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I am an international student looking to apply for a PhD in mathematics in mainly the USA. My current university uses a 10 point scale for GPA but most of the universities I've seen, in the US seem to use a 4 point scale, and they rarely provide a conversion scale to convert a 10 point GPA to a 4 point one. Some people suggest dividing my current GPA by 10/4=2.5 to get my 4 scale GPA but as my masters' GPA is 7.6/10 (not great, I know) this formula makes it 7.6/2.5= 3.04 and so just barely above the minimum required for the most places. And according to it, I can never get into a PhD program.

As disheartening as it is, IMO this does not seem to be a correct way to interpret an international GPA. After all, the universities abroad don't know how were the classes taught, their contents and how difficult/easy it was to get good grades is in different unis.

At my university, it is really difficult to get good grade. One can get one of the following grades, A, B, C, or a D and it is incredibly difficult to get an A, most of the times only one or two people would get it, and so slim chances of getting most of As. My transcripts are filled with mostly Bs, (and I know I worked really hard for them), a few As and Cs and unfortunately one D (worst decision ever to take that class, it's not related to what I want to study in grad school, the instructor gave one grade to each of the students who took the class). Also, my last two years of coursework was very heavy (at least for me), we'll have 5-6 courses (all math) each semester, and I struggled a lot with my time management throughout this. Combine it with some anxiety and overthinking issues, and you have a bad GPA as a result.

So, my questions are-

1) How do grad schools in the US interpret international GPAs?

2) Would it be okay to address the reasons for my low GPA in SOP)personal statement briefly, like in a line or two? If so, how should I subtly go about doing it? I don't want to make an excuse and of course, don't want to blame others.

3) Should I just give up on applying for PhDs then and focus more on the masters program, say in some Canadian universities?

(I should mention that in the name of 'research experience' I only have a bunch of reading projects/ independent studies and a Masters' thesis. My university didn't offer courses and a supervisor directly in my area of interest and so I don't have much background in it and that's why I don't feel confident to directly apply for a PhD elsewhere like in Europe or Canada)

  • You'll probably receive better answers if you shorten your post to the essentials. Leave out all superfluous information. It's a good skill to have for grad school as well...! – user2705196 Aug 20 at 16:13
  • Possible duplicate of How to convert from one grading scheme to another? – JeffE Aug 21 at 17:56
  • There are already several questions here about converting between grading schemes from different countries, all of which are correctly answered "Don't!" 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ... – JeffE Aug 21 at 18:02
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I think that any simple formula for conversion is naive. Larger grad schools in the US are pretty sophisticated in knowing the nuances of grading schemes in most places around the world. There are no simple formulas. In some places a 2.5 out of 4 would be an excellent GPA and in other places it would be terrible. But if your own university considers your GPA/performance to be low, then the places you apply to will likely recognize that after doing a somewhat more sophisticated translation.

Therefore if you think your GPA is low in your own place, then you should deal with it. One place, as you suggest, is in your SOP, but an even better place is to have a letter of recommendation (or several) speak to your strengths.

Grad schools are looking for evidence of success in your field and potential to grow and succeed. Your overall GPA is just one measure. Most grad schools will take a broader view, provided that you can find a way to provide that evidence.

But if you don't apply to a doctoral program, then you are guaranteed not to be admitted.

But you can, perhaps, talk to a friendly professor, preferably one who has studied abroad and get their advice.

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1) How do grad schools in the US interpret international GPAs?

Exactly the same way we interpret domestic GPAs! We rely on our previous experience with applicants from your institution and our (Google-enhanced) knowledge of the content and rigor of your degree program. After all, there's no universal interpretation of grades even within a particular country.

And as others have already said, your GPA is only one component of your application, and not necessarily even the most important.

2) Would it be okay to address the reasons for my low GPA in SOP)personal statement briefly, like in a line or two? If so, how should I subtly go about doing it? I don't want to make an excuse and of course, don't want to blame others.

You're assuming your GPA is low enough to require explaining, but that assumption is based on a naive numerical conversion, which really isn't appropriate. Whether your grades are actually "low" is a good question for the people who will write you letters, who presumably have some experience with the type of PhD programs you're applying to. (Otherwise, how would they know what they're recommending you for?) In particular: Would your GPA prevent you from getting a PhD at your current institution?

However, I do think you need to explain your lack of formal research experience ("My university didn't offer courses and a supervisor directly in my area of interest"), both as justification for your current research record and as motivation for pursuing a PhD elsewhere.

3) Should I just give up on applying for PhDs then and focus more on the masters program, say in some Canadian universities?

No! Never throw away opportunities until you're sure you don't have them! If you know you want a PhD, and you believe you are qualified for a PhD, and enough people are willing to write you strong recommendation letters for PhD programs, then you should apply to PhD programs! But if you're still worried about your chances of admission, you should also apply to some masters programs as backup.

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Foreign grades are notoriously hard to interpret. I would strong discourage applying some random conversion factor. A much more useful metric for interpretating your GPA, is at what percentile of your student population (at your home instiution) this places you. This will allow the selection commitee to gauge were you stand with respect to your peers.

Your University's student adminstration should probably be able to provide you with this information.

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Do not attempt to “convert” the grade.

One thing that can help is applying to schools where someone on the faculty is familiar with your country’s education system (not just what GPA means, but also what are the top schools, etc.). This could be because they were educated there or worked there, but also sometime people from the same region know the schools throughout the region as well. It’s common to get input from faculty who have that knowledge when evaluating files.

Similarly if you apply to schools that have recent grad students who went to your school they can compare you to those students.

Another thing is that hopefully your letter writers will put your grades into context.

  • Plan to do that. Infact, some people with my GPA and even lower have gone on to pursue graduate studies at various places, but I don't know if there was any other strength in their application. Also, the area of interest was/is different from what I'm interested in and given that I'm interested in pure math, I reckon that it would be very difficult to get into a decent place. – Mojojojo Aug 23 at 6:26

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