Can I get into grad school even though I screwed up in college?
July 9, 2005 6:33 PM   Subscribe

Let's say I really- like really screwed up throughout college. Do I still have a shot to get into any grad schools?

Due to personal circumstances (intense depression related to a nightmarish coming out experience with my parents that continued throughout college, and having made the absolutely incorrect choice of major), I only graduated with a 2.4 GPA from UCSD. Trouble is, I know I can do better.
Only now that I've been in the workforce for a few weeks have I realized just how important it was to get good grades. Many of the jobs I'm interested in with the CIA require a 3.0 GPA.
Is it too late for me? I'm not a slacker, I was just down on my luck for a few years during college, and I know if I got another chance I could do really well.
posted by anonymous to Education (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I can't really speak on your chances with the CIA, but you can definitely get into grad schools. Glowing recommendations, superlative GRE scores and well-written essays can go a long way.

(Also, let me observe that, given all the ways one could screw up their college experience, graduating with a 2.4 isn't really all that bad.)
posted by box at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

There might just be reasons other than your grades the CIA isn't going to put you on the short list. Just sayin'

But as the director of a grad program who admits students to grad school every year ( see the last time admitting this got me into trouble here ) my advice is to go back and do a year of undergrad coursework (through a 2d major program or continuing ed arrangement with a *good* college, UCSD would be fine) and kick ass this time. I mean pull straight A+ grades in courses directly preparatory to your field of choice for grad school. That can undo a misspent first attempt. Given your chosen profession, start working hard on a language relevant to your interests, and I mean intensively, so that you can claim some fluency when applying. Give yourself a couple of years to do this work, and really build a skillset and a portfolio (including recent high quality writing samples). And then, very very carefully, tell your story in your application essay. Leave out the details -- it's just a "personal crisis" that interfered with your studies, and explain how you've made up for it with more recent efforts.

It's hard to take this in, but grad school admissions committees are concerned if a student has a history of "personal crises" interfering with his/her work, on the basis that you need not only to be smart, but mentally tough and able to produce through such crises to make it in academia, which is what most PhD programs think most of their students are preparing to do (I'm assuming this a PhD in one of the arts and sciences disciplines). So it's tricky to make an excuse for poor grades or uneven grades, or wasted years that is anything but a doozy -- a sick child or partner, perhaps. But leaving it unexplained, if it's as bad as you say, is not so good either. I recommend also trying to connect with someone involved in the admissions process (via email or a campus visit) who seems sympathetic and will make your case with the best face on it in the admissions committee. But if you can turn in a strong encore performance with some post-college coursework and skill development, you can probably get away with saying "Although my work as an undergraduate was disrupted by a personal crisis, I have more recently applied myself seriously to preparing for grad school by doing X,Y, and Z." Don't be maudlin or pathetic, just gloss over it as a point of fact. Heck, our President was a C student who admitted to a few "youthful indiscretions."

However, he never had to come out. Kudos to you for getting through that and regaining your footing, and good luck. Maybe the CIA is more progressive than I think.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:01 PM on July 9, 2005 [3 favorites]

I spent 7 years as an undergrad and ended up with a 2.1 (would have been a 1.88 except they replaced grades when you re-took a course instead of averaged). I busted my ass preparing for the LSAT and got into law school based upon my test score a good post college work record and a little lobbying. Give it a shot. What have you got to lose?
posted by Carbolic at 7:08 PM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I second realcountrymusic's comment that graduate school is not for the faint of heart.

People suffering from depression can certainly succeed in graduate school- I did- but any mental-health issues you have will no doubt be exacerbated by the pressures you'll surely encounter.

Good luck!
posted by elisabeth r at 7:25 PM on July 9, 2005

Lordy, good one Marky.

Box wrote:
Glowing recommendations, superlative GRE scores and well-written essays can go a long way.

Kinda hard to get those glowing recs if you didn't crack a C in college. For PhD programs, you pretty much have to have recs from professors who taught you, not employers etc. This, of course, is another reason to go back to school for a year or two and do well. GRE scores are tricky. I like to say "bad ones hurt, great ones help on the margin (but never substitute for recs, grades, and writing samples), and scores between about 600 and 750 are simply expected, with some variance permitted on the exam less relevant to your field of choice (i.e., the quantitative exam for English, or the Verbal for engineering). That said, yes, you do want to prepare for them and try to go for that 790. It can make up some ground.

and . .
Also, let me observe that, given all the ways one could screw up their college experience, graduating with a 2.4 isn't really all that bad.

Depends on the level of the grad program you hope to attend. Pretty much no way a 2.4 is going to get through the gates in the top tier PhD programs in the arts and sciences unless there is a really significant offsetting credential (like you published a book and it's good; or patented something important). Grades, like GREs, are pretty taken for granted in my universe. We don't even see applications from students who have earned less than a 3.0 in college, except in rare cases. When we do, it's an immediate red flag (heck, below 3.5 is a flag, but our program is quite competitive and small). And like GREs, low grades can hurt (do hurt, worse than all but a disastrous GRE), exceptional grades can be a selling point, but solid grades, and strong grades in courses directly preparatory for your field of study, are pretty much taken for granted.

I don't mean to contradict or sound intimidating. And maybe this isn't about the better PhD programs in the arts and sciences at all. But the truth is it is darn competetive to gain funded admission (which is often about the only kind that matters) to a top PhD program, ridiculously so given the rough job prospects, which tends to attact people you can either call geeks or idealists who are pretty single-minded about their academic work. You need to be realistic about your competitiveness, and upgade it to the level you want to be at, even if it takes time and effort.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:31 PM on July 9, 2005

Carbolic is right on to suggest law school. Law school weights the LSAT far heavier than any other graduate program weights its respective admission test. Pull an LSAT above 170 and add in a slightly interesting resume, and you're certain to get into a highly respectable law school, likely, although not certain, to get into at least one of the lesser-ranked of the top 15 schools (think Georgetown or Northwestern), and a reasonable, if somewhat longshot, chance at admission to one of the middle-ranked of the top 15 schools (think Duke or Penn).
posted by MattD at 7:36 PM on July 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Having been in a similar situation (in terms of grad school, not the part about the CIA and the coming-out), I advise you to actually sit down and calculate how many credit hours of pure 4.0 it would take for your GPA to reach a 3.0. It's probably more than you think. I think I finished my undergrad with a GPA pretty close to yours. Additional post-bach coursework, all of which I busted my ass to ace, eventually brought me to about a 2.9, but I realized that a 3.0 was going to take more than an additional year of classes.

I would also make contact with someone at HR (or whatever it is) in the CIA, and get a bead on whether or not you qualify in other respects. Surely they are going to find out about your traumatic coming-out experience, and all the attached baggage, on their own. I don't think it's a wild shot in the dark to suppose that there may have been some self-destructive behavior associated with all your drama, and they're going to find out about that, too.
posted by bingo at 8:24 PM on July 9, 2005

When Carbolic asks what you have to lose if you go to law school, the answer is tons of money in the form of debt. Grad school and law school are not fungible, so I don't see why people are saying you should consider law school if you're interested in grad school (unless you're considering grad school in IR or polisci or something like that).
posted by kenko at 8:27 PM on July 9, 2005

There is an earlier thread that you may find helpful.
posted by stet at 8:27 PM on July 9, 2005

It really depends on where and what you'd like to study. Grad school is too great of a commitment of your time and money to simply go to best program -- regardless of the field -- that will have a 2.4.

This being said, a 2.4 shouldn't disqualify you from graduate studies, though it will make getting admission into a competitive program a steep, uphill climb.

W/R/T jobs that require a certain GPA; they may specify undergraduate GPA regardless of any post-graduate studies. They hand out high grades left-and-right in most Masters programs -- ever met a Masters student getting a C?
posted by herc at 8:33 PM on July 9, 2005

Here's another very relevant thread.
posted by whatnotever at 8:38 PM on July 9, 2005

I screwed up much worse early in my undergraduate career, and by the time I got to grad school I had no trouble being admitted to top programs. However, by the time I applied, I had a 4.0 in the major that I was applying with (one which I had switched focus to since my screwup), had taken grad classes in that major, and had excellent recommendations. It was really the recommendations that were important. So I am evidence that big-time academic screwups during your undergraduate career can be tolerated without any qualms.

However, I'd be very surprised if they were tolerated without you having shown evidence that it isn't likely to happen again, and the people who are recommending you showing that they strongly believe it won't happen again. It doesn't sound from the original question like either of these conditions are likely to obtain. You may want to think about applying to terminal masters programs first, and then moving on to a phd program if you still want to. I've also known someone who screwed up worse than you the first time around, and went back to school for an undergrad degree several years later, did well, and was admitted to fairly good PhD programs.

They hand out high grades left-and-right in most Masters programs -- ever met a Masters student getting a C?

For many programs, a C is a failing grade, and even a B might be. The options for a grade in a grad class at a good school are basically either excellent, or not passing.
posted by advil at 9:05 PM on July 9, 2005

If you break 750 on the GMAT, you have a shot at a top 7 business school.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:21 PM on July 9, 2005

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but...

I slacked off a bit during my undergrad years and ended up with a 2.8 GPA at the end of my sophomore year. I also decided at the time that I was interested in going to work for the CIA / FBI / NSA after graduation. I started looking into their internship programs, and like you, realized I needed at least a 3.0. I talked to a few representatives from the agencies at my university's career fair to see what kind of chances I had with a 2.8 GPA. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn't meet the minimum GPA requirements, my application would not be considered (the guy from the NSA flat out said it would be thrown in the trash). I'm not sure what programs you're looking in to, but I know their internship programs are extremely competive. Even if you can meet the minimum requirements, the chances of being selected to participate are pretty slim.

It seems your best options from here would be to continue your schooling (and get better grades, obviously) or spend a few years working in the "real world" and try to apply directly for a job at the agency of your choice. I imagine a few years of work experience would negate any GPA requirements.

If you choose to continue schooling, only persue law school if it is something you are genuinely interested in. It is a common misconception that having a law background will make you more desirable to the FBI/CIA. When talking to the recruiters, they stressed that having a law degree was not nearly as valuable as having a business or computer degree, or knowing specific foreign languages (think Farsi and Arabic). I'm not saying a law degree would hurt, but it won't help as much as a lot of people think.
posted by geeky at 9:40 PM on July 9, 2005

MattD said: Pull an LSAT above 170 and add in a slightly interesting resume, and you're certain to get into a highly respectable law school, likely, although not certain, to get into at least one of the lesser-ranked of the top 15 schools (think Georgetown or Northwestern), and a reasonable, if somewhat longshot, chance at admission to one of the middle-ranked of the top 15 schools (think Duke or Penn).


Kwanstar said: If you break 750 on the GMAT, you have a shot at a top 7 business school.

I ask both of you the same question. Considering my last AskMeFi thread, which was regarding a past academic indescretion, I'd like to know where you received your information. Is it anecdotal? It it based on statistical evidence you can cite? Is it a gut instinct?

Because everyone I've spoken to has make it clear that for both MBAs and JDs, despite how high your admissions score is, if your GPA is under a 2.8-3.0, it's impossible to get into a Top 20 without some sort of ridiculous essay, recommendations, and experience (Read: major publishing, major life accomplishment, etc).
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:06 PM on July 9, 2005

It's because no matter how high minded the schools' admission offices say they are in saying that they're looking for well-rounded and interesting applicants, most professional schools are also standardized testing score whores, mostly due to rankings like U.S. News that heavily weigh the school's average GMAT/LSAT in determining the rankings. If you can pull an amazing score on the GMAT or LSAT out of your ass you're still likely to get into a very good school.

Now, your 2.4 GPA might be a bit low. The people I knew that got into great top-15 or so law schools had GPAs around 2.7 or so and mid-170 LSAT scores. You might actually have to pull a high-170s score to get into a great law school.
posted by gyc at 10:30 PM on July 9, 2005

Another point: did your grades continually improve through out school? Did you start out with a 2.0 after your freshman year and then improve to a 2.4? If so, admission officers might be willing to place less weight on your GPA if you were able to pull A's and B's in your upper-level classwork.
posted by gyc at 10:32 PM on July 9, 2005


I have spent a dozen years involved in, to a greater or lesser extent, or at least closely observing, the law, med school, and business school applications of scores (if not hundreds, by now) of family, friends, co-workers and acquaintences, the vast majority of whom shared the same common goal (any top law or b-school, any med school, period, as the case was) and many of whom had a GPA problem to overcome.

However, the analysis I make can be verified by spending some time on the appropriate bulletin boards (, and the BusinessWeek bulletin boards are a good place to start), as well as consulting the admissions statistics published by the law school and business school admissions-director associations, and by consulting the statements of admission policies and GPA/board score spreads on the schools' websites.

With all due respect to everyone you have spoken to regarding law school, they are simply incorrect. Every school that is not Yale provisionally determines the large part of their class by a mathematical formula which weights GPA and LSAT, and which often weights the LSAT MORE than the GPA. I.e., four hours on a Saturday is more important four years of homework and exams.

Even a 180 is unlikely to get you into a top 6 or 7 school, not because they reject you out of hand, but because the formula can't weight the LSAT high enough to put your ahead of the competition of much-higher GPAs and still-high LSATs you're up against.

However, a 2.3 and 175 would provisionally qualify you for admission at virtually every school outside of the top 15 and at a number of schools higher up. You need a decent, but not necessarily world conquering, resume only to avoid them striking you out on the second pass through the list of the provisionally qualified by saying that you're bright but lazy (the obvious conclusion implied by the high LSAT, low GPA combo). Getting, and keeping for two or three years, a job with professional compensation and responsibilites is just the antidote to that worry, as it shows that you've gotten over whatever distractions or problems with work ethic that may have gotten you down in college. And even then, we're talking about getting into UCLA or Georgetown. If you'd be happy with Hastings or George Washington or Notre Dame or any of another dozen perfectly good schools, the resume is probably dispensable if you've got the LSAT.

Now with all due respect to Kwantsar (who is very smart about finance generally) and everyone else you spoke to, they are largely correct, but only by accident. A high GMAT won't rescue a low GPA because a high GMAT just isn't very important for business school admission, and won't rescue from any other serious failing in your application, either.

The admissions return on each 10 points higher on a GMAT (above the mid-600s) actually diminishes, to the point that a 770 causes barely any better outcomes than a 730. (Of course, a 770 correllates with better oucomes because the same qualities which make you otherwise qualified tend to drive higher GMATs.)

Someone with a 2.4 at UCSD and an 750 GMAT would be rejected as a matter of course at all the top business schools without a VERY impressive intervening resume -- I'm talking about a three to five year stretch in with a company or organization known to be very competitive and demanding, and where you could point to promotion ahead of track or some other kind of objective indicator of personal outperformance.
posted by MattD at 10:59 PM on July 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

I did rather badly during my first few years of undergrad, only really "waking up" in the final 12-16 months of my 5 year tenure. But it was at a very well respected technical university so that helped.

After working for a couple years, I went back for a 2nd undergrad degree and kicked out the jams. A 3.5 at that place was smoking, and gave me the ability to say "3.5 GPA in [major] courseload" and not be bending the truth at all.

I didn't go on to grad school (had enough of academia now, thanks) but I do believe that if you're in the situation of having a horrible undergrad record, consider going back and getting another undergrad degree. If your first degree is recent, a lot of the courseload carries over. Of course, that's still a lot of time and money (in my case, about 18 months full time but nearly no money for the state school) but if you can swing it I think it's a good option. Generally it makes you feel better about everything and makes for a stronger case when pursuing a job or grad school.

This is technical school though, YMMV.
posted by intermod at 11:06 PM on July 9, 2005

Looking for the numbers representative of the pool of law school applicants?
posted by herc at 2:16 AM on July 10, 2005

I think there's a lot of good data and insight up above, but let me tell you a true story, which I think you might find encouraging.

A good friend and classmate of mine at the University of Chicago graduated with about a 2.2 GPA. She is incredibly intelligent, but just didn't seem to find her focus until late in her fourth of fifth year (it took her 4 years and a quarter to graduate) having taken many incompletes in her first two years.

Having completed her BA, she almost instantly went back to the UofC on a continuing ed basis and got the equivalent of second BA in Biology... all the while doing work for a medical aid non profit and took on additional medicine-related volunteer work. At any rate, she studied like hell for the MCATs, applied three times (Rudy! Rudy!) and finally got into the Pritzker School of Medicine (which I think is still in the top 10, or at least close to it) 6 years after getting her BA. She graduated there with honors (while giving birth to and raising two kids during her four years there), and I think she's just finished her residency at a hospital in chicago.

Lesson: if you have desire, passion and focus, you can overcome an awful lot. I can't speak to getting into a top 10 law school with a 2.4 as others have so eloquently above, but I think if you choose another field where you can demonstrate your re-born focus and drive, you may find a lot more doors open to you. Best of luck!
posted by psmealey at 8:20 AM on July 10, 2005 [2 favorites]

Despite what anyone else has said above, it's all about the GRE. If you can do well enough to make up for the poor grades (and BTW, 2.4 isn't that bad), you should have a decent shot.

As far as doing well on it, I made a 1010 on the SAT and an 1190 on the GRE, all thanks to hardcore studying (and I'm not exceptionally intelligent). Don't believe any of that crap about how "you can't study for the GRE," it's simply not true.

Best of luck.
posted by JPowers at 3:50 PM on July 10, 2005

Despite what anyone else has said above, it's all about the GRE.

It's been said in some of the linked askmefi threads, but this seems to be highly field-dependent. In my field (linguistics), at most of the top schools, GRE is next to unimportant, and perfect GRE scores probably wouldn't offset bad recommendations. It might offset a bad GPA (though I'd imagine that high GRE scores and poor academic record could also make them think you're that unpleasant combination of smart and lazy). Good recommendations, however, will (and commonly do) offset not-so-good GRE scores.
posted by advil at 8:38 PM on July 10, 2005

The trick is to wait five years.

I had like a 2.4 in undergrad. Five years after graduating, I had a whim to go to graduate school, and I applied to a highly regarded private university, not really thinking I had a chance of getting in. Not only did I get in, I got a scholarship. I was told that since I had been out of school five years, I was considered a "non-traditional student," which made me more desirable somehow. I was only 26 at that point so I didn't feel terribly non-traditional, but I wasn't about to argue with them.

Of course, this doesn't help you if you recently graduated from college. But if you don't get in now, reconsider it in a few years and ask the places you are interested in if they give special consideration to people who have been out of school for a while.

As a side note, I too was sure that I could do better if given another chance. But I sucked in grad school too, and dropped out after the first semester.
posted by clarissajoy at 11:33 AM on July 11, 2005 [2 favorites]

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