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I'm a chemistry major and I've developed a strong interest in some areas of physical chemistry (and physics) and I do really well in physics and math courses. However, organic chemistry has really hit my GPA pretty hard.

This is due mostly to the fact that I'm having a tough time with the subject material and recent illness. Aside from being sick, I've been doing well in my other classes (so the blame is really shifted more toward the I'm-not-"getting"-organic) aside from receiving a handful of W's which I know will also hurt.

Since Organic chemistry is definitely a course within my major, I'm worried that it will significantly damage my chances of getting into grad school. I got a C- in the first semester of Organic and an F in the second semester.

I retook Organic I and got a B. I'm retaking Organic II and I'm doing much better, but the initial try will still appear on my transcript.

If I want to pursue physical chemistry, how awful are my organic grades and my Ws going to look to admissions?

(Note: My GPA was pretty awesome before Organic and I'm doing well in my other classes.)

I would graduate with roughly a 3.6 GPA. Other than Organic, I fare well in my courses. I have done undergraduate research and have presented several times and will likely have a paper before I graduate.

Edit: In the time since I've written this, I retook both Organic I and II and attained a B in both classes.

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    This maybe isn't worth an answer because it doesn't exactly address the question, but might be a helpful insight. I think grades are one aspect of admissions, but I think (correct me if I'm wrong) most people would agree that it isn't the most important factor in admissions. Prior research can have a larger impact (this is speaking from experience -- my undergrad GPA is probably lower than most of my classmates), so retaking will be helpful but you should look for and take advantage of research opportunities with professors that have interests in areas you think you are interested in. – cc7768 Mar 31 '15 at 14:42
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    @cc7768: Good grades in the right courses are one of the most important factors in admissions in my field (mathematics). Very few undergraduates in math are doing research which is both substantial and sufficiently independently done. Some of the very best have done none at all. – Pete L. Clark Mar 31 '15 at 16:51
  • i'm surprised you're even allowed to continue with OChem II. I would have assumed a gateway would have required a B to continue. – Compass Mar 31 '15 at 17:26
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    @PeteL.Clark Chemistry is much more "fragmented" than mathematics (e.g. someone doing awesome quantum chemistry may use none of organic synthesis), so I am not sure if this information on admission can be extrapolated from mathematics. Plus, things like "real analysis" de facto serve as a sieve. I am not sure if the role of "organic chemistry" is the same (though, it might be?). – Piotr Migdal Mar 31 '15 at 17:39
  • @Piotr: (These should probably be comments on my answer.) Exactly, that's the kind of thing I'm not sure about. I should say though that a lot of mathematicians use no real analysis whatsoever, but we still want our undergraduates to study it and do well in it. But I would love to hear from a chemistry professor... – Pete L. Clark Mar 31 '15 at 17:57
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The short answer first. It hurts, (particularly a D or F) but does not necessarily rule out chances at a PhD program in chemistry.

I'm a tenured associate professor in chemistry at University of Pittsburgh. While I have not served on the admissions committee in our department, I have been chair of graduate recruiting. (Our department separates these two.) Full disclosure that independent of Stack Exchange, Melanie expressed interest in our department.

Most graduate programs have a minimum GPA required for admission. Our university requires a 3.0 GPA or higher from undergraduates. We absolutely cannot consider students with a lower GPA, regardless of qualifications. My advice to such students is to find a master's program or take further courses to provide an improved GPA. Students are admitted to our program with mediocre undergraduate performance, followed by high-quality master's work.

I won't lie. Assuming your overall GPA and grades in the major are good, receiving a C and an F in your major would still raise some concerns. That said, a personal statement is an excellent opportunity to explain extenuating circumstances (e.g., illness, family obligations.. various life events). Recommendation letters can also help in this regard.

My final conclusion is that it would depend on the quality of the rest of the application. If, for example, you achieved well in other courses, say several A's, quality GRE scores, and/or had an undergraduate publication or two, it's easy to overlook a stumble.

  • As I said, with a good GPA, good grades in other chemistry courses, undergrad research and decent GREs, it's possible to overlook a stumble. Chemistry graduate programs are fairly large (30-40 students per entering class) and not everyone has a spotless transcript. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 26 '16 at 0:03
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    Undergraduate grades do not necessarily correlate with graduate school productivity. In fact, pushing through a tough course or tough year is practically required in a PhD program. – Geoff Hutchison Feb 26 '16 at 0:04
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I am a tenured associate professor in the mathematics (note: not chemistry) at UGA and did graduate admissions for several years there.

I am a little surprised that the two answers so far have avoided the obvious: getting a C- grade in two required courses in your major certainly has a negative effect on your chances of getting into graduate school. The only question is how much. I don't want to speculate on this because you deserve answers from my opposite number in a chemistry department, and I hope you'll get one. I'll just say: if we "transposed" this question into mathematics, getting C- grades in two core courses that are well known to be difficult enough to knock some students out of the major (say, real analysis): that would indeed be a serious flaw. We can admit students who got good grades in all the key courses, and we usually do.

However, I don't think you have asked exactly the right question. The issue is not whether you should abandon your graduate school plans based upon your performance in one (or two) courses. You shouldn't. But trying to precisely quantify the damage is our job, not yours. Your job is to avoid if possible, and if not possible remedy, the problem.

For a very serious student (students who want to go to grad school should count as "very serious"!), getting a C- in a course and then moving on to take the continuation course with the expectation of more of the same is a tactical error. You say you plan to retake the courses anyway. Then why are you even taking the second course now?!? You need to plan more precisely for your own success. I would look into withdrawing from the second semester course if it's at all possible.

You also mention health problems. They can certainly affect your academic and professional performance, and this can happen in an uneven way. It is quite plausible that you're doing as well in the other courses that you have more talent / experience with / predilection for as you would have done if you were healthy and doing much worse in the course that needs more of your time and energy. Really consider taking time off, or adding a semester or a year, or doing whatever you can to lighten your load and give yourself the chance to do well. It is much easier to get official accommodations for serious problems while they're occurring than to try to explain two years later the dip in your transcript.

In general I think you could get better advice on which courses to take when and how to succeed in your major. A lot of the most successful students are successful not because of superior talent but because they've been properly mentored or set up for success by others, or because they instinctively know much better than others how to set themselves up for success (which, contrary to what I said above, is certainly a talent).

Good luck.

  • Ack! I can't comment! I have to write a new "answer" -- but this is really intended as a comment. Studying chemistry is different from studying math. (I've studied both.) At Cornell University, for example, courses like undergraduate calculus and organic chemistry are graded on a curve. The average (hardworking) student earns a C! I know, it shouldn't be that way -- but it is. – aparente001 Apr 1 '15 at 2:37
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    "The average (hardworking) student earns a C!" Could you please give some evidence for this claim? If this were true of calculus classes, Cornell would have a lower median GPA than any American university I have ever been affiliated with (including places like Harvard and UChicago: it would be strange if Cornell's grades were significantly different from them). – Pete L. Clark Apr 1 '15 at 3:46
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    Here is a link to an organic chemistry syllabus at Cornell that says that the median grade will be in the B-/B range:google.com/… – Pete L. Clark Apr 1 '15 at 3:46
  • I know a lot of hardworking undergrads at Cornell. Also, a guy who was graduating tried to sell me his math tutoring business -- which was quite successful, because of the sink-or-swim mentality... Finally, I've had some conversations with some Cornell math profs.... I don't think all the classes get graded that way. Certain courses are notorious weeder courses. Keep in mind that a Cornell C on a transcript might look a little different from an arbitrarily chosen institution's transcript. At least, that's what I've been told when I've expressed dismay at the way things are done at Cornell. – aparente001 Apr 1 '15 at 4:17
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    Close family member went to Cornell medical school a long, long time ago. He says, "we were led to believe we were god's gift to medicine; we were in for a rude awakening in the real world". – Daniel R. Collins Feb 25 '16 at 23:47
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Never ever lose your hope to achieve your realistic dreams... getting a low grade in single course or even a number of courses may happen to anyone. Just stay focused and do your best.

I'm a master student in computer engineering and even failing a number of courses at the initial attempt could not deprive me of getting into my dream school...

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(Didn't realize this was such an old question)

I think a good way to tackle this is to look at the bigger picture. You got some low organic grades, okay? This doesn't necessarily disqualify you from graduate school, but you need to keep a few things in mind:

Most graduate schools require a 3.0 GPA for admissions. If it's a good program the GPA is also competitive and so for consideration you should aim as high as possible, but it varies by insitution. Take mine for example, they want a 3.0 GPA minimum for the last two years of chemistry coursework to enter the chemistry grad program but the grad school itself also requires a 3.0 GPA overall. So watch your GPA.

Disclaimer: We have 8 concentrations from biochem to computational chem; speak with your department adviser or check out your current course catalog, and get an idea of what your prerequisites are going to need to be (again, things differ by institution).

The problem here in: The bachelor core classes may require a C- or better in organic I & II to enroll. The other obvious problem is most chemistry programs need you to have made a C- or better in every course listed as being part of the major for that credit to count toward your graduation. It could very well be that you need to score higher anyways, not just to enroll elsewhere but to graduate period. You will also need to speak with your adviser about this.

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