Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Applications Suck

I am in the process of applying to some grad school programs for next fall. (More on this later. Much later.) And I have a quick rant.

I went to college many years ago. I am a very different student today than I was at 18. And at 18 I went to a science/research-oriented university and took a lot of very diverse courses.

I took more semesters of Chemistry and Biology (including labs) than I've ever bothered to count. I took a fair amount of Calculus. I took Physics and Psychology. I flirted with several different majors before I decided on English, which I chose because it's where I was getting the best grades.

So my major GPA looks pretty decent, but my overall GPA is pretty lousy. I very quickly grew frustrated with a university experience where I was one of 450 students in a lecture hall, the professor maybe didn't care too much about teaching anyway (let alone had any notion of who I was), and the "mean" score on an exam - earning the student a low B - was 33 out of 100. End result: I had a lot of fun in college. Once I decided not to compete in the rigorous science courses I continued to take, I enjoyed myself a lot more.

Now I want to go to grad school. I am willing to take the GRE, to submit samples of my current/recent work, to write wonderful letters of explanation. But so many grad programs have a ridiculous clause about what a student's undergraduate GPA must be in order to apply.
  1. This is stupid for students returning to school after a break - the sort of student I was 13 years ago is hardly relevant to the student I am today, and
  2. What I want to study doesn't have a lot to do with Organic Chemistry. I shouldn't be penalized for taking courses that I found challenging - I could have stuck to "Science for Musicians" and bolstered my GPA artificially.
Stupid applications.


  1. sarahlynn,
    as a new phd student, i may be able to offer you some advice (rather than getting up to school early to finish an assignment for class! (i'm taking an incomplete in the class, no worries)). your gpa won't be the only thing they look at, and especially since you've been out of school for 13 years, it is likely that they will look more at your letters of recommendation and your goal statements rather than your gpa 13 years ago. they all know we change a lot. i've heard from a couple of folks here at utah state that having a letter from one particular professor from my masters program really helped me to get in. my other recommendation - go to the departments, set up a visit with the faculty, get to know them and more importantly - let them get to know you. i didn't do that here at utah state till i got in, but i know that once i got in, it was coming here that i'm pretty sure made a difference between getting funding and not getting funding. the last thing i know from first hand experience is that my 8 years between my masters and phd has made a huge difference in what i bring to my work in my assistantship and my classwork. the professors know that as well.

    oh, and the gre - its such a pita. i mean serious pita. at least for me. i didn't mind it the first time, since i was only 1 year out of school then, but 8 years out - i hated it. i scored badly, and yet i still got in to a top 5 program in my field. :)



  2. Sarahlynn,
    Brooke is right. I've been on grad admissions committees at two universities and we read the applications in the department--so anyone reading your application is looking at the whole package and assessing who you are now and your readiness for the program you want to get into. It's a much more personal process.
    If you're applying for, say, an MFA or an MA in Women's Studies, I cannot imagine a committee being anything other than impressed at your intellectual roundedness and not all that distressed by what your GPA was years ago...
    Don't stress. Have some chocolate--it's great for you and the babe!!!

  3. Okay, I used to be an admissions counselor at a very competitive graduate school. Two things:
    a) don't make too much of a fuss about your college grades. If it's a humanities program, they're probably going to take the science factor into consideration anyway. Do meet professors, make your personal statement interesting, etc. We got a number of apps that included lengthy, rather whiney explanations about why their grades were low ----the school was very hard, they took hard classes instead of the "guts", the professors hated women. I'm not saying you'd whine or be that way, but it is a bit of a red flag for an admissions committee. A simple statement about how majoring in or taking lots of classes in the sciences proved to be challenging to you (but rewarding in its own way) and that you're glad you didn't back away from the challenge, or something like that is fine. Most committees don't really care about a specific GPA. We look at the curriculum very closely--what did someone take, are there patterns. We look at the competitiveness of the school. We look at how students chose to push themselves through research, tough courses outside the major, theses, etc.
    b) if grades are really an issue (and I have to admit that at my school, they really were), the best way to prove that they are no longer indicative is to take a class now. Take a grad level class at a college somewhere, and submit that transcript as well. (Even better, get that prof to write a letter for you.)

  4. i agree with the others. My masters program was super competitive but while i was there the directors let in a woman (who all but failed her undergrad) because she impressed their pants off during interviews and with her application. They're gonna want to know that you can write... and that you can do.

  5. Best comments ever! Thank you all.

    Brooke, I'm so worried about being accepted to one of my top choice programs (the ones with all the funding) that I'm afraid that any "little" knock against me will be the end of my application. What's "pita?"

    Anne, you guessed right. And I know it's mostly about the writing sample. But one program asks for a separate sheet to accompany the personal statement and writing sample, just listing my major GPA and overall GPA. From many years ago. It's *almost* enough to make me wish I'd studied more. I really appreciate your comment.

    PPB, thank you! So helpful! I took a course this summer and another this fall (both taught by people affiliated with one of my top choice programs) and have asked both instructors to write me letters of recommendation. I hadn't thought of submitting the grades, though. Forehead smack.

    I have a rough draft sentence or two on this for my letter: "I think it’s natural for students to draw comparisons between the things they’re discussing in their various courses each semester. As an undergraduate, I was thinking about the nature of water as we discussed it in Chemistry, the nature of water as we discussed it in Biology, and the significance of water imagery in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette."

    Lilsis, wanna come visit and help me? I've been particularly frustrated by the websites that basically say not to bother applying if your overall undergrad GPA is less than X. Bah humbug. It' so easy to get paralyzed by the fear.

  6. This is my biggest fear, too, as I had A LOT of fun in college and did not do so well academically until I got into my major, which, as you know, was also English. Why should I be refused admission into grad school because of a little thing called GEOLOGY???

  7. Go, Saralynn, go.

    Fingers crossed.

    And yes, I think something like your draft sentence, along the modest lines recommended by ppb could allay your anxiety and explain your record to the committee.