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Context

I am a double major (in CS and physics) at a top-5 university in both. I was really hoping to do graduate studies in physics and have been keeping up a 3.8 GPA taking 18-19 units per quarter (max is 20). However, my first semester of junior year I began taking serious graduate courses and really overextended myself. Finals week I did not balance take-home finals and studying for actual finals, and ended up with a 3.3 GPA for the quarter. This is pretty bad, considering I took 3 grad courses that awarded solid As to half the class and the other two were core upper-division courses. If I had performed above median in all classes I should have had at least a 3.85 or so. I don't even have an excuse besides taking too many classes at once.

Question

How can I best fix this quarter of poor grades in terms of a grad school application? Assuming decent research experience, will retaking the two classes that I earned 'Bs' in next year be a bad sign for admission committees from top research programs? My overall GPA went from 3.78 to 3.70 after this, and I earned Bs in classes closely related to research work that I would like to pursue. I learned a lot and aced most homework assignments, but really just did not perform well on the finals due to insufficient time to study/write them up.

  • Are you trying to raise your GPA by replacing the B's with A's, if that's how it works at your school? Or is this primarily about having A's for the sake of demonstrating proficiency in research-related courses? – Nat Dec 24 '17 at 8:36
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    As far as having an "excuse" is concerned, you were learning how to handle graduate courses, and how much time to allocate for them. For that to work, you need to get better grades on the next batch of courses. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 24 '17 at 17:19
  • @Nat Yes, if I retake the classes the grade on the transcript is replaced but it shows that the class was taken a second time. I am not sure if this would restore the damage to grad school applications, or if I would just be wasting my time. – Alekxos Dec 24 '17 at 20:20
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    @Alekxos Regardless of the official grade, how confident are you that you have understood and learned the material for each course? – Patricia Shanahan Dec 25 '17 at 2:58
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I teach CS at Michigan. One of my service assignments is undergraduate advising. All the students here are smart and if all they had to do was take one class and let someone else cook their meals, do their laundry and clean their bathroom, they could get an A in anything.

The #1 reason students crater their GPAs is because they take too heavy a load, usually because they think they want to graduate early. They do well with sixteen units then think seventeen's just one more but forget it's not just one credit but one more course. Then there's someone like you (and me, fifty years ago when I was a student and did the same thing!) who takes nineteen units and seems surprised at what happens. There's no way anyone has time to do nineteen units and do them well.

I wish there'd been someone to tell me what I will tell you: No one will ever care very much when you graduate, whether it's a semester or even a year late. They will care how well you did. Twelve units of straight As always beat seventeen (never mind, nineteen!) with a couple of Cs.

If you'd like to improve your GPA, your best strategy is also the simplest: take a lighter load you know you can do well.

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    "twelve units of straight As always beet seventeen with a couple of Cs" - this may true in Academia and maybe in the US, but definitely not "always". Most of my friends got a (life-long) job without presenting anyone their grades - at the job interview they only wanted to see the diploma for the studies (the paper which does not present any grades). In another question here, just a few days ago, I read how much money you lose if you study longer. So, I would say, the word "always" is not right here. – Haudie Dec 24 '17 at 19:30
  • Thanks for the advice! I am not trying to graduate early actually, but have to take a heavy courseload since I am trying to complete two fairly intense majors. I will definitely be minimizing my courseload to the max in future quarters - even so, would retaking the two courses that I got B grades in this quarter be viewed as a good move by grad school committees, or reflect poorly on my grades anyway? – Alekxos Dec 24 '17 at 20:27
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My overall GPA went from 3.78 to 3.70 after this

You took on too many classes and your GPA slipped, next semester, take fewer and your GPA will recover anyway.

I would generally NOT recommend retaking a class to go from a B to an A. Some schools don't allow a B grade to be replaced on a transcript, and almost all school severely limit the number of retakes you're allowed.

Furthermore, retaking a class is not seen favorably in grad admissions. Very few students replace Bs on a transcript. If I saw this, I might suspect you were trying to hide something like a cheating scandal. Doing this is more likely to draw negative attention than simply leaving the Bs and vowing to take a more reasonable course load next time.

It's far more believable in a statement of purpose to say "I took too many courses and decided it was better to take more time and really understand the material."

What you're saying by retaking the classes is "I really didn't want those Bs on my transcript, so I retook the classes." That's pretentious at best. At worst, its a cover for something else.

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So you overloaded, taking a full load of grad courses as an undergrad plus some undergrad courses, suffering a less-than-perfect GPA for it?

Seems like opinions on that'll vary. @NicoleHamilton's answer reflects a negative perspective on that approach. To balance that, figured I'd write my positive perspective on it. Then, there's the question of what you should do given that opinions can differ.

So, in short, I like what you did! You took a hard road and kicked butt. And sure you didn't get perfect-A's, but frankly I couldn't care less. All else held equal, A's are better than B's, but you didn't hold all else equal; you went above-and-beyond. To me, this reflects a bunch of positive character attributes:

  • You'll take risks and pursue challenges.

  • You're able to handle heavier loads than most'd try.

  • You're passionate enough to go above-and-beyond your peers.

You sound like the kind of future PhD student someone should want to advise and a department should want to sponsor. That drive and independence are exactly what truly successful PhD students should have!

The problem for you now is that you don't know who'll review your applications. Will they have an opinion like mine, @NicoleHamilton's, or another stance? Kinda hard to guess.

That said, getting accepted/rejected isn't a binary event. Some potential advisors might see your application and want you in their group. And if those potential advisors feel strongly about wanting to recruit you for reasons that reflect your own personality, then that's more likely to result in a good match and a successful PhD career.

So, say that two potential advisors are looking at your application. One would've preferred for you to retake those classes and slow down in the future, and the other likes what you did and would prefer for you to keep at it. Which of those potential advisors do you want to impress?

Of course, it'd be best if you could get higher grades in future courses; I don't mean to undersell that, as most could agree on it. Just, with regards to retaking courses or/and slowing down, that's where perceptions can differ.

  • Anecdotally, I recall one conference at which a bunch of senior professors were standing around making idle chatter about this exact topic, reflecting on what their beliefs were earlier in their careers. Over time, the courses that they'd gotten graded on as students themselves had become fairly obsolete, and their required skill sets had changed radically over the course of their careers. I didn't catch the entire conversation, but the gist I got was that they favored aggressive pursuit over trying to maximize GPA. – Nat Dec 24 '17 at 21:02

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