Undergrad GPA Bad; Grad School GPA good. What now?
December 4, 2012 5:04 PM   Subscribe

PhD application time: I'm applyling to PhD programs in the social sciences after completing my Master's. My grad school GPA is very good. My undergraduate GPA isn't. Will this matter? Should I address this in my personal statements?

My undergrad GPA was 2.99. My GPA in my major (English) was 3.20, not much better. I graduated in 2003. I was almost certainly suffering from low-level depression, but it wasn't diagnosed until years later.

I managed to get into a decent graduate program in the social sciences and I did pretty well. Good GPA (3.97), a publication credit, teaching experience, good letters of reccommendation, pretty good GRE scores, etc. So now I'm applying to PhD programs in that same social science field.

Will anyone on the PhD selection committees care about a lousy undergrad GPA? I'm asking because I'm debating whether or not to address it in my personal statement. I've read that one should address obvious blemishes on their record. But on the other hand, it was so long ago and I'd rather spend time on my personal statements discussing all of my more recent work.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.
posted by mcmile to Education (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think it is worth mentioning. I am a business professor and I would not care at all about your undergrad GPA.
posted by bove at 5:18 PM on December 4, 2012

You might say something like, "I've flourished in grad school thanks to my enthusiasm for focused work in my field" or some such. The first half of that sentence is the important part.
posted by Madamina at 5:30 PM on December 4, 2012

I changed fields majorly between undergrad and my master's. Everybody asked about it in my admissions interviews and it made several advisors unwilling to take me on as an advisee for my master's (my eventual advisor found it interesting, luckily). After I finished my master's with research experience and publications and of course coursework in my area with good grades, nobody ever even really asked about my undergrad degree when I was applying to doctoral programs. In my experience, master's work completely cancels out undergrad.

Madamina's idea is a good one. What I always advise students now is to make sure that you have an explanation and story if anyone ever asks. It really is about spinning it.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:35 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The admissions committee is very unlikely to care about the undergraduate transcript of an applicant with a relevant MA. Don't waste space in your statement of purpose mentioning it; instead, write an amazing SOP identifying your research interest, etc.
posted by Pineapplicious at 5:45 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Was in a similar boat in another field. Got into a great phd program, finished, got a great job. Don't sweat it. You can mention it if you want, I did in a separate statement. But whatever you do make the story of your MA all about "I freaking figured out what I love to do, so you should let me into your phd program where I can do more"
posted by Mercaptan at 6:05 PM on December 4, 2012

I'm going to go against the grain and suggest you use a sentence or two to address it. If it comes down to you vs. another applicant at some point, it'll help your advocates on the admissions committee if they can refer to how you've addressed any weaknesses in your application.

Good luck!
posted by plantbot at 7:17 PM on December 4, 2012

It would be far, far worse if it was the other way around — that is, a high UdGPA and a low grad GPA. This story shows personal growth and maturity.

Spin it that way but in not more than a sentence or two.

The other things you've done in your master's are far more important, including leadership positions and publications. Emphasize those accomplishments.
posted by wenat at 7:24 PM on December 4, 2012

Only mention it if the undergrad GPA was low because it fluctuated dramatically. If your GPA was stable and you've been on an upward trajectory ever since, don't give it a second thought. The worst they'll think when they notice the difference is: "I see mcmile's grades went up between undergrad and grad school." Your accomplishments since then will speak for themselves.
posted by matlock expressway at 7:57 PM on December 4, 2012

Nobody has a low gpa in a grad program. You're really comparing apples and oranges. You are expected to get all As in grad school, just so you know, if you're phd material. Period.

Depends why your undergrad gpa was low too. Was it uniformly mediocre or did you have the bimodal thing where you did well in some kinds of classes and not others? If your better grades were n your major, you can use that to make the point that you were still finding your intellectual path in your statement. Below 3.0 undergrad gpa would absolutely draw my attention, even if it's not a deal breaker, and I've been doing phd admissions for almost 20 years.

Other approach is to reach out and make personal contact with someone on the admissions committee (this works differently depending on dept) and work in a brief oral explanation in a larger framing (ie, don't write just to explain the gpa, have a conversation where you mention it).
Funded PhD spots are very competitive. Sorry to say, everything counts.
posted by spitbull at 5:09 AM on December 5, 2012

ps. Do not say your grades were low because you were depressed. That implies a) it could happen again and b) you might be more trouble than it's worth. There is still stigma, although mostly its focused not at depressed people but at the depressing ubiquity of "I was depressed" as an excuse for everything. Whether you were or not doesn't matter. People just say that so reflexively now that most faculty members have stopped believing it is relevant. Look around. Half the people in grad school are depressed. Doesn't mean you stop working. You deal with it like any other medical problem.
posted by spitbull at 5:15 AM on December 5, 2012

ps I say that as someone who has had a solid academic career and lifelong struggles with depression. If being in school depresses you, that is a reason not to go to school until you deal with it. If it was mild and temporary and isn't an ongoing medical issue, it's pretty irrelevant anyway. It's an excuse, not an explanation, in far too many cases.
posted by spitbull at 5:21 AM on December 5, 2012

Yeah, I agree with spitbull. I only mentioned depression because I wanted to let everyone know that my poor GPA was not the result of working full time or supporting a family or anything like that. I know that depression is a serious thing, but I also know that using it as an explanation is still likely to be greeted with skepticism. And anyway, there were resources that probably would have helped me at the time, but I didn't take advantage of them. What can I say? I was young.

But thanks for all the advice everyone. I think I have a better sense of what to include. Some applications ask separate "personal statements" and "research statements" and I think it would be good to mention in one of those more in-depth personal statements, but it's still not something I'm planning on lingering on. Just a couple of sentences.
posted by mcmile at 7:01 AM on December 5, 2012

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