15 W's on my undergrad transcript, am I in trouble for graduate school?
May 13, 2021 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I have 15 Withdrawals on my undergraduate transcript, which are mostly from a history of depression, physical issues, and other mental health issues. I also had to take five years off in between my undergraduate degree, which I started in 2011 and still have not completed due to my mental and physical health issues which were mostly resolved two years ago.

I am finally in my fourth and final years pursuing my Honours, and I am concerned that with 15 W's on my transcript, it is going to be difficult to get into McGill, the University of Toronto, Queens, or the University of British Columbia (I am Canadian). Will I be turned down from these schools if it will take me almost 11 or 12 years to graduate with a BA (Honours)? Even though I took many years off in between, with 15 W's on my transcript?

What can I do to prepare and explain all of this for future graduate studies? Should I seek a medical note explaining all of this as well for proof?

I think I will graduate with at least an 80 % GPA overall -- right now it's at 77 % and I still need to complete 3.0 credits (six half courses) and I could take more to boost my GPA as well a little bit. For the past year and a half, all my courses have been in low 80s or high 80s, which has been a positive thing for my transcript and GPA.

I could really use some advice and I am not sure if 15 W's will put a damper on these top schools, but I imagine it would to some extent. I really want to attend McGill or the University of Toronto. Should I lower my expectations and aim for a school that is no a top university here in Canada?
posted by RearWindow to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How much do application essays and reference letters matter in Canada? In the US they hold a lot of sway. Have you had any professors over your undergrad who can speak to the growth you've gone through? If you are able to, try to cultivate those relationships as much as possible before you apply for graduate school. Educators really do love hearing from former students, so reach out even if it feels awkward at first. In the past I have elaborated on issues that contributed to low grades etc in my application essays (but not too much, and in as positive a light as possible focusing on growth, ability to handle those stressors now, and future potential). Lastly, consider what you learned and bring to the table by completing your BA over a non-traditional period of time. Did you learn more about self-reliance? Struggles facing working adults trying to get an education? etc etc. At least in the US, narratives really matter in applications, for better and for worse.
posted by Corduroy at 7:27 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

My understanding of grad school admissions is that your GPA is probably going to be more of a problem than the duration or any withdrawals. 80% is a low B average. Graduate courses are, in general, harder than undergraduate ones, so if you’re barely getting Bs in undergrad, that doesn’t bode well for your ability to do outstanding graduate work.

That said, it really only takes one person to get you in. If you can persuade a faculty member at one of your preferred schools that you can do interesting original research with them, that will matter more than anything else.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:32 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]

This depends dramatically on the specific program you are interested in. I suggest talking to your faculty advisor/ relevant professors to ask them for advice. They will have a better sense of the requirements and expectations.

In the fields I am familiar with, your transcript sounds unpromising, but if you have relevant research or work experience that might override it.
posted by metasarah at 7:39 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]

Just a note, in Canada an 80% is an A average. Maybe A-. When I was in undergrad (almost 20 years ago, yikes!) maintaining an 80+ average was impressive. Maybe grade inflation has since changed that.
posted by pierogi24 at 7:50 AM on May 13 [13 favorites]

To be brutally honest: yes. A record of 15 Ws, low-B grades, and a 10+ year undergrad duration is a set of red flags signaling that you are likely to flake out on the program.

A grad program is looking to invest its time and resources into a student we can be relatively sure will succeed.

The best thing you can do is establish a continuous record of success that can convince us those problems are behind you, and that you are currently capable of doing the work because you have been performing at the level required for some time already.

I'm sorry I can't be more encouraging. It will take more than one person to get you in at this point.
posted by Dashy at 7:53 AM on May 13 [11 favorites]

I do grad admissions for a living at a top 10 University in my field (in the US though, so I can't speak to the finer points of how things are handled in Canada).

Seconding what others have said - it's going to be highly dependent on the program you hope to enter. Each program is likely to set it's own admission priorities. For my program an academic history with several withdrawals or other evidence of academic struggle would be a concern in isolation. However, my program takes a more holistic approach and will consider your case in full context.

We'd be very interested to hear some about challenges during your undergrad and how you've addressed them to be prepared today - especially if that's coupled with better performance recently (basically, demonstrate that you are ready for a graduate program). Do an excellent job on the rest of your application and you'll have done all you can to give it a try. For my program it certainly wouldn't be an automatic dismissal.

Depending on your field it would also be wise to look into connecting briefly with some faculty in your program to speak to them about your interest in entering. They may be willing to share some advice about what their program hopes to see in applicants.

Good luck - I'd say it's definitely worth a try.
posted by owls at 7:55 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: @kevinbelt - In Canada, a 80 % GPA is an A average.
posted by RearWindow at 7:58 AM on May 13 [5 favorites]

80% is not a B average in Canada, please disregard that. The trend of your grades going up is in your favour.

From there it is going to depend on your field. But the schools you listed are probably among the least forgiving, regardless of faculty. I think any general advice you get is going to be suspect.

What you need is advice from people in your field, both where you are now and at any schools you're considering. Can you reach out to the departments you're interested in? Are you willing to share which field you're in?
posted by warriorqueen at 7:59 AM on May 13 [7 favorites]

I'm not in Canada, but have been on admissions committees at similar institutions in the US. My understanding is that the process isn't much different, although the funding structures and related restrictions on number of admissions may be.

In my field and school, the Ws would absolutely be noticed and discussed at length. Note that a positive slope in GPA is worth a lot. Consider asking letter writers to point it out. The committee reviewing your application is going to be asking the questions, "if we admit this person, are they going to spend 12 years in grad school and then drop out," and "is this person going to be able to keep up with coursework and research in their first two years?" The questions are both motivated by a cynical desire to preserve their rank and also a very real concern that admitting you to the program will just waste time and effort (including yours.) It's probably unfair to view things that way, but it will happen. Assuming you're convinced grad school is a good idea, your goal should be to convince a group of random professors that you're going to keep up with coursework, (assuming it's a PhD) hit the ground running and being productive in research, and be able to graduate roughly on time.

My suggestion would be (1) address this up front in a cover letter or the first paragraph of your application. Don't go into too much detail. Don't include a doctor's note. The critical thing is to point out that you've identified and "fixed" the problem, even if that may not be entirely true. Pointing out the resilience and dedication required to overcome challenges is going to work better than spending time discussing the details of those challenges. (2) If a letter writer can speak to the challenges you've overcome, as well as your dedication to the subject and current ability to complete things, that's even better. Don't hesitate to ask faculty you trust to discuss it in their letters, even if you haven't talked about it with them before. (3) Making contact with faculty you might want to work with ahead of time always helps. They can't promise admission, but if you convince one or two faculty members that you're an exciting candidate, they can make sure your application gets reviewed fully and not thrown out early in the process. With hundreds of nearly equally good applications, every committee member is looking for an excuse to narrow the list.

Finally, at least in my corner of the physical sciences, I suspect you'd need significant research experience to be on the first round list at either Toronto or McGill. (I know the other schools less well, which is not to say anything bad about them.) It never hurts to apply in any case. But, trying to line up a post-undergrad research experience isn't a bad thing to start on early as a backup plan in case you don't get in. I've seen several students with spotty academic records do very well after taking a year to show they can be productive researchers. This may be very different in your field and you should ask someone working in the field you want to enter. But, do think carefully before investing time in a degree from a school you aren't genuinely excited about attending, unless it's a clear stepping stone to something else. Grad school is hard enough even if you're excited about everything in the program.

Good luck and best wishes.
posted by eotvos at 8:03 AM on May 13 [14 favorites]

It's been my observation (in the U.S. at least) that many folks jump into a graduate program "as a means to an end" without fully evaluating their long term career goals.

Depending on your long term career goals, it may or may not matter too much in the long run about the rank of the program. If ranking does matter, than perhaps you are better off seeking research experience for a year or two, and then applying. If it doesn't, then apply to multiple schools and see where the chips fall. No matter what, it's probably a good idea before you graduate to ask your professors to write your recommendations (and keep them on file).

I would also encourage you to seek advice from professors in your current department. They probably have some idea about what the admissions landscape looks like for individuals with a profile similar to yours.
posted by oceano at 9:43 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]

I only know about Canada indirectly, but some general comments:

-What sort of grad program are you trying to do? The requirements for different types of Masters degrees will vary, and then the requirements for Masters v. PhD will vary. I agree that your best source of advice should be professors within the relevant field at your current institution.

-In the US a medical note would help, I think, but it would help much more if you think a medical professional could also honestly state that your past problems have largely resolved or are being well-managed. Like people have already stated, the main concern you'll want to address (with a medical note, in the cover letter, etc.) is that you will be able to finish your graduate degree on-time.

-if it turns out you are a weak candidate for whatever program you're hoping to do, ask around to professors in the discipline what you can do to be a stronger candidate once you graduate. Again, depending on your field, this could include learning a language, working in a research lab, etc.
posted by coffeecat at 9:50 AM on May 13 [1 favorite]

I got into some very competitive programs (in the US) after an absolute trash start in undergrad due to mental health issues. My grades where I finished undergrad were good, I had 1.5-2 years research experience (while in school), good reference letters, and I took a year off between undergrad and grad school in a tech job in the field. My application letter told a story of someone who initially did not know what they wanted to but went back to school for X, encountered Y, the experience was life-changing and motivated me to study Z. Then blah blah I did these Z-related activities blah.

Maybe it depends on the field (I was in STEM), but I would not go in-depth about mental health issues (like I said, in my letter I simply hadn't found my calling), if at all, and I definitely would not include a doctor's note. I can see "I had the resilience to work through mental health struggles and it left me a more thoughtful, compassionate person" maybe working if you're studying to be a therapist but I don't know about elsewhere.
posted by schroedinger at 10:54 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

(Apologies for my humblebrag - hopefully it will be helpful!)

I'm Canadian and did my undergrad in Canada. I had 10 Ws on my undergraduate transcript - pretty much 2 per year of my degree. I was accepted at every high-ranking school I applied to, internationally and within Canada. I was offered SSHRC/NSERC/CIHR awards at the Canadian schools and international scholarships. What I also had: a 3.8-3.9/4.0 GPA, great letters of recommendation and an awesome research proposal. I'm not sure what 80% is in terms of a 4.0 GPA scale, but if you have your other ducks in a row (re: rec letters and a proposal) I don't know if your Ws will matter. In my applications, I didn't address them and they never came up.

My advice: apply to your dream schools! (and maybe one back-up!)

Last thing I'll say is to make sure you are mentally ready to for grad school at McGill/UToronto/etc. should you get in. My struggles that lead to the Ws in undergrad didn't vanish once I started grad school.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have questions!
posted by Robocat at 1:54 PM on May 13 [4 favorites]

I'm with Dashy and eotvos. I consider it unethical to admit someone whose successful completion of the program I have strong reservations about. It's your time and money; I don't get to waste it just because we could do with the tuition dollars (and we could; it's a thin entering cohort this year).

So your job in your essay is to convince me you're going to complete the program. The suggestions above for how to do this are solid.

I just want to be sure you have also convinced yourself.
posted by humbug at 2:10 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

I must underscore schroedinger's advice about being brief with your struggles. It is tempting but unnecessary—even self-sabotaging—to spend a lot of time explaining What Went Wrong. Don't go on the defensive immediately.

This understandably feels like the big, glaring flaw in your profile, but the important story is not 'I did poorly in these classes [and here's an extended confessional explanation]'. Emphasize your upward trajectory; emphasize other strengths (greater academic focus and excellence once you returned to university? relevant research or work experience? professors who can testify to your commitment, maturity, and work ethic?). If you must address your grades, I'd be brief and emphasize that they were an early difficulty that you quickly overcame and that x, y, z show your ability to do well in grad school. In formal application materials, I would mention your key weaknesses (grades) only to support a narrative that you've improved and moved on and have a more recent history of success, one that represents your ability to excel in graduate school.

To contextualize this advice: I similarly had Ws on my undergraduate transcript, which were partially due to mental health issues and partially due to immaturity. (Two differences: I didn't take time off and graduated in 5 years, but I also didn't have an upwards trajectory at all and had generally middling grades, averaging to a low B.) In my case I worked for a few years and found a program that was explicitly open to a holistic view of candidates and didn't weigh grades heavily (which is where reaching out to programs, attending open days, etc. comes in). The whole time I felt very self-conscious about my transcript, and envied people with 'clean' and conventionally excellent GPAs, but I felt very strongly that I had other strengths that made me capable of doing well in graduate school. So In my application materials, I focused on everything else besides grades: clear research interests that aligned with faculty; a compelling narrative of how I developed my interests throughout undergrad and working and why they led me to this specific program.

I ended up not touching on my struggles at all because I had so much else to say—and the struggles were not insignificant.
posted by w-w-w at 2:22 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]

(referring to Grad Admissions in Humanities in Ontario (various Universities)):

The 2 important things are:
- good recommendation letters from your undergrad Professors.
- a level of engagement in your field of inquiry displaying a potential for further research.
- (any activity aside from school related to your research is not required but helps).

These things flow together, good recommendations are nurtured by meeting with Profs in office hours and showing a bit more enthusiasm than the average undergrad (a low bar) and having ideas for further research. And doing good recent work, of course.

The preferred institutions mentioned above are among the more competitive to get into in Canada, but it's worth also researching the work of faculty members of various other Universities in Canada to find individuals working in similar fields of inquiry who might be sympathetic to your projects.

re: the top ask about Ws: Most every faculty wants creative engaged Grad candidates. Emphasize the strengths and not the deficiencies.
posted by ovvl at 4:52 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

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