personal connections, as long as your gpa and gre scores make the cut.
posted by umwhat at 3:54 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


You have a compelling narrative of "turning your life around" plus very strong grades plus a proven research interest plus a recommendation from someone who is tops in your field, plus you will be a slightly unusual candidate because slightly older, different experience. IME being around graduate programs, you will be a ridiculously good candidate.
posted by Frowner at 4:15 AM on March 29 [20 favorites]


The quality and results of your research will be more important than whether you graduate with a 3.947 or a 3.93.

I worry about the value of going to grad school unless I can be fully funded at a top university.

Depending on your field, a grad degree may be a more or less necessity, even if it's not from a top, top, top university.
posted by Candleman at 4:34 AM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Firstly, you've gone from a 2.1 to a 3.9-something? That is amazing, you should be incredibly proud of yourself. I can understand that one B+ might bring up some old ghosts, and good for you for working on that, but you should absolutely own your success and celebrate it, whatever words end up on your transcript.

On your specific question, this is the sort of thing that's going to vary a bit by field, and even by school - a lot of places will use GPA as a bar you have to clear (and with those scores you'd clear it), and then they'll look at recommendations and research background (and it sounds like you have those nailed). Some won't even look at first year classes, or classes outside your major, in calculating whether you hit the GPA bar. So I would take the word of the professors and advisers in your field over people who don't know it.

If you want some data, you could take a look at Grad Cafe, where people post their scores and application results for various programs. I'd take it with a massive grain of salt, as there's absolutely no vetting process to vouch for accuracy and it's an inherently biased sample. Use with caution - it can be an anxiety-spiral trainwreck. But it's one data source in an otherwise fairly data-free world.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 4:38 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Anecdata: I didn't graduate summa cum laude, had good but not perfect grades, but still got fully funded at a top graduate school in my field. Now, my field was engineering, where full funding is standard for a Ph.D -- if you get accepted, you almost always get funded, and if you don't get funded, you go somewhere else. You don't specify your field, so full funding may be less common in your field. But I will echo the comments above: recommendations and research experience matter much more than summa cum laude status. Like, thousands of times more. It sounds like you have both recs and research experience in the bag.

And your GPA sounds like it will still be excellent. Mine wasn't as high as 3.93. You really, really are not required to have a 4.0 in order to be considered a good student.
posted by snowmentality at 4:41 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I didn't have top honors from my college, plus the school I went to was largely unheard of in the field I was going into, and I didn't have the compelling narrative that you have. Checking the current rankings, I didn't get into one school in the top 10, but got into several in the top 20 with a scholarship, and I currently work at one of the top-10's.

It varies a lot by field, though. In the sciences, the research you're doing is a lot more important. My understanding of law, business, and medical school is that the grades matter a lot more.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:36 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


I finished undergrad at a state school with below a 3.0 gpa and got into a selective graduate school. My program wasn't one that is typically funded, so ymmv, but strong test scores, a good application, and decent references seemed to do the trick for me.
posted by tryniti at 6:41 AM on March 29


I've never heard anything from the admissions side of this, but it's generally regarded (as evidenced by several comments already) that research and recommendations are more important than GPA or test scores. It's also generally the case that GPA within your major counts for more than GPA in survey-level classes.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:57 AM on March 29


I am very confident that no academic graduate program in any field whatsoever will ever, under any circumstances at all, give even the slightest crap about the difference between distinction, high, or highest distinction, or the difference between a 4.0, 3.95, or 3.90 gpa, all else equal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:41 AM on March 29 [9 favorites]


Am I missing something? You'll be applying to grad school before your final class standing can even be known, won't you?

Hundredths of a percentage point of GPA are vanishingly unlikely to have any effect on admissions decisions.
posted by praemunire at 7:57 AM on March 29


This might depend on field, but: I'm a current physics grad student at a very well-regarded institution with undergrad GPA ~< 3.80 (maybe? It's been a little while). This is usual, I think. My general impression is that research experience and letters of recommendation are much, much more important than grades.

It's worth noting that (in physics, at least) research is very, very different from class work---this is why grades are such a weak signal. Yeah, you have to know the material you learn in undergrad, but there's so much more material and such a great many other skills required that the difference between knowing undergrad material (and being able to work undergrad-level problems) well and knowing it perfectly is ... really not important at all.
posted by golwengaud at 7:58 AM on March 29


Latin honors do not matter, in part because not all undergraduate institutions even have them! My college did not do Latin honors, at all, and it certainly did not stop me from getting into a top graduate school, with funding. The professors reviewing applications do not have the time/interest to research every single school of applicants and determine whether they have honors, exactly what those honors distinctions mean/translate into (because it's not standard), etc. They WILL look at overall GPA, but a few A-'s/B+'s aren't going to hurt you there. The fact that you're doing a senior honors thesis that's good enough to be funded and you're working with a top scholar is worth 1000 times more than a B+ in one class.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:28 AM on March 29


N-thing that you sound like a great candidate. Having funding for a senior thesis that you planned for (and didn't just grind out last-minute to meet requirements) is fantastic.

I applied to grad school at 30, changing fields from my undergraduate degree, and I discovered that some academics *like* having grad students who aren't K-PhD, who have some diverse experience and often some more skills working well with others and behaving professionally. And some academics are hesitant about folks with absolutely perfect 4.0 records - in a research-based program, you are creating new knowledge, and you are going to fail at things, and you need some amount of grit to deal with that.
posted by momus_window at 8:53 AM on March 29


Oh hi, me.

I have a similar story: dropped out of high school, didn't do too well the first years of college due to health problems, but then did very well after, ending up being a strong student but not the best. I didn't even do an honors thesis, because no one told me that I could or should.

I ended up in an excellent and fully funded graduate program. I'm not sure that my past didn't hurt me at all; I was rejected from some programs, and you never really know why, even though some rejection is normal.

Basically, the fact is that really good students are a dime a dozen. Graduate programs are looking for signs that you will be a really good researcher - that is, that you are ready to step past the student role. They aren't paying attention to fine-grained distinctions between GPAs for the most part. As long as it's a good GPA, it's fine. They're going to pay the most attention to your writing sample, your statement of purpose, your letters of recommendation, and the relevant experiences you have outside of being a student.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:54 AM on March 29 [2 favorites]


I've heard time and time again that proven research interest and effectiveness are wayyyy more important than grades, even for top programs (at least in my science-y field).
posted by stoneandstar at 8:58 AM on March 29


Just go to the professor RIGHT NOW and say you flubbed the exam, you love the class, you dont want your GPA to drop because of this, can you demonstrate your learning with an extra credit assignment? & research exp is much more important
posted by semaphore at 10:45 AM on March 29 [1 favorite]


I got into a top-3 program in my field with my 3.5 GPA. It's not that important. I had very good GRE scores and I think they made it clear that I was academically capable.
posted by zug at 12:08 PM on March 29


GPA is not important.

For grad school, if you decide to go (a more difficult decision than it was, even 5 or 10 years ago), you'll want to apply directly to PIs (principle investigator/mentor) anyway instead of applying to a particular school or even a particular program.

I was technically below the GPA threshold for my MSc program (and I applied post-deadline) but because the PI recruited me those were completely moot and the department head just waved me in.

Now, it might matter for outside funding (either a top-up, don't have to TA, or you save your PI a bunch of money) - but the difference between 3.947 and 3.93 is nothing. Your research design and whether you will have the resources (equipment, study population, mentor with the right skills, etc.) to be successful are much more important. As is the stature/reputation of your PI.
posted by porpoise at 12:53 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Thankyouthankyouthankyou, everyone. You have no idea how encouraging this was, or maybe you do, since it sounds like some people could relate.

There are, of course, a million things I could follow up with, but I'll let it rest for now and let at least one takeaway from this thread be that yes, I should get back to work on my research this afternoon.

Again, thank you so much.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:12 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


I have been involved in graduate admissions decisions in two departments at my university. I assure you no one pays attention to whether people graduated with distinction or not, because most applicants apply before they graduate. We do look at your grades (individual grades being much more important than your GPA). No one is going to bat an eye at a single B+.

There's basically a minimum floor for grades which you have probably exceeded everywhere, and after that point other factors such as publications (if any), letters of recommendation, and fit between what your research statement and what the graduate program is looking for are much more important in competing for a place.
posted by grouse at 3:43 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


I'm a high school drop out.

I now have a Masters degree from a university that was ranked equal to Stanford at the time I studied (let's just say their fortunes have deviated since then), and a couple of other post grad quals as well.

Dropping out and working in the real world helped me to realise that almost everything students say about how universities work is bullshit. It usually went like this:

'I think I'd like to enrol in [unorthodox combination of subjects not strictly permitted] / [graduate program for which I didn't necessarily meet entry requirements]'

'gasp you can't do that it's impossible because the rules'

'I'll just go ask the dean because I'm an adult and they're an adult and I'm sure we can work something out'

'gasp you can't do that because omg the dean'

'Hello dean I'd like to do these things for these reasons can you help?'

'Take this barely legible scribbled note to admissions and they'll look after you'

'Hello I am admissions and I see this sort of shit all the time and I'm not even raising an eyebrow about it'

Good luck!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:57 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


Oh my god, yeah, you have absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of GPA. You've more than proven you can hack it with coursework, and that you're diligent and conscientious. I had a measly 3.09 in undergrad (!) and a C+ in the one class that was the most related to the work I wanted to do in graduate school. Oopsie doodly doo. Even then, sure, I didn't get in everywhere, but I still did my PhD at a top-10 program. You're fine. Listen to grouse.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:43 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]


Been doing social science/humanities PhD admissions for 23 years at R1s, and can confirm that Latin honors mean nothing. GPA can matter but we definitely look more for grades in relevant coursework and for overall improvement over time. Letters and research experience do matter much more. And for my program, your writing sample is the best evidence of research experience.

Much depends on your field. I have many colleagues who would frankly warn someone your age away from doing a social science or humanities PhD. If that's your plan realize you'll be 38-40 when you finish and enter what is currently a very tough job market with very little choice in where you live, that is only going to get much tougher on the era of Trump.

Also for any PhD program in any field, either you get paid to go for at least 4-5 years or you shouldn't go. Schools that don't *fully* fund PhD students shouldn't have PhD programs and are kidding their students about their future competitiveness. The rule is simple: admission means funded admission. Everything else is bullshit.

Master's degree programs are different of course.

If your grad school plans are in an applied or science field, it's a different calculus. Equally concerning, but different.

Mostly you do need to relax and stop beating yourself up. Read up on imposter syndrome. And be aware of this: academia can smell fear. It's how the unwritten social and cultural privileges it sustains get reproduced over generations. Privilege breeds confidence breeds more privilege etc etc. Most people have struggles with academic work at various points in their careers. And the bright young smartypants who finished Summa at Harvard at 22 and webt right on to a fully funded PhD at Chicago at 23? Yeah she exists. But the vast majority of people who have good careers in academia are not that.
posted by spitbull at 6:53 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


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