Conditional Admissions to grad programs--how common are they in the wild?
September 23, 2012 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Grad programs--I've just heard (for the first time) that conditional admissions are A Thing. Would I have a snowball's chance with a good GRE score alone or will I have to take pre-req undergrad classes first?

("As someone once said to me: 'A second Bachelor's degree is NEVER a good option.' You want an engineering degree? Go get a Masters." posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 1:27 PM on January 25, 2011)

Well, I got a degree in business (focus in marketing) and haven't done much with it since. For a variety of complicated reasons tangentially related to the question at hand, I've been working dead-end or only-slightly-less-than-dead-end jobs since graduating. So I can't demonstrate capability to succeed via work experience in the field of the programs I'm considering.

I'm interested in getting a masters degree in Statistics or Computer Science. Once I figure out which direction I want to go, I want to go there fast. I always though I'd have to get a second bachelor's to get into a grad program, but a friend is telling me different. It is news to me. Something called a conditional admission?

Assuming that I can rustle up letters of recommendation, get a good GRE score, and most importantly, become very sure that this time I'm taking a degree I actually want, is it or is it not potentially possible to get some sort of admission into a grad program without a directly-relevant undergrad NOR having directly-relevant work experience? Whether or not such an admission is worth making (likely to succeed) is a related but slightly different question.

If such an admission isn't likely in my situation, I'm okay. I can certainly knock out some pre-req courses while working at my current not-entirely-horrible job and have my current company pay a portion of the tuition. I can build up a portfolio of programs and go crazy with Kahn Academy. Maybe I'll find some open source projects that I can contribute to in the mean time. If that is the case I'm curious how many pre-req classes I'd have to take (or programs I'd have to make for my git-hub account) before it starts to be worth applying to grad programs. The answer to that is obviously "it depends," but what's a realistic idea of how far down that path I'd have to go to make it worth my time to apply?

I guess I was just surprised to hear those kind of admissions actually exist. How common are they? Under what conditions are they, in your experience, extended?

I'm a bit ahead of myself thinking about grad school admissions (when I'm still figuring out basic things like CS vs. Stats), but I was curious about this wild new thing called a conditional admission I had never heard of before. What can you tell me about it?
posted by wires to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what you mean by "conditional admission." Conditional on what?

What is certainly true in my field (math) is that if you can make the case that you'd be a good math graduate student (e.g. via strong letters attesting to your math abilities and good GRE scores) you can get admitted to graduate school in math. Yeah, it's easier if you were a math major, because you're likely to have credits and grades for a lot of undergraduate coursework we expect our students to come in knowing. But a letter from a math professor telling us that you know as much math as an entering graduate student should know can be an acceptable substitute, depending on the rest of your application.

Taking some pre-req courses is a really good idea, both to strengthen your application and to give you a clearer idea of what you actually might like studying at a graduate level. Look at the web pages for graduate programs you're interested in; most of them will tell you what coursework they expect their applicants to have completed.

As far as statistics goes, my sense is that undergraduate statistics majors in the US are pretty rare, and that tons of entrants to statistics grad programs don't have BAs in the subject. But I couldn't find any hard numbers on this.

(I am a graduate admissions director but I am not your graduate admissions director.)
posted by escabeche at 7:37 PM on September 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure why you'd want an MA or MS in a discipline that you haven't taken that many classes.

At the very least, I think, you'd have to take and do well in the prereqs.

Also, letters from a marketing prof aren't going to carry the same weight as they would from a prof in a similar discipline.

I think, since you're undecided about 2 fairly different fields, you should first decide what you want to do (maybe take some prereqs in both) before applying.
posted by k8t at 7:49 PM on September 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, one backdoor is that sometimes new and in not desirable places grad programs will take people out of desperation.
I don't think that this would be a good strategy though.
posted by k8t at 7:51 PM on September 23, 2012

It varies program to program, of course, but most programs won't care too much what you did your undergrad in, exactly, they care whether or not you can show you have the relevant skills and knowledge they expect from someone entering their program -- whether that's through coursework or work or whatever else -- can you somehow demonstrate that you have proficiency in CS or statistics, the sort that might be necessary to take graduate-level classes? Can you show somehow that you are sure you are interested in these programs? Then you're probably fine. Have you actually gone to the websites of programs you're interested in and seen what their admissions requirements are? Like escabeche I'm not sure what sort of "conditional admission" you're thinking exists, conditional on what?
posted by brainmouse at 7:53 PM on September 23, 2012

Most stats grad students did something else for undergrad, but usually in the sciences or math fields so you'd be better off taking some undergrad courses in those areas first to show you can do the math. Unless you took a lot of math for your undergrad already or really knock the Math GRE out of the park.
posted by fshgrl at 7:54 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can't you start at a community college and take prerequisites or a sampling of CS classes first?
posted by discopolo at 8:08 PM on September 23, 2012

From other people's answers this may not be true in CS, but in the health professions world, what you would do is go to a post-baccalaureate program (also called a "post-bacc") to take a few of the prereqs before applying to grad school. It's not like taking a full second bachelor's degree. I think it would really help your application if you have no relevant job experience either.

I googled "post-baccalaureate program computer science" and came up with a bunch of programs so they definitely exist.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:23 PM on September 23, 2012

Best answer: I have a little bit of experience with the statistics side. You will find two kinds of statistics programs.

The first offers "professional" terminal master's degrees, primarily to part-time students who work during the day. These programs prepare students for careers in data analysis. The required coursework begins with extremely rudimentary material. Although advanced topics may be covered, they are explained at an intuitive level. Students will be expected to demonstrated an understanding of basic arithmetic and algebra, and may be called upon to learn rudimentary programming concepts.

The second offers doctoral (and sometimes master's) degrees in mathematical statistics. These are rigorous quantitative programs. You will be called upon to demonstrate an understanding of subjects like real analysis and linear algebra at an advanced undergraduate level. These subjects are not taught in community colleges. Without an adequate undergraduate background, you will be simply lost in a program like this.

If you're considering a program of the first sort, identify one or two in your region, note the department or college that houses them (education? biology? business school?), and try approaching the program director for further guidance.
posted by Nomyte at 8:24 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

My university offers conditional admission for a few factors - usually undergrad GPA under a 3.0, or a test of English as a second language score that is below the minimum. The condition is then that the student get above a 3.0 in their first semester, or take English classes at our university and score better on the test before being admitted.

There are also formal and informal admits done with deficiencies. A department will admit a student who has great potential, but let the student know they need to take X number of undergrad classes in their first year in order to fill in gaps in their education.

My department has many more applicants than slots, so we almost never do conditional admission. There's no incentive for us. We do admit with informal deficiencies (not reported to our Graduate Division) and those are usually handled between the new student and their advisor.

We also sometimes admit students who don't have an undergrad degree in our field, but they've always done post-BS classes and/or employment and/or research in our field.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:26 PM on September 23, 2012

Best answer: In case you haven't done so already, googling "graduate school conditional admittance" gets you a gazillion departmental websites explaining what that means in that particular school. It's probably worth reading a few of them to see what the range is, because there is definitely some variation.

But at heart it's a pretty basic thing: it's a way for a school to admit someone who is for whatever reason considered not quite fully qualified or high risk in some way. Someone with a low GPA might get admitted that way, for example -- you are in, but you have to prove yourself or satisfy some special requirements before you receive regular student status.

To grossly overgeneralize, undergrad major is not usually a big deal in graduate admissions in the US, but proving that you have the necessary pre-reqs is a big deal. The departments you are considering will probably list admission requirements, including gpa and gre minimums, required course sequences or competencies, etc. Some people leave undergrad with all of those requirements taken care of; lots of people who are shifting directions need go back to school to take care of the pre-reqs before grad school.
posted by Forktine at 8:30 PM on September 23, 2012

I do know of one math department that has a program that's a mechanism for admitting people from weak backgrounds, but "weak background" meant (at least for the one person I ever encountered admitted that way) "was a math major at a school that flat out didn't offer courses we'd expect a math major to have taken" but seemed promising for other reasons. Basically, they occasionally funded someone who took the upper level honors undergrad classes for a year before officially entering the PhD program.
posted by hoyland at 8:48 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Squeak Attack explains conditional admission well. I was someone who had a very unflattering undergrad transcript, and despite taking and getting A's in two counseling courses at grad level (my Masters program), I was given conditional admission due to my shit record. I had to get a B or better in my first two classes to be granted full admission. I did, and I have since completed the program. After realizing I didn't want to suffer the torture that is having a high school principal as my boss I got another Masters degree which was a great idea. Choose wisely.
posted by Sal and Richard at 9:36 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who teaches in a smallish regional state school liberal arts program MA: yeah, we let folks in with good grades and good scores, but not the prereqs, sometimes. Then they need to take a year (usually) of leveling courses to fill in the prereqs or minimum course hours in the major. Some of the folks we've let in that way tend to fade off, but the majority of them do fine if they have the willpower to grind through the extra coursework.

In my limited experience, mostly these will be older returning students with their eyes on some practical prize (teaching HS advanced placement courses in an area that wasn't their major, etc.). That tends to make them fairly serious students, and if their scores are good, very worth taking a risk on for a school like ours.
posted by LucretiusJones at 10:08 PM on September 23, 2012

I have a BA in psycbology and am enrolled RIGHT NOW as a conditional admit to University of Michigan Flint for the MS in computer science and information systems program. There are about 5 'fast track' courses they may require you to take to cover for the deficiencies of not having a BS ugrad (they evaluated my work experience and ugrad transcript and asked me to take 2 of the classes). Once you are enrolled and complete the fast track courses they require then they change your status from conditional admit to regular admit. While u are conditional btw u still qualify for financial aid, employer reimbursement, etc. George mason university in VA has a similar program. UofM program can be done in person (ugh, michigan) or online (my choice), gmu is only in person.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 5:09 AM on September 24, 2012

Apply to schools in Sweden. They don't care about the GRE or letters of rec and are much cheaper. Also many are in our language.
posted by tarvuz at 9:46 PM on September 24, 2012

Apply to schools in Sweden. They don't care about the GRE or letters of rec and are much cheaper. Also many are in our language.

Uh, this is totally opposite to good advice. While presumably intelligent and whatnot, the OP appears to lack qualifications in the fields they're interested in. They are asking whether a good GRE score and references are sufficient qualifications in lieu of coursework. Take those out of the equation and what grounds does a university have to admit them? (Sorry, OP, I couldn't figure out how to write this without calling you unqualified.)

Actually, OP, you'll need subject-specific advice as to how much departments value the GRE. Google has found me a stats department that requires the math GRE subject test, one that requires the CS subject test and one that requires only the general GRE, having checked three departments. (The last was a top department, btw. It wasn't somewhere with low standards.) Since there's a CS subject test, CS is probably more standardised. You want to know if the canonical advice is 'no one cares about the general GRE, just don't do really badly' or 'they care about the math section and the subject test' or whatever other permutation.
posted by hoyland at 6:25 AM on September 25, 2012

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