Obviously, the college drop-out in question is me, so allow me to supply as much detail as needed for you to answer this question as it pertains to my situation.

I come from a "disadvantaged" background; bad schools, bad home-life, the works. The high school I attended was one of those under-performing schools that undergraduate admissions romanticize as containing token diamonds in the rough. Entirely ignorant of the concept of financial aid and misinformed about college admissions, I didn't work hard enough to become one of those angels. Regardless, I did well enough to barely graduate with honors and earned a near-perfect ACT score, and I earned a scholarship to a private college.

My mental well-being imploded during that freshman year. I transferred out with a GPA of 2.9 to a local state school for my sophomore year. Unfortunately, this wound up being the worst mistake of my life.

My sights have always been set on higher education. On top of my personal issues, however, that developed into a paralyzing fear of failure and perfectionism. I spent the next five years barely keeping my head afloat, being dismissed once, re-admitted once again, and then finally leaving out of my own volition to seek out the healthcare I desperately needed from day 1. It's been about three years, but for whatever reason, The bureaucratic nightmare that is my former school still lists me as a student with a GPA below 1. Complications regarding financial aid and my change in majors make returning to finish that degree an impossibility, as I cannot pay for the rest of my degree out of pocket or through private loans.

I've worked odd jobs to save up to move out-of-state to work for a year to gain in-state tuition at a community college, and to begin a bachelor's degree that's actually relevant to my field of choice.

The choices that I would make regarding my futures studies are predicated on contingencies that I'm not familiar with. The biggest looming question in my mind is, assuming that one day I complete a bachelor's sufficiently well enough to entitle me to the prospect of graduate study, would my first attempt at a bachelor's be too big of an obstacle to overcome? What general advice would you have for me in my situation?

EDIT: My question presumes that I start and finish a bachelor's degree now with a decent-to-strong GPA and then apply for graduate admission. That's a different scenario than compensating for a low GPA earned with a completed bachelor's degree.

  • 2
    I had a little trouble finding your actual question, but it sounds like you want to know: if you successfully complete a bachelor's degree after a previous unsuccessful attempt, how will the previous attempt affect your chances of admission for graduate study? Sep 17, 2015 at 15:40
  • @NateEldredge Correct. This is distinct from generally asking about the chances of admission for weak applicants, since the presumption is that my hypothetical bachelor's would have nothing to do with my previous coursework. Sep 17, 2015 at 15:58
  • I think I was confused by your use of the term "higher education". In my experience, this term is usually used to refer to any education beyond high school (including study toward a bachelor's or associates degree) but it sounds like you are using it to mean "graduate study" (i.e. toward a masters or doctorate). Maybe rephrasing would be helpful. Sep 17, 2015 at 16:02
  • I think it's conceivable, but you just need to take it one step at a time. Admission to the community college is the first step. Good luck.
    – Aaron Hall
    Sep 17, 2015 at 22:12
  • 1
    Besides for the other question about the bachelor's dropout (which I marked as duplicate of), also see How to get a bad transcript past PhD admissions for some useful advice on de-emphasizing your past poor performance (it may be for a slightly different scenario, but a lot of the suggestions there apply to you as well). Good luck!
    – ff524
    Sep 17, 2015 at 23:50

3 Answers 3


The biggest looming question in my mind is, assuming that one day I complete a bachelor's sufficiently well enough to entitle me to the prospect of graduate study, would my first attempt at a bachelor's be too big of an obstacle to overcome?

My experience is of course anecdotal, but for me the answer was 'yes, it is possible to overcome a poor academic record in your first bachelors program'. I will outline my story briefly and then summarize a few takeaways.

My story

I was a solid B student in high school, always doing well on exams but never taking homework very seriously. I overreached in my college applications and was rejected by five out of six schools. The one school to which I was accepted was the one I couldn't see myself attending, so I decided to enroll at the local community college instead.

I earned an associates degree with a ~3.5GPA and applied to three four-year schools, two for the linguistics major and one for the major in international agriculture. My associates degree was in social science, and I had been interested in linguistics since high school, but after working in coffee shops for a few years I was interested in the possibility of a career in the international coffee trade. I was accepted to all three programs, and chose to go to school for agriculture. My reasons for choosing that program over the linguistics programs still aren't very clear to me; in hindsight it was probably due largely to the fact that the agriculture program let me stay in my hometown while either linguistics program would have entailed a cross-country move. Regardless, I began at my new school and quickly got into academic trouble.

I didn't have the background for the courses I was enrolled in, I was still working full-time, I had an unhelpful advisor, I wasn't actually as interested in the subject as I had thought—any difficulty you name, it felt like I had to deal with it. I 'earned' a 1.0 GPA the first semester and a perfect 0.00 GPA the second semester, and withdrew voluntarily after that first year before the university could ask me to leave.

I got a full-time job and worked for two and a half years, but remained interested in linguistics and started to regret very strongly never entering a linguistics program. Finally fed up with myself, I applied to two schools: one of the two that had accepted me into the linguistics program three years prior, and one other. In spite of my poor showing in the agriculture program, I was accepted to both. I moved across the country to enroll in the program I should have enrolled in the first time they accepted me, and did very well there. I double-majored, earned my bachelors, applied to grad schools, and was accepted. I finished my masters degree this past May and am now in a PhD program.

So yes, it is possible. But...


I've learned a few things from my own experience. Take all of the following with a big grain of salt; they feel true to me, and they fit my experience, but they may not be generalizable:

  • Graduate schools are less concerned than you might think with your overall academic record and GPA. Rather, they are concerned with your ability to do graduate-level work in the program you've applied to. I had some terrible grades on my record, but they weren't in the subjects I hoped to study in graduate school. Over the entire graduate admissions process (I applied to five programs), no one asked about my poor grades from that year spent studying agriculture. It didn't come up once. That was very surprising.

  • I was honest about my academic record, but I didn't try to make excuses for it. I provided all of my transcripts, even the one with that perfect zero on it, to graduate admissions committees. However, beyond that, I didn't acknowledge those poor grades. There are people who will say that you should explain any poor grades in the statement of purpose you submit with your graduate application materials. I disagree. The statement of purpose provides you a maximum of two pages (in my field, at least; yours may vary) to sell yourself as a researcher. Any space you devote to an explanation of a poor academic record: 1) explicitly brings the reader's attention to a negative, and 2) leaves less space for other positives. The statement of purpose should give the impression that it's difficult to distill your research experience and potential down to two pages. If you don't even need two full pages, though, I think that's a negative.

  • The school in which I enrolled following that terrible year (academically speaking), from which I earned my bachelors, was one of the schools to which I had been accepted three years prior, before I had earned those low grades. I can't know for sure, but I can't help feeling like that fact worked in my favor.

What general advice would you have for me in my situation?

Are you in school again now? If so, you've already cleared one big hurdle. Regardless, my advice is pretty simple: do everything you can to demonstrate that you can perform at the graduate level.

  • Take challenging courses—I was able to take a graduate course during my last semester (which took special permission from the professor and the college) and it was hugely helpful to have an idea of the expected workload.

  • Make sure your writing sample is the best it can be. A strong writing sample can go a long way in the admissions process.

  • Don't make excuses for yourself, but demonstrate through your recent work that any past poor performance doesn't reflect your real potential. In my own experience this was not as difficult as it might have been: I earned decent grades in social science, poor grades in agriculture, and then good grades in linguistics. I expect that poor grades and then good grades in the same subject might cause more concern.

  • Recognize that in many ways your extra lived experience (compared to your academic peers) is a strength. Many people go straight from high school to college and then straight from college to graduate school. Your experience working odd jobs and saving money for an out-of-state move might not be academic work, but it might give you a maturity and perspective lacking in other students. Compared to someone who's never taken time off from school, you might have a better idea what you want to do with your life.


Going straight to a well-funded, highly ranked PhD program would be difficult as we can't ascertain if you have the smarts, the drive, and the perseverance to last 5-8 years. I'd recommend looking into MA programs where you can build up more of a track record.

See also: How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in the US, particularly for weak or borderline students?

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer, but I must not be clear on what my intentions are. I don't have a bachelor's degree at all. I plan to enroll as a freshman in a four-year transfer program at a community college to obtain one, Sep 17, 2015 at 16:27

("The biggest looming question in my mind is, assuming that one day I complete a bachelor's sufficiently well enough to entitle me to the prospect of graduate study, would my first attempt at a bachelor's be too big of an obstacle to overcome?")

From my own personal perspective, in addressing the above portion of what you have written in your explanation, is where I interpret your question to be. From this, what I hear you saying is that you did not complete a degree the first time you entered college due to other events and decisions in your life and now you want to complete a bachelors degree successfully in a different area of study. Assuming that this is what you are meaning, I relate to the anxiety you appear to have about possible obstacles and if it would be worth it. I want to be clear, I cannot give you the answer you are looking for. What I can do is share with you my experience. My background is as follows; raised with a father that was mentally and physically abusive, divorced my mother when I was fifteen. By then I had already begun making poor decisions thinking the world owed me something for my pain and suffering. Was pulled out of high school and placed into a "rehabilitation" hospital, sent to live with a relative so on and so on. I received my GED three months before my actual class had even graduated. At seventeen, I got an apartment and enrolled in college. I made it half a quarter before I quit due to other priorities I had in my life then. I spent the next three years making poor decisions, marrying an abusive husband, and having two children ten months apart. The next seven years were spent realizing my children needed better from me, divorcing, multiple trips to court and so on. I think you get the gist of where I'm coming from. Throughout a large portion of those latter years I managed to keep a job that I loved doing. I worked my way up literally from the bottom. During my annual vacation leave time I paid to take two classes to show that I was dedicated to my goal of applying to a specialized department within the same facility. It was enough to get me an interview and attain the job. From there the facility paid me to finish the rest of my classes and become state certified which took me another five years. I realize this is a long post however, my intention is to relay to you the work I put into getting where I have gotten both emotionally and productively. After being in that facility for thirteen years, five of which were in that department I felt forced to resign the position that I was so proud of. Due to a combination of political changes, a new supervisor with his own unethical agenda, and his initiation of hostile and retaliatory behaviors emotionally I was unable to handle it. I quickly found out that even though I am state certified with letters behind my name, I am unable to qualify for jobs in my area of study because the state passed a new requirement a year and a half ago that you must also have a bachelors degree. Upon inquiring at the only community college I would be able to afford, ironically the same one I attended at seventeen, I found out all the classes I had taken, even psychology, were unaccredited. They could not give me credit towards even an associates degree let alone a bachelors. And here is where I see myself relating to your perceived obstacle of, "is it worth it, or would I be wasting my time, effort, and resources". I looked at it this way, if I chose to give up on what I wanted for myself again, just because life threw me another unfair situation, then there would cease to be any purpose for the struggles I have fought to overcome in life. I did enroll and made the dean's list my first quarter in! But such is my life, the day after receiving my dean's list recognition I received a letter from the school notifying me that I was being placed on financial aid award warning status. After inquiring what this meant it was explained to me that because I dropped out of my college classes after the allowed drop time, while on grant and financial aid almost twenty years ago it counts against my overall completion percentage. Basically, I have sixteen credit hours of unapproved dropped classes. So, I am now in my second quarter working myself out of a negative balance in order to keep aid. I know this aspect differs somewhat from your situation. However, to sum it up, I found for myself that I love what I'm learning and may not even follow the same path I was previously set on. I can't change past decisions or consequences. My plan now is to let things, whatever they may be, happen on their own accord and view them as a guide towards finding the path I'm meant to be on. No obstacle is too big to overcome unless you allow it to overcome you. There are several grants and awards for non-traditional students such as ourselves. Even within our community college I know several students who were able to make use of alternative programs because of their background and previous failed attempts. There are several peer reviewed research studies showing that non traditional students excel when returning to academia. The research substantiates the movement towards colleges understanding that non traditional students come from a different psychological perspective than in previous attempts. If you are interested in any of these studies I will gladly post them.

  • 8
    This is a perfect example of an unreadable wall of text. Make this more readable please.
    – Aaron Hall
    Sep 17, 2015 at 22:08
  • 1
    I made it through, without carriage returns. Thanks for sharing your story, keep up the good work. If you read the question once more, quite carefully, hopefully you'll see that your answer doesn't specifically connect to the question that was asked. That, and the long paragraph, make people vote your answer down. But you can divide your text into paragraphs -- just hit the "edit" link at the bottom left of your post. Sep 18, 2015 at 3:59

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .