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I've been working as a research assistant at a fairly reputable lab for about 1.5 years now (it will be two full years come November.) My field of study is Cognitive Neuroscience.

I plan on taking the GRE in November, and I'm confident I will score highly on it.

(Aiming for at least the 95th percentile.)

My undergrad GPA was quite low.

I completely bombed my first year and a half of undergrad, and ended up with a 1.33 GPA the second semester of my Sophomore year.

(I'll add that I also chose my courses terribly, instead of getting my general education requirements out of the way I took Psychology courses that were not even relevant to what I want to do, and usually skipped them).

I almost got kicked out, but I appealed and committed to getting my life together. By graduation I managed to raise my GPA to a 2.85.

I excelled in the advanced courses within my major, and developed great relationships with the faculty. My GPA within my major is probably closer to a 3.2, I haven't calculated it yet from my transcript. I really can't understate how badly my first two years went.

My issue is I'm having difficulty narrowing down a list of PhD programs to apply to. I'm uncertain how much my work experience offsets my low undergrad GPA. Obviously I want to apply to the best possible programs, but I also don't want to waste potentially hundreds of dollars applying to schools I have no shot of being accepted to.

One of my top-choice schools, as of now, is the University of Washington.

Am I deluding myself hoping that I could be accepted there? I plan on meeting with some of my former professors/undergraduate advisor soon, as they know my history and can most likely offer the best advice, but I figured asking on here was also worth a shot.

marked as duplicate by Herman Toothrot, Dawn, jakebeal, Buzz, scaaahu Mar 23 '18 at 3:00

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    I would not care about your first two undergrad years, your lab experience should be more worth it. Try approaching some professors in places you like. Nobody can give you a definitive answer. – Herman Toothrot Mar 22 '18 at 15:09
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I've been working as a research assistant at a fairly reputable lab for about 1.5 years

This is great, you've got actual experience working in a lab.

By graduation I managed to raise my GPA to a 2.85

And this is going to be a major stumbling block for an admissions committee.

So far, you've done all the right things to get your academic career back on track. The question is, what is the best strategy to overcome a 2.85 GPA.

Step 1: Make sure your GRE scores are stellar. This would be a good idea anyway, but for you, this is likely essential. With a bad GPA, your GRE scores will provide some evidence you've overcome your very bad academic start.

Step 2: Research more than one school. Most schools have unpublished GPA cut-offs. If your GPA is below that, a human likely won't even see your application. There are ways around this. One way is to have a professor at your current university contact professors at the university you'd like to attend and advocate for you. Some schools may be able to special case your application if you have a professor already on your side. Some schools won't budge on this.

Step 3: Make sure all of your letters of recommendation are from professors you've worked with and will be glowing. Have them address how you've overcome your bad start.

Step 4: In your statement of purpose, address the low GPA and explain how you have committed to changes that have raised your GPA substantially from where it was.

Step 5: Bet on several schools. Even people with great applications shouldn't assume they'll be accepted. Apply to several schools, and ask your current professor to help you choose some that will overlook your GPA. Talk with the person who runs your lab, and get their opinion of where your application would have the best chance of being accepted. You may be best served by a smaller up-and-coming school or a school with a new-ish department.

Finally: Make sure that every school you apply to is one you feel you'd be happy to attend. Everyone applying to grad-school needs to do a gut check like this. You're committing the next 4-7 years of your life to this school.

  • Step 2: Research more than one school. Most schools have unpublished GPA cut-offs. If your GPA is below that, a human likely won't even see your application. There are ways around this. One way is to have a professor at your current university contact professors at the university you'd like to attend and advocate for you. Some schools may be able to special case your application if you have a professor already on your side. Some schools won't budge on this. This is the main thing I'm worried about. – Schrodinger'sStat Mar 22 '18 at 18:11
  • For step 5, by "several", I would suggest "as many as possible", just because there will be so much randomness in terms of automatic filters. I applied to 20 and met others who had done the same (though this is expensive and may piss off your LoR writers) – cag51 Mar 22 '18 at 18:53
  • @cag51 my main concern with applying to 20 schools is the cost of application fees, I’m aiming to apply to around 11? My lease is up around the time I’ll get my GRE scores back so it’s very inconvenient timing financially. I could always wait to apply but...idk life is making me feel rushed, even though I know I have time. – Schrodinger'sStat Mar 22 '18 at 21:19
  • Makes sense...it's almost a scam that they have unpublished GPA requirements when the fees are as much as $100. Good luck! – cag51 Mar 22 '18 at 22:42
  • One used to apply to three schools -- one safety school, one solid choice and one dream school. If your applications are such a long shot that you need 10 to 20 applications, then perhaps it would be a good idea to take a couple of extra courses at your undergrad school or elsewhere, as a non-matriculated student, to improve your knowledge, skills, networking, and admissibility. – aparente001 Mar 25 '18 at 2:18

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