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As written in the title, I'm thinking of applying for masters in Europe (I myself am from Serbia), but I made a mess of my undergraduate career, so I'm looking for advice how to present this in my CV and SOP.

Here's my background:

Back after finishing high school, I applied for a relatively well respected local electrical engineering school (University of Belgrade School of Electrical Engineering). Out of 500 students, I was 250ish. So far so good. My intent at the time was to study computer engineering.

Then came the first academic year. I passed a number of exams (mostly those I could pass with no studying at all, so as a result my grades were pretty bad, with my grade average being 7.0 out of 10, with 6 being passing grade), but I didn't have enough credits pass to the second year.
No big deal, I thought, since statistics show that the four year program there usually lasts around seven years, with first year being the most difficult. I took some exams from the second year and tried to pass first year exams again. At the end of the year, I passed none of the first year exams, but I did pass some of the second year exams. Third time's the charm I thought, got some more second year exams and tried to pass the first year again. At the end of the year, situation was the same as last time: I passed none of the problematic first year exams, but I did pass some of the second year exams.
By that time, I was pretty depressed, had gained quite a bit of weight, was having big problems with procrastination and was fed up with school politics.

At that point I decided that it was time to switch schools. I moved to a younger, less-respected school (Union University School of Computing) and got admitted (barely) into second year there due to exams I passed at my previous school. I moved to a telecommunications study program there.

In the second year, at my new school, I had around one and a half year worth of exams, but I managed to pass them. The downside was that my grades weren't all that good. They weren't bad, but nothing exceptional either. Third year went well for me. I passed all of the exams, raised my average grade to 8.0 out of 10 and became one of the best students in my (relatively small) class. In one particularly hard exam I was the only student that year to get a 9 with nobody getting a 10.

Right now, the exam season for the winter semester of my fourth year is approaching and I'm thinking of what I'm going to do next. I've spoken to few professors and they all believe that I should definitely continue my education. I wouldn't have any problems continuing my education at my current school, but I don't think that it's best equipped for the field in which I want to study further. The focus of my current school is computer science, while the telecommunications program seems to have taken a back seat.

I have read the question about getting a Ph.D. with bad transcript and fortunately for me course structure was such that just a few professors taught a large number of exams (for example six to eight hours every day for the whole semester with same professor and TA), so there are people who know me well and have a good opinion of me.

I don't think that I could do much to improve my average grade. Perhaps the best I could do would be around 8.3 out of 10.

I don't think that I would have any problems with IELTS exam and I do think that I could prepare GRE well enough. I do understand that good grades there won't help me much, but on the other hand I at least hope that they won't have a negative effect.

I'm thinking of applying for universities that aren't very highly ranked, for example some from the bottom of the top 200 from the Shanghai list, but I'm not sure if that's low enough. Also I'm thinking of applying for two-year masters, but I'm coming from a four-year undergraduate school, if that matters.

Finally my question:

What I really don't know is how to present me dropping out of my first school in my CV or SOP. I've been basically studying 6 years now, much longer than expected, with not that good grades and I really can't think of any way to present that in favorable light. I think that I matured in the meantime and my grades did improve, but on the other hand I moved a weaker school.

  • By the way, any tips on how to make this question a bit easier to read would be very welcome! – AndrejaKo Jan 1 '14 at 21:16
  • You didn't specify where you did your undergrad. – user10269 Jan 1 '14 at 21:26
  • @user14449 Oh, yeah, I forgot... I'm from Serbia and my first school was University of Belgrade School of Electrical Engineering, while my second school is Union University School of Computing. – AndrejaKo Jan 1 '14 at 21:29
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Definitely get a letter from the professor who taught the course where you got 9/10 with no one else getting that grade or higher.

I am sorry to say it, but it sounds like you just chose not to study during your time in your first school, unless you forgot to mention some important piece of information. There is no way to sugarcoat the lack of effort, unless you did something else productive instead of studying for those exams.

It is true that excuses exist for some people with bad grades, but it is certainly not true that everyone with bad grades can make their applications look good for graduate school admissions -- if such sugarcoating methods existed, it wouldn't be fair for the students who studied hard throughout their undergraduate career.

The next best alternative is to ask yourself why you want to pursue a master's degree, when you haven't shown a lot of promise academically. If you have a good reason for wanting it, your next best bet might be to get in touch with a professor at an institution that you want to go to for your master's, and show him how good/dedicated/passionate you can be, and then have that person vouch for you in the admissions committee.

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    Great answer. To the OP, I would add to this that if there is any extracurricular work you have that shows you can do excellent things when you put your mind to it, this should certainly help in your application once you get past the "gatekeeper" (that is, if you satisfy their strict, minimum requirements for admission). I notice you have a lot of rep on other StackExchange sites - have you done any relevant "hobby" projects? – Moriarty Jan 2 '14 at 3:58
  • @user14449 Thank you for confirming my suspicions! – AndrejaKo Jan 2 '14 at 12:32
  • @Moriarty That's something that I didn't even think about. I've done lots of things outside of classes and I think that many of them are in fact related to the field in which I want to continue my education. – AndrejaKo Jan 2 '14 at 12:34
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    "it sounds like you just chose not to study during your time in your first school..." I'm not at all sure this is the case. This sounds to me like an "average" student who found himself with a steep hill to climb, and (finally) picked himself up, but only after two wasted years. – Tom Au Jun 30 '14 at 16:43
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You appear to have two sets of choices: 1) Continue a graduate program in your current school, where you are well known and liked, and 2) Start a graduate program in an equivalent school.

I'm assuming that you will prefer the second choice. Find out which schools (e.g. on the list of 200) are equivalent of yours. Find out where the better students (the ones averaging 8.0) go to after they graduate. And last, find out which graduate schools your professors have the most clout with, especially the one who gave you the top grade.

Then apply to those schools. Use your current school as a back-up if the "equivalent" school plan doesn't work. Good luck.

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I'm in the US, so take that into consideration.

If it were one of my classmates in a similar position, I would recommend searching for an internship or entry-level position with a top company in your field. With a year or two of work history, your application to an MSc would be evaluated in a totally different light, specifically there would be less focus on why you struggled initially and more on why you are returning (to continue to learn?)

In addition, this would let you gain some practical skills, perhaps save some money, and figure out whether you really enjoy working in comp sci.

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