Grad school question
September 30, 2008 7:27 PM   Subscribe

How are different parts of grad school applications typically weighted?

Basically, I was a typical undermotivated/mildly depressive undergraduate student. I hated my school, graduated from college three semesters early, albeit with a GPA of 2.95 or so.

Almost three years later, I want to go to grad school, and I'm running into ominous passages like these on the websites of programs I'm interested in:

First, we do not look favorably upon applicants whose overall GPA is less than 3.20 or who have a combined verbal and quantitative GRE score of less than 1200. Applications with GPA less than 3.0 and GREs less than 1100 are almost always rejected. The three year rolling average for applicant GREs is 1290 and for admitted students is 1350.

Obviously my GPA is significantly lower than 3.2, but my GRE score is 1530, well above both their informal cutoff and the average for admitted students.

My question is, for liberal arts/poly sci/public policy masters-level programs, how much emphasis is placed on GPA versus GRE? I know there are other "soft" things that go into an application, but I am strong on those - my personal statement has been called "excellent" by people who would know, and my letters of rec are solid. I hope to visit each of the schools I apply to and speak to professors personally, so there will be that added element as well. I have two years of solid work experience in the field I'd like to further my education in, and I also write a blog about the subject matter.

These applications are $60, plus $20 for score reporting, so it's kind of important that I at least have an outside shot at getting in before I send these things off. Thanks!
posted by downing street memo to Education (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on the field ("liberal arts/poly sci/public policy masters-level programs" is a big area), kind of program (professional vs academic) quality (top-tier vs third-tier).

However, if it is a public policy or other professional program, they will probably look at your GREs, experience, essays and GPA. I got into several great policy programs with solid experience, high GREs, ok-but-not-stellar GPA and decent essays. I think the important thing with these programs is to construct a narrative for yourself, and sell yourself well through your essays: what is your passion, your vision? How will this program help you realize that vision.

In general, my impression is that GRE and experience are most important for professional programs.

Feel free to MetaMail me if you want to talk more about MPP programs.

Also, sorry to snark, but this is a pet peeve of mine: it's poli sci, not poly sci. But really, I'm not a jerk, feel free to MetaMail me.
posted by lunasol at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2008

I unfortunately can't help you because I'm wondering the exact same thing for my law school apps, but I personally think:
These applications are $60, plus $20 for score reporting, so it's kind of important that I at least have an outside shot at getting in before I send these things off.
is wrong. Grad school is, what, $10k/year? Opportunity cost of at least $50k/year? If you're worried about getting in, and you're certain you want to go, find the money and don't worry about overapplying. The transactional costs are nothing compared to the costs of attending and the potential life change you're making.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:47 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

lunasol - in an ideal world, I'd be doing a full-time academic MPP. If I'm going to go to grad school I want to do it right and not have to worry about my 9-to-5 at the same time. The problem is that some schools offer an MPP-type curriculum under the heading of an MA in politics, so that's why I characterized the degree I want so broadly. I'm not aware of any program rankings, I've heard UC-Berkeley and Maryland have strong MPP programs and I'm applying to both, as well as some other schools on the east coast (Virginia, Virginia Tech, and the New School in NYC).

I guess my question really boils down to how much a great GRE score can make up for a bad GPA, given that I'm a strong applicant in just about every other sense.
posted by downing street memo at 8:03 PM on September 30, 2008

I unfortunately can't help you because I'm wondering the exact same thing for my law school apps

lest anyone get confused -- law school is a different beast, and how low a school will let those numbers go depends on what kind of numbers they're trying to get in the class and how they're looking. It hinges on US News rankings. A school with a solid handle on their target LSAT median will take some more liberties with that to keep their median UGPA high, and vice versa.

There's some consideration of 25th/75th percentile scores, but not nearly as much.

As for MPP programs, I would imagine, but have no evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) to support this, but I would guess that it varies wildly depending on the school (especially comparing, say, the #2 program with the #20 program) and how actively the lower programs are trying to move up.

Schools trying to move in rankings tend to be a little bit more strict than those just trying to maintain the status quo, at least in my limited experience with it.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:03 PM on September 30, 2008

in an ideal world, I'd be doing a full-time academic MPP

To clarify, what I meant about academic vs professional is in the orientation of the program, not the time commitment. So law school, business school are considered professional programs, whereas political science, econ, English etc are considered academic programs. Sort of a semantic thing, but it's also important for being clear about what kind of program you want. MPPs are sort of a hybrid of professional and academic, depending on the program.

Anyway, there's no really easy answer about the GRE/GPA question. The good news is that a low-ish GPA shouldn't disqualify you totally. My advice is to cast as wide a net as possible. You don't say what your experience is like, but that will play a big role. If you've been working for a nonprofit, the government, or the public sector in some way, that will help.

Oh, also: US News and World Report does Public Affairs rankings in their annual Best Graduate Schools issue. Typically the top schools are some combination of Syracuse, Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, UMich, Columbia, and a bunch of others. I mean, those rankings aren't perfect, but it should give you a good sense of which programs are highly regarded.
posted by lunasol at 8:34 PM on September 30, 2008

Oooohyeeaaarrgh. It's very difficult to call this kind of thing without seeing exactly what your CV looks like. Even with a 1530 GRE, you will probably run into trouble with a GPA in the ballpark of 2.95, unless you have super-stellar work experience and can demonstrate excellent long-form writing skills. A top-ranked school is already going to have a surfeit of people with 4.0 GPAs in their major and, quite possibly, the same or higher GRE scores. The issue for a grad coordinator, looking at the GPA, is this: yes, the GRE shows great potential talent, but can you actually survive taking multiple classes per semester? And write a thesis at the end? Because one does not necessarily mean the other.

Have you considered devoting a semester to doing graduate coursework as a non-matriculated student? Besides the possibility that you may actually be able to use some of the credits to a regular degree program, it would convince otherwise iffy grad committees that you a) were genuinely interested in pursuing graduate work and b) that you could do it.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:37 PM on September 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't answer your immediate question, but I'd offer that making personal contact with people you expect to be working with ahead of time (ahead of any visits) can make up for other deficiencies in your application, depending on how you conduct yourself during those contacts.

I was a mediocre student, grade-wise. But I wrote to the professor that I wanted to work with, asked for pre-prints of upcoming articles she was publishing, and read them. She told me I could call her if I had questions, and I did. She ended up pushing to get me a spot in the program, based on her experience with me on the phone (and the other good things about my application, including great recs and great GRE scores).

The end of that particular chapter of my life isn't good, but I did get into the program despite poor grades. "Making active contact" is the best advice I got, and the best I can give.
posted by Gorgik at 9:38 PM on September 30, 2008

Both the GRE and your GPA are typically used as first-round cutoffs. Anyone with too low a score on either section will not have the rest of their application considered unless something really compelling stands out on a first quick read. Excelling in either of these areas is not likely to help you tremendously. And even if you make it to later rounds, your GPA will always be a good excuse for someone to cut your application from the pile in favor of someone with a higher GPA.

If the GPA is the only part of your application that is weak, then you need to flag this and explain it. Don't ignore it and hope for the best. If possible, have one of your recommendation letter writers discuss it. Don't do it in your personal statement. You need to convince the admissions committee that you have the ability to excel in grad school, but your history speaks against it and your personal testimony will be ignored -- pretty much the only compelling way to do this at point you are at is through the guarantee of a respected third party.
posted by painquale at 11:21 PM on September 30, 2008

The problem with the low GPA and stellar GRE is that it makes it appear to admissions committees that you're clearly bright enough to do well but . . . you didn't. The applicant looks high on smarts but low on effort. In my discipline (hum/soc science) the GRE can't really help you that much, but it CAN hurt you in the above scenario.
posted by liketitanic at 11:34 PM on September 30, 2008

Put me in with the people saying "depends on the school". As painquale says, if a school has a lot of applicants they will chuck every one with a GPA below X or a GRE below Y simply to get the stack of applications down to a manageable level. Also, it depends on how the GPA breaks down.

If you have a low GPA because you under-performed in the first years of your undergraduate degree but you got higher scores in later years, that would imply you had trouble adjusting to undergraduate life but eventually adjusted OK. If you have some good quality work to show, you could be OK.

If your work is patchy throughout your undergraduate degree, with some very high and some very low marks, that would imply you had the capability to do well, but you have motivation problems - and many postgraduate programmes feature substantially more lengthy periods of independent unsupervised work, so motivation problems could be a big issue.

If your marks are steady but average throughout your undergraduate degree, that would imply you don't have much talent for the subject, so you might struggle to perform an a more advanced programme.

On the other hand, if you've got your own funding a fair number of programmes will accept you as long as your grades are OK and your cheque clears, because they don't lose much if they have to fail you later on. Needless to say, you should be ready to work hard enough to avoid this.
posted by Mike1024 at 1:26 AM on October 1, 2008

I served as the graduate director for a program in the social sciences, and I can tell you that with a GRE of 1530, you are likely to be successful getting into some very respectable schools, although probably not the top tier. I think most grad directors would agree that students with high GPAs and low GREs are at a higher risk of flunking out of grad school than the other way around. In the liberal arts, a slacker past is not stigmatized--at least not too much. In your personal statement, you might want to say that you lacked direction and focus as an undergrad, and arrived at your decision to attend grad school after it was too late to save your GPA. The fact that you graduated early, and have excellent GREs is ample evidence that you have the requisite IQ points. Finally, when I was a grad director many potential applicants would call and say, "My GPA is X, my GRE is Y, what are my odds?" I answered these questions with complete candor, and I suspect you would get frank answers as well.
posted by Crotalus at 1:43 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

One thing that you might want to look at is your GPA in the relevant major. If your GPA in course work relevant to public policy is well above your average this will count in your favor. (I had a 3.4 overall average, but a 3.9 average in my major, and I got into the school of my choice.) You could emphasize something like this in a cover letter or in discussions with the admissions committee.
posted by oddman at 6:08 AM on October 1, 2008

Another thing: your undergrad institution matters. A 2.95 GPA is a really different thing from UChicago or Berkeley than it is from Eastern Bumblefuck State College.
posted by lunasol at 9:58 AM on October 1, 2008

I'm not even remotely in your discipline so this is all very general, but here goes: You should be honest about why your GPA is lower than it should be. It's obvious that you got yourself together after undergrad so there's no point in hiding the past, indeed candor is probably a very good thing. Apart from that, you have to make sure that the rest of your application is as strong as possible. You'll need a sterling writing example, be able to show plenty of relevant experience and it's a very, very good idea to meet faculty in the programs to which you are applying. In fact that's probably the key to all this.

Lastly, you should post this question on the relevant Chronicle of Higher Education forum.
posted by ob at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2008

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