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I'm applying to computer science PhD programs in the US and I'm worried about how to justify my undergraduate grades. Some other aspects of my application are strong, so I believe I have a chance (see end of post). I'm not aiming at top 10 american schools, I'm exclusively going to try top 20 and top 30 american schools.

My average undergraduate grades are 7.4/10 and my average Master's grades are 9.5/10. I'm not from the US, but I've estimated the undergraduate grades would translate to approximately 2.8/4.0 GPA and the Master's to 4.0/4.0 GPA, but it depends on the scale and method used.

I attended different institutions for undergraduate and Master's, and I believe the grades in my undergraduate institution follow a distribution with a much lower average, but I have no way to prove that. I feel this way because I never met anyone with a final average grade above 9/10 while studying there, and grades above 8.5/10 in many courses were very rare. For instance, in one of the hardest courses, I got top 1 grade of the class with a 7.1/10. Besides, I didn't feel like I studied a whole lot more for my Master's than I did for my undergraduate, and yet I got way better grades in the former. Do grades tend to be inflated in computer science Master's programs? Anyway, I was wondering if there's any acceptable way of discussing this in my statement of purpose or some other part of the application.

I think other points of my application might compensate for the low grades: I have 3 strong letters of recommendation and 1 first-author paper accepted recently in a top conference in my field (in a year with a record low 15 % acceptance rate for 9000+ papers submitted), as well as some other research experience in minor projects.

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  • this is where a good LoR can provide context to the raw transcript: so rather than justify this yourself, get someone else to justify it for you. Dec 6 '21 at 1:50
  • Isn't GPA a relative measure? so if the max from your old undergrad institution was 8.5/10, it means that a mark of 8.5/10 is a 4.0/4.0 in GPA. Anyhow, GPA it is a dummy metric to assess a student "value", so feel free to be sloppy in converting it, I usually read it as a minimum threshold to filter candidates, rather than giving it so much value. P.s: are you from France? At undergrad level it is well known that marks above 14 are rare. And the marks go from 1 to 20. Dec 6 '21 at 7:08
  • @tensors_are_4_engineers No, I'm not from France. I don't know if I was clear, but 8.5/10 is not the official max in my institution. Technically you could still get a 9 or 10 in one of the challenging courses, but this never happened according to my experience there. There were some less challenging courses where getting above 9 was not so rare, however, and I did get a few grades in the 9-10 range. So any individual 8.5 in a given course would have to be translated to a B or a 3.0 according to the usual scale for translating to GPA, as far as I understood.
    – jonesy
    Dec 6 '21 at 7:27
  • of course the official max is 10, on a scale 1 to 10, but if the best student got an average of 9/10, then if you get 9/10 it translates to a GPA of 4.0/4.0. As far as you are concerned, you can write in your motivation letter all this, but be concise :) Dec 6 '21 at 8:51
  • @tensors_are_4_engineers Ah ok, thank you. Unfortunately, the other students' max grades are not officially released by the university. This is purely my anecdotal evidence from having talked to many other students about their grades.
    – jonesy
    Dec 6 '21 at 17:18
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Opinion only since I have not dealt with graduate admissions at the level you seek.

I don't think you can or should try to "justify" this. You might note somewhere that your grades improved when you settled into your master's work. I think it would be a mistake to discuss the grading standards at your undergraduate institution.

Your recent work and strong letters ought to carry the most weight with an admissions committee.

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