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I am a Computer Engineering major at a top 15 engineering school. My goal is to get into grad school for Machine Learning. I have set very lofty goals and am aiming for places like MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, CMU etc. I will be applying for safeties too but these top tier colleges remain the goal.

I have got a 3.8 in college till now. The issue is that I am messing up a lot in my electrical circuits analysis course. I am in the C to D range in the course. The professor is extremely harsh while grading and covers grad school material in an intro course. I am thinking of withdrawing from the course. I am confident that I can perform well next semester when I take it under different circumstances. Seeing as circuits aren't related to machine learning or computer science, I was wondering how bad would a W for this course look in my transcript, while having an otherwise great record.

I am also involved in research involving machine learning and will be doing so till the end of undergrad. It's this one thing which is worrying.

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    Seeing as circuits aren't related to machine learning or computer science — [citation needed] Perhaps circuits are not related to the corners of machine learning and computer science that you care about, but that's not the same thing.
    – JeffE
    May 1 '19 at 18:40
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    The importance of the topic to your grad major isn't the only concern. It is a mathematically-challenging engineering course, that suggests how you will perform in others. Is this just entry-level linear circuits? I can't imaging it is the toughest class you will encounter. As for the "W", are you taking an overload of courses? May 1 '19 at 22:42
  • I'm not in your field, but it would seem to me that either a W or a D would warrant explanation if they come from a core subject. A W plus a retake with better grades is probably better than a D, but in either case you should probably make a note in one of the open fields on the app. If you withdraw, you could write, "I took on an ambitious workload during my sixth semester and elected to withdraw from Electrical Circuits Analysis because I wanted to prioritize my research and didn't feel that my performance in that course fully reflected my academic capabilities." This is the truth.
    – Max
    May 2 '19 at 1:15
  • You chose the wrong major. If you're doing CE + machine learning, then the logical next step would be designing ML GPUs and ASICs and such. Then circuits are important. If you're not interested in circuits, then you need to switch to CS.
    – user71659
    May 2 '19 at 2:34
  • @user71659: I agree with the point you're making, but I would suggest that the time to switch is not during undergrad, but at the point of making graduate school applications. CompE and CS are plenty similar that CS PhD programs will give full consideration to applications with BS in CompE.
    – Ben Voigt
    May 2 '19 at 4:23
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It is, of course, impossible to say how someone will look at it, but I doubt that very many people would think it odd or unusual. It is pretty easy for students to get in too deep with studies and the other things during undergraduate years. If you drop now and do well later few would think less of you, I predict.

But if you make a habit of it, then things might be different.

Since it is difficult to predict the time requirements for research, you have a ready-made explanation for getting in over your head for a term.

However, a poor grade, such as a D in a major course would be cause for concern. Not necessarily disqualifying but it needs explanation.

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I have some personal experience with this matter. Every semester during my undergrad, I enrolled in well beyond a full course load with math and computer science courses outside my major (biology). I was trying to break into bioinformatics from a state school without a bioinformatics program. I put classwork on the backburner to more thoroughly invest in my research and ultimately withdrew from a biochemistry course. I graduated summa cum laude with departmental honors for research and a 3.65 GPA. My goal was not as lofty as yours. l simply wanted to gain entrance to a PhD program in bioinformatics. I am currently a second year PhD student with a W on my undergraduate transcript. I think that demonstrating consistent commitment to research is of greater value than a pristine GPA and minimal introduction to graduate level reseach. I cannot say whether programs at more prestigious universities value one area of student success more than another or if success across all endeavors is expected. But there are graudate programs that accept students with Ws and research narrative that overshadows the minor transcript blemish

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  • That sure makes me feel better. If you don't mind me asking can you talk a bit more about where you were accepted and where are you currently studying
    – shloak
    May 2 '19 at 7:43
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If you withdraw from a course during an otherwise "normal" semester, most people judging your transcript from the perspective of graduate school admissions will assume that you were not doing well in the course. If you later complete the course with a good grade (A or B), this won't matter much. It also won't matter much if the course content is not particularly important for your Ph.D. field. To be honest, it will not hurt your application terribly if you get one or two bad grades in courses that are not particularly important for your Ph.D. field as long as your overall GPA is not impacted too much.

What would be more troubling to me would be to see a student receiving a poor grade in a course even though they withdrew from the course on an earlier attempt or attempts, withdrawing from the same course multiple times, or withdrawing from multiple courses over your program.

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