dealing with a low GPA on grad applications?
April 18, 2008 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Ways to mitigate a low undergrad GPA for grad school applications?

I finished my undergrad degree with only a 3.1 overall, but more like a 3.8 in my major. Unrelated/silly classes that I shouldn't have taken for a grade are mostly the things bringing my GPA down, and it's up to the committees to decide how big a deal that is, but there is one low grade that is of major concern; I did not do that well in stats. I know I need stats to do research and I'll have to take much harder stats to get my PhD, and if I don't do something about that grade, my application will go straight to the trash. I'm confident that I can handle stats, but how do I demonstrate that? If I take stats again from a community college at night to get an A, will that be dismissed because the CC course will be seen as easier? Are there any other options for demonstrating that I'm capable of the work and not as prone to goofing off now?

And as for the personal statement- do I mention that grade in particular? What do I say? I think the best response would be to say "I did lab work and published later in school, which taught me much more about applied statistics than that huge undergrad GE course."
Is there anything else I can do besides highlighting my research and acing the GRE to make up for a really inconsistent transcript?
posted by slow graffiti to Work & Money (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you can do a lot to mitigate your grades. I speak as someone who had far, far worse undergrad grades and eventually became an academic. First, if you are applying to a grad program in the area of your major, you can highlight the fact that your GPA in major is higher. Second, you can take classes as a non-degree student at most universities, not just community college. This was my path to getting over my bad record. I took classes at the upper undergrad/lower grad level and did well in those classes to show that I wasn't as dumb as a bag of hammers. It sounds like in your case that if you can take the stats class you need at some place near where you live and do well in that, then it would help your application. Third, while some screening is done at the the gross GRE/grades level, your statement matters. You can describe how you have changed and why you think you are now better motivated and can do better in grad school. Really, it is far from hopeless - don't despair. Just find a good place to take some courses and work hard and do well at those, then polish your statement to reflect the positive.
posted by procrastination at 7:59 AM on April 18, 2008

Eh -what's the bad grade? a C? If that's the case, I wouldn't worry. If you've got at 3.8 GPA in your major, be sure to highlight it on your application, and they'll know that you're competent. Lots of programs will be more interested in things like your research experience, rather than one bad grad.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:06 AM on April 18, 2008

Consider attaching an addendum separate from your personal statement that briefly explains your grades, highlights your GPA in your major etc. I went to college in the UK and their grading system is very different, so even though I did quite well by UK standards, when I went to get my transcript translated for my US law school apps they said I had a 2.8! So I attached an addendum describing the UK grading system and then stating that I believed my grades to represent at a very minimum a 3.5, if not hirer. I think it made a huge difference.
posted by whoaali at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2008

What field are you applying in? A low grade in statistics might mean more or less depending on whether you're going in to physics, biology, economics, psychology, etc.

Putting a sentence like that in your personal statement might be a good idea. However, I would just say that "the lab work gave me extensive experience with applied statistics", and let the people who read your application make the connection themselves; drawing the direct comparison yourself just highlights the low grade, and makes you sound kinda bitter. You could also say to your supervisor for the lab, when you ask him/her about recommendations, "I'm really concerned about the low grade in statistics I got my freshman year; if you could at least mention that I did a bunch of statistical analysis in your recommendation letter, I think it'd help my prospects." (I'm assuming here that said supervisor will be writing a letter for you. Unless you hate each other's guts now, a letter from someone who's familiar with your research work is one of the best things you can have in your application.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2008

Explain the inconsistency in the application, as recommended above.
And assuming that you'll be applying in the fall, take summer stats courses at a well respected college/university and get an A in it. Many schools have 2 summer sessions, so you can take intro stat in the 1st session, and more advanced stats during the 2nd session. If you can't swing 2 in the summer, take an intermediate one in the summer (assuming you can get into it), and an advanced one in the fall. You'll need to show that you can handle stats. And yes, you are correct in thinking that you'll need to ace the quant section of the GRE. While it's hard to quantify "ace" because programs and expectations vary tremendously, shoot for a score that would be half a standard deviation above the quant GRE score of accepted students for the program.
Good luck
posted by jujube at 8:18 AM on April 18, 2008

First, everything that procrastination said -- your grades are not that bad, comparatively.

Second, the real way you mitigate poor grades is with high test scores and super letters of recommendation (as well as having the rest of your application be strong -- statement of purpose, writing sample, etc). So if your grades are down near their cut-off point, then your GRE's need to be up near their top end to compensate, and your letters need to be strong, not neutral.

Third, the way to impress with the stats would be to (perhaps first retaking the basic stats class) go on and take one or two advanced classes in stats. I think many universities make a lot of money off of people like you and me, who blew those classes off as undergrads, and who then come back and take them as non-matriculating students later as part of heading off to grad school. (The funny thing is how easy those classes are, as a returning student who works hard rather than goofs off. If only I had realized that at the time....)

For most programs, stats is just a box to tick off, a binary you've done it/you haven't done it thing; the grade doesn't matter much. But if you are applying into a program where you will be doing stats all the time, then you will want to demonstrate that you aren't just marginally competent, but actually quite good at it. The easy way is to take a series of classes in the subject, getting A's at each step; you could get the same result by showing them the big project you just completed that used advanced statistical methods throughout. You are just looking for a signaling device -- a way to show them that you are competent and serious. Grades do that, reports and articles can do that, you could probably do so in an interview, too -- there are a lot of ways to get to the same result.
posted by Forktine at 8:31 AM on April 18, 2008

The usual rule applies. It is not sensible to do extra work you hate to get into a career you will then hate. It does not sound as though you are someone who enjoyed studying, or even reading around your chosen subjects. Your stats mark was poor presumably because your understanding of stats was poor.

Yes, determined studying could overcome the gaps. But it doesn't look as though you would enjoy the process. And what you would get for that effort would be a chance to work at a job based on the things you didn't like doing to begin with.

I suggest you look carefully at what attracts you to grad school, and look for other places/activities which offer the same benefits without the pain.
posted by Idcoytco at 2:25 PM on April 18, 2008

Response by poster: I would certainly not hate grad school because I'm not going to grad school in stats. I'm going in psychology, which demands a good functional understanding, but the reality is that PhDs use programs like SAS to do alot of statistical grunt work, and stats is a tool in the service of the infinitely more interesting theory.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:00 PM on April 18, 2008

Do you need the stats course on your transcript at all? I successfully petitioned to have an F removed from my undergrad transcript when I was applying for a big fancy competitive scholarship during grad school (I got into grad school despite that one F). Made an appointment with the dean, dressed like an upstanding alumna, went in and talked about the factors that won me that F in the first place (unrelated-to-the-F sob stories though all true, and I left out the part about stopping going to class + not sitting the final because I hated the course), explained how awesome I was doing at grad school etc. etc. and how I wanted to win the fancy scholarship but was concerned about the impact of that F on my chances. They promptly offered to remove it. Done and done.

I also suggest having kick-ass volunteer/philanthropic/extra-curricular/work experience in your field and some rockin' references, which combined often forgive any kind of crappy mark out there. (...Also helps convince the undergrad dean that you're worth removing that F for.)
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 3:01 PM on April 18, 2008

I had a 2.47 and got into what one national magazine considered the top business school in the country. While that is bragging, the point is that you can overcome a crappy gpa. I talked at length to the admissions officer in another school in which I was accepted and in a moment of candid curiosity, asked him what I should do about the exact same issue when applying to other schools.

He answered three things. First, have an in person interview with every school you are serious about attending. Meeting the admissions officer and demonstrating through conversation your sincere interest in their program and that you are not a goof off tool will go a long way towards overcoming grades. Indicate to them why you will add to the program and why you are not a cookie cutter applicant. Your unique viewpoint will help round out the class.

Second, get good scores on your admission test. Then you can argue that you clearly have the intelligence and potential, but at the time you were in undergrad the maturity you now display had not quite worked its way to the surface.

Third, demonstrate how an outside interest is applicable to your chosen field. Have you ever volunteered at a psych hospital for example or worked with the homeless.

In your specific case, I would use your major gpa as an indication of what you can and will do when fully engaged. The slope of my gpa was almost straight up so I was able to point to the fact that in my fourth year when I lived off grounds about 10 miles, I was able to focus on my studies and get a 3.9 (Damn A-!!). Also, if you know of any alumni that can write a letter of recommendation or a person prominent in the field you wish to study that can vouch for you, do so.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:01 PM on April 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your grades are just a number. If they're nothing you want to talk about to an admissions committee, then don't mention them. I'm sure they'll ask for your transcripts; they'll know exactly how bad you did and where.

If there are some issues (like Ds, Fs, or Incompletes), then I would only address them if they asked. Some applications I saw had a section for that, but a great majority did not. Grades are only one part of your application, and, as many have said, good letters, a thoughtful personal statement, and good GRE scores can outshine them easily.

Speaking from experience, I had a 3.1, a few Cs and a withdrawal, and in all my interviews was never even asked about them. Talk up your strengths exclusively--research, training, life-changing experiences (within reason, of course). As a matter of fact, I was complemented once for taking classes that others have not (despite getting a B- or worse in all of them).

I was also accepted at 3 schools (PhD. in biological sciences stuff). Chin up, mate--if I can do it, anyone can!
posted by BenzeneChile at 12:14 PM on April 19, 2008

I remained concerned that you might not know what you are getting yourself into. Most undergraduate students get no real idea of how grad school works. I spent some time thinking how to tactfully suggest you checked the drop-out rate of your chosen school. They can be horrific -- like 50%.

A lighter way to show the problems is this Reddit page of comments on a cartoon.
posted by Idcoytco at 6:55 AM on May 6, 2008

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