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I have a master's degree in International Studies, and a double major with Computer Science from undergrad. My transcripts suck. There's no other way to dress it up. I have pretty good teaching experience, and my GRE scores are awesome, and I suspect my recommendations are as bland as everyone else's. Basically, to an admissions committee, I suspect I'm the model of a student who is probably smart enough but didn't work hard enough.

I want to do a Ph.D. in Political Science, but the response from my applications is looking pretty grim. Am I permanently out of the running, or is there something I can do for the next few years which will help to counterbalance my unfavorable GPA?

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"I suspect my recommendations are as bland as everyone else's" — If true, that's at least as significant an issue as your grades. –  JeffE Feb 22 '12 at 4:46
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It's very difficult to interpret this question without knowing the GPA. "My transcripts suck" could indicate a GPA of 3.5, or a GPA of 1.0. Suckiness is a relative term. –  Ben Crowell Nov 19 '13 at 0:08
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7 Answers 7

There is some excellent advice here and here. Basically, Bradley Voytek (who is now a postdoc in neuroscience at UCSF) managed to get into UCSF (a top school for neuroscience) with an overall GPA that hovered around 2.5. As Bradley Voytek said, your ultimate goal is this:

Do everything in your power to leave a paper trail of excellence to overcome your grades. Your goal is to make those grades look meaningless. Your goal is to have your work speak for you so strongly that, when people look at your grades, they feel silly for even giving them a second thought.

This was precisely why I was willing to give my unofficial transcript to professors at my school who asked for them (when I needed letters of recommendation). They already knew me well enough to know that my GPA doesn't reflect my true ability.

As another suggestion, if you're applying for a school that puts a lot of weight on a subject GRE exam (like the Physics GRE), you can do your utmost to score obscenely high on the test and still get in. As an example, see this guy who managed to get into Harvard with a 3.1 GPA.

For the record, I'm an undergrad with a 3.16 GPA (with 3 grades of 0.0s and 3-4 courses I retook with grades of 3.0-3.1 on the retake because I didn't even bother going to class on either class attempt). Despite all this, I managed to get into both the University of Chicago and Brown University - both with fellowships for being one of the top applicants. I also almost got into Yale in a year that was unusually competitive for them (they paid for me to visit+interview there) - but there were research fit issues involved at the end (actually - what ended up happening was that I had such intensely-defined research interests - exoplanet climate modelling - that it would have been hard for anyone there to take me individually, and everyone felt that I would be going to Chicago anyways). Click here for a rough profile of my "stats".

You should also try schools that do interviews (especially in-person interviews) before they do acceptances, since the interview is where you have the opportunity to shine (and where they can at least give you a chance). Yale is one of those schools.

You should also look into very interdisciplinary graduate programs that are expanding faster than what their textbooks (and courses) can keep up with. The geosciences is one of the few areas where plenty of people with sub-3.5 GPAs often do get into top schools. As the geosciences aren't taught in high school, it's often said that the Geosciences is something that you "stumble" into, and it's actually very common for people to enter the geosciences only after finding that they didn't like another major (this is often true for geoscience professors as well).

Biology is another area that's often tolerant of those with low GPAs, from what I've heard. In both Biology and the Geosciences, research fit often matters a lot more than "being one of the top applicants", so if you have a focused interest that you've demonstrated through research (and that matches the interests of faculty members who are willing to take new students), then yes, they can be willing to take you over people with better GPAs and test scores. The thing in common with the two is that they're so broad that it's impossible to put every applicant through a common set of required courses (or through paper-based qualifying exams), so their quals cannot be based on coursework. In that case, performance in prior courses doesn't matter as much. In fact, some geoscience programs (like Berkeley EPS) don't even have admission committees because the interests of faculty members are so diverse that applicants often only have research fit with a single faculty member - so it then often becomes a single faculty member who decides between applicants.

The MIT Media Lab is the perfect example of this, in fact (though most geoscience/biology programs will have more of a committee than the MIT Media Lab). The tips in this link can be quite helpful to anyone with a low GPA who wants to work with a particular adviser.

You should also look for fields with very low people-to-problems ratios. Many of these fields don't offer courses that are part of the core requirements of numerous majors, so there won't be hordes of undergrads who take their courses. Fields like atmospheric science and various areas of biology are particularly known for their low people-to-problem ratios, and the professors in them can be incredibly accessible (and are more willing to closely look at unusual applicants). More here.

Also, just write 2000-word personal statements. I wrote 2000-word personal statements for all the schools I applied for (they were necessary since I had to do some explaining), and they didn't prevent me from getting in. They can annoy some schools, but that's going to be a matter of fact if you're a highly unusual applicant.

Finally, you can always stay somewhat longer. My GPA would never recover from the early mistakes I made, but I managed to recover by staying longer and by taking a huge number of grad-lvl courses in my last 2 years. When writing your personal statement, you should always put in statistics like last-2-year GPA and last-X-year major GPA in whatever field of study you're in (I put in post-(freshman year) physics GPA of 3.77 in). Be careful not to sound like you're cherry-picking though.

If you need some extra inspiration, you should read about Stephen Smale too.

He entered the University of Michigan in 1948. Initially, Smale was a good student, placing into an honors calculus sequence taught by Bob Thrall and earning himself A's. However, his sophomore and junior years were marred with mediocre grades, mostly Bs, Cs and even an F in nuclear physics. However, with some luck, Smale was accepted as a graduate student at the University of Michigan's mathematics department. Yet again, Smale performed poorly his first years, earning a C average as a graduate student. It was only when the department chair, Hildebrant, threatened to kick out Smale, that he began to work hard. Smale finally earned his Ph.D. in 1957, under Raoul Bott.

One word of caution: Graduate programs have gotten a lot more competitive in the last few years, so what applied 5 years ago (or 40 years ago, for that matter), may not necessarily apply today.

By the way, elite private schools (for whatever reason) tend not to have GPA cutoffs. If you're a student with a low GPA applying for an elite private school, you probably have something else in you that's extremely unusual, since very few students with low GPAs apply to them. In fact, when I emailed professors, those at elite private schools seemed to be more responsive to my emails (low student to faculty ratio could be a reason behind that). That said, they're not necessarily more forgiving of unusual applicants. It's often the programs that have some "weakness" in their applicant pool that tend to be more forgiving of them.

Also - I would definitely look for areas where the department is trying to expand into, but where the department has no reputation for as of yet (visits/contacting professors can help you learn more about that).

Going to academic conferences can also really help as well - but only when you can make sure that you have useful things to say. The same is also true for visiting schools before applying.

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Very interesting--I myself ended up in the geosciences, though not on account of a lackluster semester or three. –  Anon Mar 21 '13 at 4:15
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Who is Bradley Voytek? Is everybody supposed to know that? I must be missing something big. –  StasK Mar 21 '13 at 14:38
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It depends on where your weaknesses are. If they're in both the master's and the bachelor's degrees, you're in a lot of hot water, because it says, as you suggest, "student not serious enough about studies." (As someone on an admissions committee, I can tell you I need a heck of a lot of convincing to overlook a weak grade in a "core" subject, let alone an overall mediocre transcript.)

The "best" way to get a weak transcript through an admissions committee is to have somebody who can vouch for you to the committee whose judgment the committee will respect. So, that means working either for a Very Big Name in the field, or working for someone at a particular institution which you'd later be interested in attending. If they can see that you're someone worth having around, that can sway an admissions committee a lot more than a good package from a complete unknown.

Given your field, this may not be the easiest task to pull off, but I don't see many other options.

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That's essentially how I did it. That and a lot of dumb luck. –  JeffE Feb 22 '12 at 4:44
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I can answer as far as Computer Science(CS) is concerned - don't know how applicable that might be in your scenario.

In CS, you can make up for your transcripts being less-than-average by undertaking research projects/internships in the next few years, ideally in the area you want to pursue you Ph.D. in. Once you have some good results that are published, you can use them to bolster your application - indeed, if they are good enough, they might even trump a candidate with stellar grades and no research experience!

Also, such an endeavor would remedy another aspect of your applications that you don't seem too concerned about - your Letters of Recommendations. "Bland", "did well in class" letters would kill your application a lot faster than your grades, and I don't see how you would make up for it unless you involve yourself in research projects before the next admissions cycle!

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I haven't seen "DWIC" before, so I checked it out and expanded it. We should probably avoid lingo like that, at least in the beta stage. –  aeismail Feb 22 '12 at 7:17
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Some universities impose a minimum undergraduate GPA requirement for all incoming PhD students. For example, the University of Illinois requires a GPA of at least 3.0 (out of 4.0) for the last two years of undergraduate study for all PhD programs. Applicants that fall below this line are usually culled from the applicant pool before any faculty see their application. Departments can petition for a waiver for individual applicants, but the case has to be pretty compelling.

Of course, every university is different. Choose your targets wisely.

(My undergrad GPA was well under 3.0.)

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I had a very mediocre transcript from a very good school. I worked five years, then applied to a good school in a foreign country paying international fees for a masters degree. Then I worked very hard and got decent grades and great letters of reference and got into MIT for my PhD.

In general, if you work a few years and/or do another degree, your first degree doesn't matter any more, your more recent work does. This can be for good or for ill.

One really excellent thing I've seen: Northwestern University in Chicago allows you to sign up for night courses no questions asked, then after you've taken five will review your work on their courses and decide whether to admit you based almost purely on those courses. I assume some other universities might do this.

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When evaluating graduate applications, I weight recent evidence more than stale evidence. One way to recover from bad undergraduate grades is to take classes through a community college or extension program and get great grades or recommendations.

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You need to have good connections. I.e., a senior, well-respected person in the field who can put their word for you. Or a terrific work experience -- being say the top 10 person on Obama's or Romney's election team would certainly speak for itself in your field. Bad grades + mediocre work experience + bland letters = wasted time and money on the application process.

A former student of mine whom I taught at University A applied to the department I used to work at in University B. He got rejected on the grounds of having a D in the one of the classes in our department's major in the University A. (He later retook the class and got something like a B.) About 20% of our faculty got their degrees from University A, and another 40% are in the same narrow field that the said University A department specializes in, so that bad grade was certainly a big "no-no" for them. I think that student was even bringing some outside federal fellowships money with him, but it did not matter. The student got accepted a year later to University C, which is a better program than University B, and finished his Ph.D. a few months ago -- went to work in industry, never had much thrust to work in academia, though.

One other approach you can try is to find the PoliSci department with a heavy computing component, so that you could leverage your computer science experience. These would be the top departments, though, which would make it even more difficult. Pick a computation-heavy book published recently by a department member, go through it, replicate some of the results, think about some of the extensions and/or computational efficiencies you can develop, email back to that guy -- that could be your stepping stone towards the good connections that I started with.

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