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I did very poorly in my first two years of college but I still want to get into a prestigious graduate program. The reasons why I did poorly are complicated and personal and certainly nothing I would want to share in my application.

I am considering a possibly risky route into graduate school. Namely, auditing classes at the university I would like to attend and then reapplying after a semester or two. This way I can demonstrate my abilities directly.

Obviously, the success of this plan depends on the quality of my work while auditing. Assuming the quality is high and I can develop connections in the department I am interested in (physics), is this a viable route? Or is it totally unrealistic? It is worth noting that I am in the upper 90th percentile in the physics GRE.

marked as duplicate by Buffy, Jon Custer, cag51, user3209815, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Sep 28 at 20:16

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  • Not sure whether some of these previous questions addresses some or part of your question - academia.stackexchange.com/questions/45258/…, academia.stackexchange.com/questions/83948/…, academia.stackexchange.com/questions/52137/… – Poidah Sep 25 at 7:43
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    You typically don't receive a grade for an audited course, so oftentimes, you won't even get a grade on individual assignments. It'll be tough to show the quality of your work if you have no evaluation of it, unless you're building a rapport with someone directly involved in admissions. – Nuclear Wang Sep 25 at 14:09
  • I've voted to close, so won't answer officially. But I think that for admissions itself, auditing is worthless and a waste of your time. This is because no one can verify that you learned anything. You weren't evaluated in any way. For learning (not admission) it may be a different story and well worth it, but not for the admissions process itself. – Buffy Sep 25 at 14:29
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    Some universities will permit you to take a course officially as a non-matriculated student (non-degree). Do that instead if it is available. You then will have an official grade, as well as the goad that pushes you to do the hard work to assure that you actually learn something. – Buffy Sep 25 at 14:33
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    Is your country the US? From the comments I assume yes? – User Sep 25 at 16:04
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I cannot speak for Physics, but I can speak generally. Generally, auditing courses is unlikely to get you noticed in any way and is unlikely to generate the sort of information that the admissions committee will value. I cannot assume that you will be able to develop the connections that you desire because I doubt such opportunities will be available via auditing classes.

In my field (though perhaps not Physics I warn) a way forward with a poor undergraduate result but a desire to do a US-based PhD is to do a one-year master's in the UK or Europe, and to do extremely well in that programme. Via this route you show that you are able to complete very high level coursework and, further, are able to produce actual research (in the form of a master's dissertation). These are much better indicators of PhD success than audited classes or GRE scores. Also, if you have, say, a UK distinction in your master's, in your PhD statement of purpose you can address your poor undergraduate performance head on: say you were dealing with personal circumstances but your demonstrable success in the higher degree programme evidences your abilities to succeed at real research.

In other words, you are giving them real evidence of your commitment and abilities, while auditing doesn't do that.

  • Ah, fair. Likely equally useless. No actual evidence of commitment and abilities. No transcript, no mark, no output (e.g. a dissertation). – GrotesqueSI Sep 25 at 17:17
  • edited to reflect comment – GrotesqueSI Sep 26 at 6:16
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What you are suggesting has a few, significant, pitfalls.

(1) You may find it hard to sustain the effort, especially when not doing it for credit. Note, this is very common issue. Look at the statistics on it or on similar situations (people doing extension classes online).

(2) It may not be really credited. After all, you won't get a grade out of it.

(3) Teacher may not give you as much help and/or you will be reluctant to ask for it, as not being a paying student.

(4) Kinda limits you mostly to the one school where you do the courses. But you need to cast a wide net.

(5) Low value if stepping stone doesn't work. Whereas a masters or "less prestigious" Ph.D. has value even if you don't end up at Harvard playing Bessel functions with Lisa Randall.


Net, net:

I would go ahead and apply to many regular schools. Prestigious and not prestigious. For one thing hard science grad school can be quite different than undergrad in terms of the demand (they need students). You may well find that some school is willing to take a chance on somebody who is "smart and lazy". (Sorry, but that is what the quick analysis of high test scores and low grades will determine. If it was personal troubles, you're right to keep those out of the application.)

Also, prestige is not the end-all, be-all. But if you do go to a less prestigious one, I would at least try to go to a large state school (Big 10 or UT or the like). At least you are part of the core of R1 world then.

Finally, I had a buddy who leveled up in physics. Going from a so so place (but in a Ph.D. program, not auditing) to JHU. They were happy to get him. He's a smart cookie.

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    I disagree that personal issues should be kept out of the application. If there are real mitigating circumstances for poor grades, giving a clear and concise explanation is probably a good idea. – astronat Sep 25 at 18:02

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