Help! My undergrad years were mediocre! What should I do?
January 29, 2009 3:09 PM   Subscribe

How did you deal with a crappy undergraduate degree and accompanying unhappiness? Were you able to somehow get into a good education afterwords?

My undergrad years (recently graduated) did not go as planned. I made few friends. I don't know any of my profs. I ended up hating my chosen subject (English Lit.). My GPA was a solid 3.3-something, but the lack of contacts and good examples of my writing (didn't do a thesis) make it extremely difficult to apply to a master's program. What the hell would I apply to anyway? Many of you will answer "Travel!" bu I have no money to do so. I need to break my dependence on my parents (who I live with), so teaching English abroad is a no-go (most of those jobs pay peanuts, I can't afford to travel to any of these foreign countries, and even if I could, it won't help me get a job when i return - it doesn't solve the main problem). I'm so isolated I need to break free. My concentration is so shot I can't even read for pleasure anymore.

If I don't get out of this tiny Canadian shithole in the prairies, I'll go nuts, I swear. I'm sorry this is so scattered. 1) How did you deal with the general confusion if you went through something similar, and 2) what are some practical solutions to applying to master's programs, etc given my so-so undergrad years if I ever decide what I want to do with myself?
posted by anonymous to Education (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The point of those overseas jobs is that they actually pay OK. My wife saved $10K or so in a year doing that, plus she learned Mandarin on the side. Just don't drink all your savings, that's all.

As for the rest of it, I have no suggestions.
posted by GuyZero at 3:14 PM on January 29, 2009

Law school?
posted by mr_roboto at 3:23 PM on January 29, 2009

I had an English Lit degree and a 3.3-something GPA and then went to law school. It's not as crappy a GPA and degree as you think.

Also, I moved to Chicago with something like $500 in my pocket. I didn't know anybody there, and ended up finding a job and scraping enough money together to survive for a whole summer. Traveling is not as expensive as you think. For instance, you must have friends/family in some other more-desirable region of the world that will put you up while you try to find work, if escape is truly your plan.

Not sure why you would want to get an M.A. - if you didn't enjoy undergrad at all, likely you won't enjoy a master's program much either. But as a practical matter, your GPA is only half of what it takes to get into a master's program; there is also the GRE (or whatever its equivalent might be) which will account for another portion of it.

You can always get a letter of recommendation from any professor you had a class with, even if they don't know who the heck you are. Pick a class where you got an A, then call that professor and ask him for a letter of rec. The letter (which you will likely draft) will look generic, but it's something.

Consider getting a second BA in a degree that you actually enjoy. Seems you have the the General Ed requirements out of the way, so you can get a second BA - along with more recognition and better grades - in a shorter amount of time.

Good luck.
posted by jabberjaw at 3:28 PM on January 29, 2009

1. Get a job. 2. When you have enough money to move out of your parent's house, move into your own place. 3. Continue working and saving money. Make a decision if you want to go back to school, get a different job and/or move to another city.

I, too, have a liberal arts undergrad degree. It has been entirely useless since the moment I graduated. The only thing it qualifies you for is grad school. Starting getting some professional experience in anything that remotely interests you.
posted by gnutron at 3:29 PM on January 29, 2009

Does your school have any kind of career placement services? Most of them do, and they are usually free or have very low fees for alumni. I know that the hours I've spent with a career counselor at my school's career center were some of the most valuable ever. They helped me revise my resume, summarize and target my skills, and so on. When I left I had several ideas for possible career directions and ways of contacting companies that I hadn't before.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:33 PM on January 29, 2009

Hello, Me-From-Twenty-Years-Ago. Remember how you used to wonder what your future self would tell you? This is kinda like one of those moments.

He would tell you to stop worrying so much, and take an action -- any action -- to get out of your limiting surroundings right now. This instant. If you can't do what you want, do something.

Go work at a ski resort for pennies, as long as there's room and board. Go to a big city and live in your car. Go do commercial fishing. Or, better yet, go join the Canadian Coast Guard and rescue people for a living.

Do this for a few years. Worst case scenario is that grad school opportunities are still be waiting for you. But you may discover something else in the meantime.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:38 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't exactly speak for English Lit. majors or B.A.-type people in general, but I can tell you that you don't know whether or not you'll get into a grad program unless you apply. Is there some professor or instructor in your program that you know that you would be willing to ask to write you a letter of rec? How about academic advisers or someone familiar with your overall degree? Even if you don't plan on applying immediately, get those letters now in a sealed envelope (have the person sign over the flap), then hang on to them. Remember, applying to (almost) any grad program is a three problem area: letters, grades, and GRE scores. Have you thought about taking the GRE yet? Are there any other areas of interest that you have that you could turn into a graduate degree of some kind? Like mr_roboto said, law school? Med school? Dental school? Any other kind of career placement tests/services you could use?

Let's see, overseas jobs. I'm not sure how this would apply to Canadian peeps, but you could check out Teach for America. I know a number of English related people involved with it, and it'll give you about two years to be off on your own trying to figure things out. Also, check out Japan via the JET program. I have a sister-in-law that is currently in Japan, with some company (not sure which one) who is doing well enough to pay off student loans, save, and travel some on top of living there.

The first question is something you'll have to find the answer to yourself, as it isn't exactly easy to answer. Myself, I'm not even sure I have properly answered it yet since my solution was to dive into grad school.

Good luck.
posted by rand at 3:38 PM on January 29, 2009

I'm not using my undergrad degree at all--I work in a totally different field.

Not only that, I graduated from a tiny, religious college that no one has ever heard of but which sends off "crazy cult people!" alarm bells at the name of it.

Figure out what you want to DO next, and go DO it. Your degree will most likely not be an issue at all.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:47 PM on January 29, 2009

I think I have you beat in the mediocrity department:

I graduated from a big state school with a gaudy 2.7 GPA! I started out majoring in English, detested it, and graduated with an utterly worthless BA in psych. I briefly considered grad school for psych until I realized I had no qualifications, no recommendations, and most of the good programs take like 4 out of 500 applicants.

What did I do next? Worked shitty temp jobs. Got bossed around and told how to file by foul-tempered, cigarette-smelling old ladies.

So what do I recommend? Anything but that. Are you sure you really WANT to grad school, or do you just think it's what your "supposed" to do? That's the only reason I considered grad school, and the only reason I persisted in trying to get an office job despite the horrors of the temp agency world.

If I had it to go again, I would get a job. Any kind of job- delivering pizzas, whatever. Those jobs pay money, too. Working in an office confers no special status or dignity. And yeah, I would try to travel, even without money. I get where you're coming from- it's hard and people can be flippant: "just figure it out, man!" But you could at least take a roadtrip to clear your head. Stay with friends, camp, whatever. It doesn't have to cost much of anything.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:48 PM on January 29, 2009

I wasn't going to post anything here, but then I saw the comments suggesting law school. Anon, if you consider this option please think carefully whether you would actually enjoy the practice of law. The hours are long, the competition is stiff, and the work is often tedious. A law school degree in itself is not as useful as many people think it is: most alternative careers open up once that degree has several years of practice behind it. Simply put, going to law school because you can't think of anything better to do is a very good way to find yourself hating your job but saddled with too much student loan debt to do anything else. (IAAL practicing in Canada, FWIW)

You mentioned teaching English abroad - I'll echo what other posters have said that it is quite possible to make money doing this. I can think of three people I know who did this and came out comfortably ahead, with some great experiences to boot. If this is something you think you'd like, I'd say to go for it. I can think of one company off the top of my head that a friend of mine taught in Japan through - memail or e-mail me if you want more details.

A lot of people go through this in their twenties. That doesn't make it suck any less, but you will get through it. Good luck.
posted by AV at 4:08 PM on January 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with others who are asking: WHY do you want to go to grad school?

Seriously. Going to grad school and putting yourself in loads of debt (and, given your undergrad experience, possibly going through a great deal more misery) simply because you can't think of anything better to do, is a BAD idea.

If you're isolated and broke, why don't you get a job? Sure, it may well be a shitty, menial and completely unsatisfying job - but such is immediate post-college life for many an Eng. Lit. grad. I don't mean to sound overly negative, but I speak from experience. Work your ass off, save some cash, move out from your parents' house and get out of the town you hate so much. Move in some different circles, get out of yourself and experiment with many different careers or job opportunities. It may not solve your confusion about what you want out of life, but it will certainly make your day-to-day existence more bearable to know that you are being proactive. Best of luck :-)
posted by Weng at 4:12 PM on January 29, 2009

I ended up hating my chosen subject (English Lit.). My GPA was a solid 3.3-something, but the lack of contacts and good examples of my writing (didn't do a thesis) make it extremely difficult to apply to a master's program.

I'm another escapee from the frozen prairies, now living in another beautiful country where I have to pinch myself every day to believe that my nose won't break off when I walk outside. If you hate your subject and think you are unemployable now, just wait until you finish grad school with a larger debt and less prospects.

You can make a good living doing a lot of things that don't require university education. Being merely conscientious and competent go a long way in the job market. Save up enough for a bus ticket to Vancouver and get some crap job, make some friends, and enjoy being a young broke person for a while.

Once you've figured out what kind of work you like, get extra education in that rather than digging your current hole deeper.

First off though, save up enough to escape your parent's place, which is probably depressing you the most. Save up enough to achieve escape velocity out of your local area and go somewhere fun to seek work. Moving out of the parent's basement to a crap apartment 2 blocks down won't help much.
posted by benzenedream at 4:15 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

You definitely do not need large amounts of cash reserves to teach abroad. I went to China with about $150 in cash reserves, had my flight paid for by my school and came home a year later with about $2000 saved up. Complete independence from my parents my first year out of undergrad was a nice feeling.
posted by bluejayk at 4:37 PM on January 29, 2009

If I don't get out of this tiny Canadian shithole in the prairies, I'll go nuts, I swear.

You're making this really complicated and putting up a lot of roadblocks.

Move to a bigger city, preferably one with cheap apartments for sharing on Craigslist.
Get a job. Any job.

The rest of the mid-twenties finding yourself stuff should follow. There's much to be said for paying your own rent and getting a crash course in prioritization.Grad school can wait a couple of years, if you decide that's really what you want to do.
posted by desuetude at 4:41 PM on January 29, 2009

I got into Columbia and Berkeley's journalism programs (the latter of which you are supposed to have copious amounts of experience to get into) with no experience, and a 3.4 gpa in MUSIC SCHOOL. Where I never wrote a paper longer than 5 pages.

I got some great recommendations from bosses who basically let me write what I wanted and signed it. Befriended a professor at one of the schools who ended up writing me a recommendation too. That helped a lot.

But by rights I shouldn't have gotten into either program. I busted my ass, wrote really good essays and it worked.

Then I didn't go to either of them. I decided to go to nursing school, I'm in the process of finishing up prereqs for that.

A 3.3 gpa is not that bad?? What are you worrying about?
posted by sully75 at 4:50 PM on January 29, 2009


I did 2 years of architecture school, dropped out, worked for months as a depressed-as-hell-draftsman, moved-left town- found a mediocre state school, 3 years of full time underpaid work and full time school. For what? To be honest, an undergrad degree - I didn't care in what.

I spent the next three years in a new city, painting and looking at art. Then, with few connections applied to two MFA programs. I got into one, with half scholarship. It was there, older and more focused that things came together. I met people. It was good.

I'm not saying it was easy, but I know that if I had stayed in the original situation it would have been bad.

posted by R. Mutt at 5:15 PM on January 29, 2009

is there an equivalent of the NYC teaching fellows in Canada? for the uninitiated, you become a teacher while getting your master's through a subsidized program. the program doesn't require prior teaching experience or coursework, only a bachelor's degree. if not, could this maybe be your teaching abroad experience?
posted by alice ayres at 5:19 PM on January 29, 2009

Why do you want/need a Masters? What would you study? Do you have career ambitions that require grad school? You shouldn't go to grad school if you're looking for a sort of "do-over" for undergrad, or if you're just trying to avoid making a decision about what to do with your life. You probably shouldn't do grad school yet even if you do know exactly why you want to go to grad school and where it will take you, career-wise. Put your undergrad experience behind you first. If your last academic experience was miserable, give yourself a chance to grow a little before the next. Take whatever job you can find, save up, move out/away, get a better job, make new friends, figure out what you want to do with your life, and then apply to grad school. It's not an easy thing to do, especially if you're still feeling jarred by the surprise of your undergrad experience, but it's definitely doable. Also, mediocre undergrad + actual life/working experience gives you (generally, unless we're talking about theoretical physics) much better chances at getting into grad programs than mediocre undergrad + nothing else.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:55 PM on January 29, 2009

I didn't want to move home after undergrad, so I spent some time working as a receptionist at a hair salon. I was completely financially independent (poor but proud!) and I had a lot of time and space to just be young, enjoy my city, spend time with my friends, and learn that I could depend on myself to put food on the table. I also learned what 40 hours a week really feels like, which helped me make good career choices later on.

You don't have to be on a path or track. The next thing you do can be a career dead end and still move you forward in life.

A few years ago, I moved to NYC with -$20 and no job lined up. You're young, you have no dependents... take a risk! Pick a place, especially one where you know some friendly people, and just go. You're not too good to work in customer service, retail, or whatever pays the bills. You are too good to sit in your parents' house feeling shitty and regretting the past.
posted by prefpara at 6:02 PM on January 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Given your frame of mind, DO NOT go to graduate school at this point in your life. If you think your BA was worthless, you're going to really hate your loan-financed MA that will add little to your resume.

Likewise, DO NOT go to law school as the default option right now. Many of my friends did this and regret it. If you're seriously considering law, work for a lawyer in private practice or for firm as a temp or in an administrative capacity. Check out what lawyers actually do. Those kind of administrative jobs pay well enough so you should be able to afford to move out of your parents' home.

It's not hard to get a teaching job overseas in Korea, China, Japan, and maybe Latin America or Eastern Europe. In Asia at least those jobs pay the bills, daily drinking at higher end bars, and give you the leeway to travel if you want. Or you save money if you're cautious. It's an excellent way to spend a year or two. Your career center will hook you up.

Finally, don't forget about Korea. It's often not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of overseas jobs, but many outfits there pay relatively well, the standard of living is high, and it is close to a lot of travel destinations.
posted by vincele at 6:07 PM on January 29, 2009

My friend is teaching through JET in Japan, and they are paying him a reasonable wage, and he is spending almost no money on rent, etc. But if you applied now (and it might be too late) you wouldn't be working until late summer. Still, I wouldn't dismiss teaching abroad quite so quickly.

Otherwise... move to Vancouver? Find a cheap room? I hear it's a good time for jobs, what with the Olympics coming, and it seems like a mellow and interesting enough city.
posted by Casuistry at 6:15 PM on January 29, 2009

I'm from Saskatoon. You're from the prairies, so you know where that is; it might even be where you are. After I graduated, I went to Korea to teach English. I paid nothing in airfare, worked for 12 months, saved over $10,000 in one year, took a month off, then went to Thailand on holiday. If you want to do this, it can be done. Email me, if you like. Don't let money stop you.
posted by smorange at 10:20 PM on January 29, 2009

A liberal arts degree is not worthless. You have gained skills in reading, understanding, and analytical thinking. You probably are a pretty good writer, even without doing a thesis. You have shown that you can stick with a somewhat tedious task for 4 years and get a degree at the end. And a 3.3 is not a bad GPA at all. I agree with those saying move somewhere else and get a job.

With my liberal arts degree, I joined AmeriCorps. I'm sure Canada has similar service opportunities, either civil service or with a non-profit. The experience I had from a year working for the state of Maryland for very little money helped me figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life and gave me the specific sorts of skills to do that. It also helped me realize that working hard for very little money and living in a crowded apartment with some friends was not that bad of a life.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:58 AM on January 30, 2009

Nthing exhortations to not go to grad school with your current mindset. Get a job - any job that stimulates you - and check back in with yourself periodically.

Getting a job after undergrad (which was a small town, small school you've never heard of) made me realize that school was a panacea of which I didn't take advantage properly. So, after 8 months of a contract position, I decided to go to grad school. It was great to take the time off.

However, friends in similar mindsets are working far out of their degree fields. Some are even doing manual labor and loving it. College is just a stepping stone, an experience that helps prepare you for future experiences.

Get a job. If you don't like it, get another job.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 9:44 AM on January 30, 2009

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