Embarrassed about my GPA
December 4, 2009 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Recommender (former professor) wants to see my grades for graduate school. My last year and a half was stellar, but before that I have a smattering of Cs (five). Should I say anything?

I'm a recent college graduate. For the last three semesters I had straight A's, but before that things were mixed - a combination of As, Bs, and Cs, thanks to a mix of laziness, family issues, and a long-distance relationship gone-wrong that had lasting effects. My GPA ended up being a 3.35 after dipping down to 3.0, and I'm proud of that, but not very proud of my lack of focus before as well as my overall GPA.

I'm applying to architecture graduate school, and a recommender (former professor at an Ivy, young but established and accomplished) wants to see my grades. When I took classes with him I was in focus-mode, my grades were pretty great, and I came off as a sharp and focused student. (Uh, which I _was_ by then.) Now, I'm worried that showing him my grades will be more detrimental than helpful if he sees my GPA. Should I add a note explaining the situation? Should I somehow weasel out of showing him my grades? What would you do?

Thanks! (Asked anonymously because my account is linked to my real identity.)
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Professor here. Just send the grades as asked, with no comment. If he thinks well of you those earlier grades won't matter. He might even mention that you did much better at the end, and that those grades were not representative of your work as a senior.
posted by procrastination at 10:50 AM on December 4, 2009

I had some pretty miserable grades in college, including some outright Fs. Same story as you -- once I found my focus, my GPA was a 4.0, both for my last two years of college and in my major, but it was a real mess before that. One of the professors writing my recommendation asked for a transcript, and I asked if I could go over it with him in person.

It actually turned out to be really helpful, because after years of sitting on the department admissions committee, he helped me figure out how I could spin things to make me look like a great candidate. He wasn't judgmental about it at all, and I honestly think he wanted to see my transcript to help me with my application and make his recommendation as tailored as possible, not to inform whether or not he'd write me a recommendation at all. I got into every school I applied to, even the one I thought was so far out of my league I was throwing away my application fee just to try.
posted by adiabat at 10:52 AM on December 4, 2009

This is a pretty common pattern among students' grades, at least for students applying to graduate school. I wouldn't worry about it. Your professor has seen this before. You might ask him to comment in his letter about how your performance improved through your undergraduate years and you're now at a level where you can expect to succeed in graduate school. Professors and admissions committees see this all the time. It's not really an issue.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:53 AM on December 4, 2009

You should certainly explain yourself succinctly. Don't launch into a multi-paragraph exegesis on your family issues--professors hear enough of that from their current students.

Something along the lines of, "You might notice that I was a bit uneven in my first few years at school, but I shaped up by the time we met. I hope you'll keep your personal experience with my academic performance in mind. Please let me know if you have any questions about the transcript" should do fine.

Absolutely do not weasel out of your grades, as he'll expect the worst. He can even throw a positive spin on how determined you clearly were to boost your GPA.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:54 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another professor here. I'd be inclined to say something positive ("student had problems initially, but has made up for them tenfold") about the situation, so don't try to spin anything. As the other posters have mentioned, we see this sort of thing all the time.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:19 AM on December 4, 2009

Jeez, this question sounds like I *wrote* it. I've been in this situation, grades-wise and life-wise. Ultimately your professor is someone you have a positive enough relationship with that you were comfortable asking them to write a letter about you -- I doubt a few Cs are going to change his opinion, which he formed based on his own experiences.

If you include a note, I'd be brief -- briefer than you were in this question, even. "You'll notice a few Cs, due to some personal issues" or something to that effect. Definitely don't weasel out of this reasonable request, though.
posted by zvs at 11:19 AM on December 4, 2009

If you're really worried, show him the grades, and then stop by his office and ask the crucial question in this situation: "Do you think you'll be able to write me a strong recommendation?" The crucial word there is "strong." This is the standard, socially acceptable, face-saving way of asking "Do you really like me as a student, or are you just gonna write something half-assed to humor me?"

If he says "Yes," you can stop worrying. If he said "No" (everyone else is right — he won't — but if he did) then you'd go looking for another letter writer and there'd be no harm done.

Everyone else really is right, though. These grades are no big deal. "Three semesters of straight As in upper level classes in our field" is way more impressive then "3.35 total undergrad GPA"; if he's got his head screwed on right, the transcript will bring you up in his estimation.

Plus which, I'll let you in on a secret: Your professors don't care if you have bad grades. What's important in their eyes is whether you're nice, hardworking, smart and responsible. Usually those qualities lead to good grades — but when they don't, when a student with all those qualities fails a class anyway, profs think to themselves "I really liked that Anonymous. I wonder what went wrong?" rather than "Looks like Anonymous was secretly a Bad Person all along. I'd better make sure to write a terrible recommendation if they ask for one." If you made a good impression in this guy's classes, he'll be looking in your transcript for good points to talk up in his letter, not rope to hang you with.

posted by nebulawindphone at 12:04 PM on December 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

You absolutely must show the grades to the person writing your rec, because this is the person who is going to smooth it over for you with the grad school you are applying to.

I accidentally got hold of my file shortly after entering grad school, so I read my recs, and one of the professors said, "Even though I would characterize her more of a B student than a straight A student, she is intellectually curious, hardworking, etc., whatever..." So she was able to put a positive twist on a potential red flag for me.
posted by Knowyournuts at 12:18 PM on December 4, 2009

This happened to me too. I was up front with my letter writers and in my grad school app about my crappy grades in the early part of my undergrad career. I got in just fine.
posted by look busy at 1:12 PM on December 4, 2009

IAAP also, though IANYP ROTFL.

Send the whole transcript, you get much worse potential ddownside from hiding these than from releasing them (if that were even possible). And in my experience, many many people dome into their own in the 3rd and 4th year of undergraduate, and I do not think poorly of them at all -- in fact I am distrustful of perfect transcripts because I wonder if they just have figured out a paint by numbers approach to perfect GPA and executed it. Not all have, but some, and those ones are remarkably lacking in initiative and maturity and creativity when in graduate school. For two identical GPAs, if the trend is improvement, that is admirable, if the trend is downwards that is a huge, huge, red flag. The best graduate students find their feet in the hardest upper level undergraduate courses and those marks are of the most concern to almost every professor I know.

If there is some specific reason they were lower in the early years then make that known -- some professors don't care but if a students says, they were lower because [my mother died] [I was going off heroin] even [I partied too much] gives me something to work with if I want to run interference for you in my letter.
posted by Rumple at 1:51 PM on December 4, 2009

If asked let them know that you had some family issues and once they got sorted out you were able to get better grades.
posted by WizKid at 2:13 PM on December 4, 2009

As far as general grad school advice goes, I agree with what previous posters have said. If you are really concerned about your GPA affecting your admission and have a good relationship with your professor, you might ask him to address this issue in the letter of recommendation.

As far as Architecture graduate school goes, unless you are applying for a PhD program, your portfolio (!!!!!) and then letters of recommendation are the most important parts of your application. GPA, GRE importance really varies among the schools but most Arch grad programs "require" a 3.0 minimum (which you are above). A really, truly awesome portfolio can make up for deficiencies in your application.
posted by sacapuntas at 4:13 PM on December 4, 2009

Another lecturer here. If someone agrees to write a reference letter, he or she knows the drill and intends to help. I vote for sending the transcript with your thanks and an offer to discuss any questions he might have.
posted by woodway at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2009

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