Did I screw myself out of grad school?
September 12, 2019 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I graduated from a state school in 2009 with a 2.77 overall GPA. I technically should have graduated in 2008, but was only going part time, so I stretched it out and became a "super senior." I'll be the first to admit...I struggled with undiagnosed mental health and alcohol abuse issues for the majority of my early-mid 20s, so I simply didn't apply myself as much as I could have.

After I graduated, I had a really tough time finding a job in my field, so I decided to start taking some courses at a community college to see if perhaps I should try for a post-baccalaureate degree in another field. Many of which I did well in, with the exception of one F. THEN I made the asinine decision to go full time at a school about 1.5 hours away that I had to drive to. That lasted all of 2 months and by the time the semester had ended, I bailed...I didn't even take the time to withdraw. I simply allowed myself to fail out. And that's just a look at how "lost" I was back then...

A decade later, I'm a marketing professional with 10 very successful years under my belt. I've worked some odd jobs to make ends meet, but I ended up excelling at a small nonprofit...Started in an admin position and quickly worked my way into a Director of Communications title (yes, it doesn't mean as much as in a small nonprofit as it would elsewhere, lol). Then I moved into working as a contractor at a well-known retail store corporate office, now I work at and volunteer for the local branch at a nationally recognized nonprofit.

I'm married, own my home, have an amazing child, and I go to therapy regularly and take medication daily. I finally have my life together, but I've grown bored in my field and need something more in my professional life. I decided to look into graduate school awhile back and really took an interest in instructional design. I feel like my background, which includes a lot of graphic design, could prove to be quite useful in the field...and I have a genuine interest in helping people learn. I could go into more detail as to why I feel I'd be a good fit in the profession, but I'll save you all the elevator pitch. haha

The trouble I'm afraid of running into is my past...While I didn't give my all academically in my 20s, I KNOW I would as a person who is now in her mid-30s. I want better for myself and of course I want to show my daughter that you can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you learn and grow from your mistakes. A lot of the programs I am looking at will accept a 2.8, others (like my Alma mater's) program will accept a 2.4 if you've been out of college more than 5 years, with 2 letters of recommendation. I have co-workers/supervisors/etc. that would be happy to write these letters for me... However, I'm scared the grades I received while screwing around at different schools while trying to figure out my life AFTER I got my bachelor's degree are really going to negatively impact my chances to move forward.

I guess I'm just wondering if anyone has any insight on whether or not grad school could be in my future with the history I have or it's simply a pipe dream at this point. I recently reached out to one of the admission directors at my Alma mater in the department I'm interested in joining and gave her my story...The department website states they prefer when you reach out before applying to make a connection. That was a week ago. No response. :\

Anyone have any thoughts on all this? I'm in dire need of some outside perspective!
posted by theshmeek to Education (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The degree you're talking out sounds like a professional degree, which I imagine will care more about your professional background and experience. If you were applying to PhD programs, we might have a different conversation, but I don't think you've completely screwed yourself, no.

That said: depending on how competitive the program is, things like GPA are an easy screening device, so I'm not saying it's a sure shot.

. I recently reached out to one of the admission directors at my Alma mater in the department I'm interested in joining and gave her my story...The department website states they prefer when you reach out before applying to make a connection. That was a week ago. No response. :\

I wouldn't take that as a sign of anything in particular. It's the start of the term-ish in many places and they're probably busy. Academics are often terrible at answering e-mail. For future correspondence of that type, it might make sense to open with something like "I'm interested in talking about the program" and scheduling a phone call rather than dumping the whole story in their inbox.
posted by dismas at 10:50 AM on September 12, 2019 [11 favorites]

However, I'm scared the grades I received while screwing around at different schools while trying to figure out my life AFTER I got my bachelor's degree are really going to negatively impact my chances to move forward.

I don’t see any reason to include them in your application. As you say, they were just you screwing around.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:03 AM on September 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Your transcripts - all of them - will most likely be required. That said, the longer ago your grades were earned, the less they will matter, particularly as dismas said for a professional program.
posted by wellred at 11:20 AM on September 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

I don't know that I would include or even mention the studies you did after undergrad, if you don't think they are relevant or help your application.

I spent a while after undergrad taking classes with an eye towards medical school, which I eventually abandoned as a plan. When I decided to actually go to grad school (in an entirely unrelated field), I didn't even bother to get a transcript from the school where I did the random post-baccalaureate classes. Figured they weren't relevant and they would only cause confusion.

There are some graduate programs that are extremely competitive academically, and some where they seem mostly interested in whether your checks are going to clear and little else. So YMMV, of course.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:35 AM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

theshmeek -- just to double-check, are you interested in the terminal degree (I presume an EdD (doctorate in education) or a PhD), or a master's degree? A master's program will probably be easier to get into, because, as dismas said, it's a professional degree, and people pay tuition to go through the program and get that credential and then use it to get jobs. A doctoral program (such as Purdue's) would be harder to get into, but if you want to go into an academic-type career where you do research for a living, a doctorate would probably be better.
posted by brainwane at 11:39 AM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi all!
A side piece of information that's rather important (should have mentioned this, my apologies) - the "issue transcripts" would be coming from a university I earned actual real credits in during my freshman year of undergrad. I was there for a semester. Those credits eventually turned into transfer credits toward my actual degree. So I'm stuck sending those.

For clarification, I'm aiming to obtain my Master's degree.

Thank you all for your answers thus far!!
posted by theshmeek at 11:43 AM on September 12, 2019

Some graduate schools will let you take a course or two even if you haven't been admitted. See if the university you are interested in attending will let you do that. Then take a course in instructional design, ace it, and get to know the professor.
posted by mareli at 11:56 AM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

You haven't screwed yourself and you can definitely do this.

Schools all over the country are desperate to raise their enrollments, and are willing to help all kinds of students gain admittance to their graduate programs, which historically are very lucrative for universities. Your past academic performance is kiiind of a predictor of future performance, and I agree that especially in professional programs, there is more of a focus on your professional career and your future goals.

If I were you I would look into taking one or two classes as a non-degree seeking student at the school of your choice, if it's local; usually, you can take these classes and they will transfer in or "count" towards your masters. This gives you an opportunity to see if you like the course material and the program, gives you a better understanding of the opportunities available to graduate students and the politics of the department and getting funding, and provides you the chance to build relationships with faculty members in the program.

(Many?) Schools have conditional admittance for graduate students with poor academic backgrounds, but these often require letters of support from faculty in the field, which you would be well positioned to solicit if you took some non-degree seeking courses. YMMV and talk to your graduate office of admissions but I think this would be a good way in.

You should also start taking GRE practice tests now, if you think GRE scores will be required; many graduate programs are discontinuing their role in the admissions process but if your school uses them, just start studying now. Many public libraries will have access to either test prep books or something called Learning Express Library which lets you take and save practice tests.

And yes--don't take that non-response to your email personally. We're barely treading water over here at my university and there's a good chance that person was on vacation, out of office, forwarded it to the correct person who is out of the office, etc. Universities are morasses of inefficiency and it has no bearing on their interest in accepting you and taking your money/you getting an education.
posted by stellaluna at 12:01 PM on September 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

I suggest you have two options first as a non-degree and second as a transfer.

Non Degree
Enroll in a few introductory courses, as a non-degree student. Your previous grades generally don't matter but this often limits what courses you can take and you won't get some of the benefits of being a student (like financial aid). Call up the enrollment office for the program school and see what your options are.

Use your non degree courses to demonstrate how you are a better student - pick courses intentionally from department heads, chairs, or people you want to take other courses from.

Go to another institution that has lower entrance standards and take a few courses. Once again you are auditioning but here you'll want to mimic what ever course load you would take at the school of your choice. Again, you will want to impress your teachers so that they give you good grades. It is reasonable to expect any prof who gives you an A to be willing/able to provide a written recommendation ( I know that is literally what the grade should be bbbuuut)- and try to do it before the semester ends and they disappear.

The major downside is that you will end up having to work to impress two groups of cranks, and figure out two academic systems and your social connections will be weaker at both. If you are less certain of your academic skills I would opt for a transfer route, but understand that your total effort will be greater.

Both avenues will give you a chance and won't wreck the department rankings by taking a bet on you, an unknown risk, which is what the central problem is. Do not elaborate on your youthful capers, a simple "I'm interested in seriously perusing this academic program" and when they ask just tell them that a decade ago you were a poor student.

I have done both of these. What has been unstated so far is what happens once you are in the program. Any internalized bad student self doubt and nature of the task, with it's solitary mental work, might make you feel like you, and you alone are being tested. Lean on your family, find a mentor in your peers you can use to sound things out. And know that the school, once you are a student, will want you to succeed. I wish I had used the many resources available. Also know that going off meeting interesting people, and dedicating serious time and effort to an advanced degree, can damage or destroy your current relationships. It will take up lots of your time and money, and no one has enough of those, it can be so stressful, and your partner's hardships will not earn them the piece of paper.
posted by zenon at 12:09 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

A lot of professional graduate degrees (particularly those that are delivered online for "working professionals") are becoming less and less stringent in terms of application requirements just to stay financially competitive. For example, my program in Data Science didn't require the GRE and as long as I had a bachelors and some related professional experience then I was fine. You'll be fine.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:15 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Loving these responses/ideas. Thank you guys again!!!
I spoke with a friend who earned his master's in the field I'm seeking out about 10 years ago. Filled him in on my current work experience and whatnot, and he believes my skill set will be a really good fit and is relevant (I was worried about this).

Most of the programs I'm looking into don't require a GRE. They require a resume, statement of purpose, and letters of rec. One or two want a narrative about your relevant work history.

I can make all of these happen, so I'm hoping the universities take a holistic approach and consider all of my submission materials. I wonder if I should give some narrative about my past performance in the statement of purpose/goal letters?
posted by theshmeek at 12:34 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I wonder if I should give some narrative about my past performance in the statement of purpose/goal letters?

Yes; those are exactly what those are for. Don't go into too much gory detail or try to make into a sob story (explanations not excuses, and all that jazz), but do mention that you had various issues that affected your performance in your undergraduate degree program (/in post-degree work), and then move as quickly on to why you're an awesome person now and why you want to be in the program.
posted by damayanti at 12:47 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Depending on the school/ field - you can bypass the admissions process to a large degree. Doesn't sound like you're looking into a STEM masters, though.

Instead of applying to a school/ program, see if you can - essentially - apply directly to the PI (principle investigator) who would be your direct supervisor.

If they want you, it doesn't much matter what the school wants. I got into my MSc program about a week past the deadline for that year because my PI wanted me as a student.

My PhD program was very competitive and because I screwed myself over in two (2!) classed during my MSc I technically would have failed to meet a cutoff. PI wanted me, requirement was waived. I also deferred my (mid-year) start date because of MSc PI screwed me over on my thesis, and technically messed up the maximum class size for my PhD program for the year that I did start in.
posted by porpoise at 1:22 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I had similar experiences when I applied for a master’s program. I had a brief call with someone in admissions where I explained what happened and why I thought things would be different this time, and got in. Best of luck!
posted by kat518 at 2:25 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Dropped out of college half way through with bad grades, started a four=year program in a different major and got sober half way through so my grades the last two years were good. Took a long break to become an actual human being, and ten years later I did what zenon suggests (I got a job at [Name] university to pay for a course per semester in my program, and got A's) (and my advisor saw an opportunity, encouraged me to pay for the master's with a Ph.D. fellowship, and got a research assistant out of the deal). A friend did a similar thing more recently. And now I have a master's and Ph.D.
posted by Peach at 2:41 PM on September 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I got into several professional graduate program with your same GPA and very good test scores, and was able to choose the one that gave me the best scholarship. If you're a good test taker, I'd actually recommend taking the GRE. A good score could open doors!
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:09 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I teach in a professional master's program. If your application essay briefly explained what happened in undergrad and spent the rest on your preparation for and interest in our program... I would recommend you for admission.

Excellent advice here. Take it. You'll be fine.
posted by humbug at 5:10 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

I considered ALL suggestions provided, really thought out my letter, and got a few stellar reference letters to back me up...I was accepted into the program I wanted a short two weeks after I applied and all materials were in. I start part time this summer and I am SO excited. Just wanted to thank you all for your advice and encouragement!!!
posted by theshmeek at 11:57 AM on February 7 [3 favorites]

You did the thing! Yay you! Best of luck for a terrific time in the program.
posted by humbug at 10:06 AM on March 6

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