Can my vastly improved performance in school save me from my past?
February 1, 2009 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Gradschool application question. My undergrad educational history is strange. What are my odds of getting into a really good school?

I started my undergrad program in Canada and had a few classes I got an A in, A few B's, A few C's. 2 F's that I should have contested (they were in my first year and I could probably request that they be removed from my record but I didn't).

With that miraculously crappy transcript I managed to transfer to a mediocre university in the USA. I transfered 27 credits (A's, B's, C's). I can't be sure, but I think my overall GPA from that school was 2.8 or so.

The following 2 years I spent in the US university I have managed to pull off straight A's. I joined the honors program, and I am in the process of graduating with a 4.0 GPA (this university doesn't count transfer credits in the GPA calculation, they are transfered strictly as "credit received"). I will have finished 97 credits all with a 4.0 GPA in this school when I graduate.

Most of the gradschool applications I looked at require transcripts from all post-secondary institutions I attended. Can I omit the Canadian transcript with the grades if all the courses that were transferred are listed as credit-transfers (without grades) on my US transcript?

What are my odds of being accepted into Harvard, Yale, Berkley, Columbia, MIT, or something of that caliber even with my sketchy educational background?

What are my odds of receiving a merit-based scholarship to attend one of these (or another) fine institutions?
posted by ttyn to Education (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: To clarify, the 2.8 GPA is what I think I had in the Canadian University.
posted by ttyn at 9:21 AM on February 1, 2009

You can't omit the grades from any institutions (even if you were on exchange) and you likely aren't going ivy league anyway if you attended mediocre universities in Undergrad.

That said, if you want to apply to a similar university to the one you are attending now for grad school, they weigh your last two years more heavily than the first two.

Unless you have invented something amazing/made a crazy great discovery lately - then send a letter about that, and don't worry about my previous statements.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 9:25 AM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: You cannot omit the first university transcript. If you do and you get away with it for a time, your degree can be revoked even after you get it if you're ever discovered. It's not worth it. Don't do it.

That said, admissions committees are looking at your transcripts to see what you can do and what you will likely do as a grad student and as a [your field]ist. Therefore, they'll weigh your last two years more heavily than your first, since these will give them a better idea where you are academically now. This is especially true if you include on your application a note indicating that you had some trouble adjusting to university life, or that you took some time off to mature, or had to find the right school for you, or whatever it was , but your performance improved once you took care of those things.

I would say your chances are no better or worse than anyone else graduating with a 4.0 at the honours program from a mediocre university. That means what's going to get you in or not is your personal statement, and your letters. Especially your letters.

Grades don't get you into graduate school, and only in the most extreme circumstances would they be the main thing keeping you out of grad school. Ditto for GREs.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:30 AM on February 1, 2009

Response by poster: I wasn't on exchange. I lived in Canada and now I live in the USA.

Why do you think I can't get into any ivy league school? What's the "cut-off" for schools past which I'm unlikely to be accepted? I'm not very familiar with the US school-ranking system.
posted by ttyn at 9:30 AM on February 1, 2009

Most of the gradschool applications I looked at require transcripts from all post-secondary institutions I attended.

This means exactly what it says--all transcripts are required. In many schools, failing to submit one or more transcripts means that your application is incomplete and a decision may not even be made.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:32 AM on February 1, 2009

What kind of graduate program? In which field of study?
posted by availablelight at 9:34 AM on February 1, 2009

Response by poster: MIS or MBA. Worst case scenario M.A. Statistics.
posted by ttyn at 9:36 AM on February 1, 2009

One piece of information that might be helpful is what type of graduate school you're interested in. Some grad schools (e.g., law school, med school) are more formula based than others (e.g., PhD programs) so it's important to know where you're looking. If you, for example, had a 180 on the LSATs, two years of 4.0 grades, and two years of bad grades, I think a lot of top law schools would want you because it would look like you had the necessary talent and banished whatever demons were bothering you at the beginning of college.
posted by eisenkr at 9:37 AM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: There is no cut-off per se (at least not one that was known the admissions committee I sat on -- there may have been one that culled applications before they reached the committee). We can and did admit people with Cs and even Ds on their transcripts. That doesn't mean that those grades are ignored. They're not, they're a huge strike against the applicant, but they're not insurmountable. A candidate who can provide an explanation for the low grades and demonstrate that they've overcome whatever the issue was *AND* make up for it all with an application that's otherwise fantastic can still get in.

Note that last bit, however. The application must otherwise be fantastic. We admitted people with some low grades, people from not-so-great schools, people who started out at community college, and people had barely studied our field. But no one with a non-fantastic application was admitted.

The problem with straight-As from a less than great school is that there's no way of knowing (from the transcript) if you still would have gotten straight As at a better school. One way around this is through your letters and writing sample. Another strategy I've seen used: Register as a "special" or "non-degree" student in the graduate school of a better school. Take a few courses, do well there, build some connections and get letters there, too. Know that often you will not be allowed to apply to be a degree student at the place where you enroll as a non-degree student, so don't do this where you ultimately hope to end up.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:43 AM on February 1, 2009

Many MBA programs also either require or strongly suggest a few years of work experience before applying--so you have to factor that into thinking about what your chances are of getting accepted. Business schools often also require the GMAT--are your scores there competitive? The top schools you mention often get many, many applicants, so you have to consider what will make you stand out from all of the competition.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:44 AM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: First thing I would say is it depends on the program. What kind are we talking about?

If you plan to get a graduate degree in the sciences where there is a research requirement (thesis/dissertation), I think this will not hurt your chances if other parts of your application are not cause for concern.

I used to be on the admissions committee for a prestigious graduate program in my field. Every year we do accept a small number of students with less than stellar grades if there are other indications that they will be successful if accepted into our program (e..g. previous research experience, strong letters of recommendation, publications etc). You have to meet a certain requirement for test scores/GPA (determined by each program) before it even gets to a committee. There is also another (much higher) cut off for scholarships/fellowships. However, those aren't the only sources of funding for grad school. Your application could still get accepted with a teaching/research assistantship. In my program we did not accept a student if we couldn't offer support.

Second, these grades will not hurt your chances if you don't have other red flags. If a major professor is interested in accepting you into his/her lab, that can override any minor flaws you may have. So what I am saying is that as long as you have all other ducks lined up, this wouldn't really matter (especially since your grades improved over time).

good luck.

PS: My advice does not apply to the MBA. On preview, possibly for the statistics program.
posted by special-k at 10:08 AM on February 1, 2009

Work in the field of interest for a year or two. You'll gain experience and make connections, and refine your ideas about what specific grad school program is right for you. The more you have done since those years of bad grades, the less people will care about them. I did the Peace Corps and then worked in research for a couple of years before I applied to grad school. I did very well on my GREs. No one gave a crap that I got bad grades my sophomore year of college. It's absolutely untrue that you can't get into a fine school with blemishes on your past record- you just have to be able to show that you've succeeded since then.
posted by emd3737 at 10:18 AM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: I can't answer your question about your transcripts, though my guess is that you will need to provide both transcripts and explain it in your admissions essays.

But this:

you likely aren't going ivy league anyway if you attended mediocre universities in Undergrad

simply isn't true, in most disciplines. Mediocre grades at a mediocre school doesn't look good, but a stellar performance at a second- or third-tier school (and really good GREs, letters, etc) is great.
posted by Forktine at 10:55 AM on February 1, 2009

I don't have anything specific to add apart from to echo Forktine. I did a Ph.D at an Ivy and knew plenty of fellow grad students who had indeed attended mediocre universities as undergrads...
posted by ob at 11:29 AM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: Choosing graduate schools is much more about finding a match for your professional goals than choosing undergraduate schools is.

The three program types you list usually live in three different divisions at American universities. They often have very different criteria (and cachet), and may even calculate your undergrad GPA differently. How much your GPA will matter depends on your background and the overall mission of the program to which you are applying.

Giving some thought to what you want out of grad school and researching good matches will do more for your applications than concern about your international transcripts...the one requirement all of those programs WILL have in common, and won't waive.
posted by gnomeloaf at 11:52 AM on February 1, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice and all your thoughts!
posted by ttyn at 12:58 PM on February 1, 2009

Best answer: I have run graduate admissions in a quantitative field at two universities, one of them Ivy. The fact that there's a clear break in time and place between your bad GPA and your good GPA will help you a lot. You might want to make some explicit reference in your personal statement to the fact that you didn't really figure out what you wanted to do with your academic life until you got to the new school.

The main point is that you won't get into elite schools without very enthusiastic letters from faculty in areas relevant to the program in question, professors who know you well and who can attest in very specific terms to your promise as a researcher/scientist/statistician. Without that, you're just another kid from an OK university with a 4.0 GPA, and I can tell you from personal experience that there are lots of those.

All this applies just to the scientific degrees -- I have no idea how MBA works, except that, as mentioned upthread, it's somewhat more common to be out in the private sector for a few years after college before applying.
posted by escabeche at 2:21 PM on February 1, 2009

If a top tier MBA is your goal, then you need to go into the working world for a few years. The top schools do not consider applicants without work experience.

Also, submit all your transcripts. You won't be considered with an incomplete application. We didn't read essays until the application was complete.
posted by 26.2 at 7:02 PM on February 1, 2009

This is only obliquely related to your question, but you also asked about your odds of getting into grad school. Most grad programs that pay a stipend (rather than, say, a masters program that you pay to attend) are getting hammered with applications this year due to all the doom and gloom talk of recession. Grad school has always been seen as a good place to ride out recessions, and this time is no different.

Odds are good that most schools will be using every comparison at their disposal to weed out candidates early on in the process so they don't have to read as many letters and essays -- gpa is among the easiest ways to do that. I expect the tolerance for bad grades on an applicant's transcript will be significantly lower than usual at most institutions, this year.

Unfortunately, there isn't much of an upside to this for someone in your position. I absolutely don't want to dissuade you from applying, but know that your odds this year are worse -- perhaps only slightly, or perhaps greatly -- than they would have been a couple years ago. I wouldn't have said anything, since it seems you've gotten good advice for the most part already, but I felt that If only I had a penguin... was painting slightly too rosy a picture.

Realistically, this just means that you need to focus on getting some amazing letters of recommendation, which is what others here have already suggested.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:20 PM on February 1, 2009

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