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Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA

August 17, 2012

In a recent post, I discussed some aspects of how the graduate admissions process tends to work in most disciplines in the social sciences and natural sciences. My goal was to explain why the people who make the decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t often don’t care as much about the absolute value of an applicant’s undergraduate GPA as most people would assume. One important message was that the GPA has to be high enough to show the applicant has the necessary academic abilities to make it through the graduate program without any problems. This does not require a stellar undergraduate GPA, just one that is good enough. Good enough tends to mean B+ or higher for most programs. Importantly, it does not do much to improve an applicant’s chances of getting accepted in most programs if the GPA is better than good enough. I did mention, however, that there is one exception, which I promised to explain in today’s post.

The exception can occur when an applicant’s GPA is not just very good, but truly outstanding (straight As or close to it; a GPA nearing 4.00). This applicant has a major advantage in the competition for admission, but it is not because he or she is expected to be a better graduate student than someone with a GPA in the B+ to A- range. The real basis for their advantage often comes down to m-o-n-e-y!

To understand what I mean, we need to first consider a few points:

First, we must consider that undergraduates whose grades are consistently very high (e.g., always over 90%; almost straight As; GPA of 3.85 or higher) have a very good chance of obtaining a graduate scholarship. Most entry scholarships for graduate students are based almost entirely on undergraduate grades. There might be a few other factors that receive some consideration, but the absolute value of the undergraduate GPA is almost always the most heavily weighted factor in determining who should be awarded a scholarship. When it comes to getting a scholarship for grad school, it really does make a difference if an applicant’s GPA is 3.90 versus 3.80.

Second, most professors, especially those with some years of experience in selecting and supervising grad students, do not assume that everyone with a scholarship will turn out to be a fabulous graduate student. A significant proportion of them turn out to be average, and some even turn out to be below average, in terms of their overall performance in grad school. Still, because the ability to get consistently high grades throughout college is correlated with several other abilities and positive character attributes, it is true that, in general, grad-school applicants with very good or outstanding GPAs turn out to be successful graduate students, more often than not. But, the graduate admissions process is not based on generalities or generalization. It is not based on well-known correlations, but instead, on the consideration of individual applicants. A complete application contains more direct indicators than grades of whether or not the student will be an asset to the potential graduate supervisor. Remember, the potential supervisor is usually the one who makes the call on whether or not to accept an applicant.

Quality at a bargain — or at least, a bargain

During my career I have known many students who, despite having earned a graduate scholarship, dropped out of a master’s or Ph.D. program after months of struggling. Not surprisingly, I have known many more scholarship recipients who ultimately performed well in grad school. But the latter observation does not give me good reason to look at whether an applicant has a scholarship when I’m trying to decide whether supervising that person for the next 4 to 6 years is likely to benefit me more than I would benefit from supervising a different applicant. I am mainly interested in the applicant’s promise as a researcher, character and personality, and motives for wanting to go to grad school and train under my supervision (i.e., career goals). The presence or absence of a scholarship does not help me determine any of those things.

Now, let me tell you something that may seem rather paradoxical: Despite what I just stated, the presence or absence of a scholarship can still influence my decision about whether or not to accept a particular applicant. The main reason is because, compared to an unfunded applicant, the one with a scholarship will not require as much financial support from me, or from my department or faculty, or from the research center to which I belong. The most important implication for me, as a Psychology professor who values my research program, is that I will not have to pay the scholarship recipients thousands of dollars from my research grant to help cover their cost of living. The grad students without a scholarship will consume a significant amount of my research grant each year that they remain unfunded or underfunded. The student with a scholarship may seem like a bargain.

Whether or not I take advantage of what seems like a bargain will depend on my circumstances. For instance, if I am already supervising as many grad students as I can handle, I won’t take any new students, regardless of whether or not they have a scholarship. If I do not currently have enough research funding, I might not be able to accept anyone who does not have a scholarship. If I have ample funding, I might not care whether or not a student has a scholarship. All faculty members who supervise graduate students have their own personal equation that takes into account their own needs, priorities, and circumstances. I have attempted here to give you a sense of how the money factor might come into play when I’m deciding whether or not to accept an applicant. It is similar for many other Psychology professors who supervise grad students.

[Note: Most of what I just described corresponds to what it is like for faculty members in fields of research that attract a lot of funding. For example, some types of scientific research are expensive to conduct and receive a lot of funding. In fields of research that are less endowed with funding sources, the relevance of whether the student has a scholarship may depend on somewhat different considerations].

In graduate programs that make their final selections by committee, you can bet that the same types of considerations come in to play. A student with an entry scholarship will not require as much financial support from the departmental budget. The savings can be banked, or they can be used to provide additional support to students without scholarships. A student with outstanding grades might not receive an entry scholarship, but they will be perceived by many professors as having a good chance of getting one next year; so, they are likely to require less financial support from the department at some point in the near future.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Erica permalink
    September 9, 2013 4:06 PM

    Dr. Mumby,
    Do you have more specific guidance for someone who has completed a master’s degree separately and is going back for a PhD? The application for my master’s doesn’t seem like it would be sufficient for my PhD.
    Also, I have read some of your articles on GPA and just want to provide hope for some of the people out there worried about it. My undergraduate GPA was 2.58 and my graduate GPA was 3.889 at a prestigious school that does not have A+s to offset any A-s received. Work experience made all of the difference in the world.

    Thank you,
    Erica

  2. michael permalink
    February 23, 2013 7:21 AM

    Hi David,

    Just wondering for Australian universities, how does a 75%, 85% correspond to roughly in terms of gpa? I know it may vary from schools to schools but I would like an estimation. What % would correspond to a 4.0? Is it a HD which is 85%?

    I am aware of the WES conversion guide but it seems abit too generous. Thanks!

    Kind regards,
    Mike

    • February 27, 2013 9:50 PM

      Hello Mike. I am not certain how to answer your question, as I have no personal experience with how grades tend to be conferred in Australian universities. I would suggest, however, that the WES conversions are generally about right for most universities in the US and Canada.
      Any readers out there with more insight for Mike?
      – Dave

  3. August 28, 2012 2:09 PM

    Hi Prof. Mumby,
    I find this whole grad school thing very confusing actually…simply because so many people give such different opinions and “scare stories.”

    I used to be under the impression that getting into grad school was notoriously difficult and that it was a fight to the death.

    I have since chosen to work as a fulltime RA first instead of going straight to school. Besides gaining more experience, I also figured I wanted to know if I could stomach doing this for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the faculty I intend to do my grad studies in and imagine my surprise when I was almost assured I would get in, as opposed to the usual “oh you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out” kind of talk.

    True, I have a 4.0 GPA (the grad chair took one look at my transcript and said: “you’ll get in and it would surprise me tremendously if you didn’t. I also suspect you would be quite a popular candidate among the faculty”), but I have always been given the impression there is more to getting admitted than grades. After all, don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?

    Now, I’m just…confused :p

    Cheers!

    • August 29, 2012 5:19 PM

      Thank-you for the comments, DL. The process of applying to and being admitted to grad school is like no other process we are familiar with, and I often hear from students who feel somewhat confused. I’ll try my best to clarify it all for you.

      I’ll start by pointing out that your experiences provide good examples for some key points I made in the original post, as well as in some previous posts. The post from August 14, What if the Guru is Wrong About That?, should be read along with this one from August 17, in order to get all the related points to the role of grades in the grad-school admissions process.

      To answer your question, “Don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?” — No, this does not describe the majority of grad school applicants. Of courses, it depends on how one defines a stellar GPA. I indicate in the original post that by ‘stellar’ or ‘outstanding’ I’m referring to grades that are like yours — near or at 4.00. Many students have GPAs that are still very good or excellent, say, between 3.30 and 3.80, and they make up the majority of grad school applicants in most fields. The latter type of GPA is good enough for grad school, but not in the same league as a GPA between 3.90 and 4.00, which is highly likely to get the student some scholarship support (which is good for the graduate program and the student’s grad supervisor, not to mention a nice reward for the student’s own hard work and achievements).

      One possible reason for some of the confusion you describe is that you’re getting advice from many people, but some of them don’t know what they are talking about. You will hear a lot of people repeating the same misconceptions, and this can make those mistaken ideas seem valid. I’ve discussed the common misconceptions before, and also the issue of getting advice from the right sources. I strongly recommend you read those previous posts.

      You wonder whether it is really true that in order to get into a good graduate program “you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out”. Well, it’s not really about making your application stand out — it’s about making yourself stand out as an applicant. I would say that you are a good example of someone who is doing just that! You are doing certain things beyond having a stellar GPA that are probably contributing to a very positive impression, even though you might not realize what a large role those factors are playing.

      For example, you worked as an RA before applying to grad school. This is a huge plus in your favor, for reasons I have previously discussed in this blog while writing about the importance of getting relevant experience before applying to graduate school (I have also discussed the difference between relevant and irrelevant experience). Moreover, you actually visited the program (at least one of them) that interests you the most, and spoke with faculty members there. I have previously discussed why making this kind of visit before applying is essential to improving one’s chances of getting in. Some faculty members, myself included, will never accept a new graduate student who has not made some kind of pre-application contact, and the in-person visit is the best type of contact. It shows a lot about the student’s good judgment, among other things. You might be surprised to hear this, but most grad-school applicants do not bother making that visit! Most applicants just send in their application materials and hope for the best. They have zero chance with some faculty, but they don’t even realize it!

      Visiting goes a long way to getting accepted, as long as you don’t make a flat or negative impression while you’re there. You might have said or done any number of things while visiting that made you stand out from a typical grad school applicant even more than your super-high GPA. As I have discussed on previous occasions, one’s character and personality, various social skills, and work habits tend to determine success or failure in graduate school. Someone might have already surmised some these things about you by the time they looked at your transcript. You might be assuming they saw straight As and thought something like, “this person will ace all her graduate courses and therefore she will be a great graduate student.” But, I think it is very unlikely the real thought process was anything like that.

      So, I’m not at all surprised that you were basically told you would almost certainly be accepted. As I have mentioned before, this happens a lot, and a significant proportion of grad students are implicitly accepted before they even apply. This is what is happening with you.

      You seem to be well on your way to being admitted to a graduate program of your choice. But, you will still need to make some important decisions. Are you applying to the best program for you? Will you need to choose a supervisor at the outset of the program, or is it a program in which you are assigned to a supervisor only after some time? In either case, you will need to know how to choose a supervisor. Other than yourself, your grad supervisor will be the most important person in determining what you get out of grad school. Are you prepared for the stark differences between undergraduate school and graduate school? Do not make the mistake of assuming that grad school is all about taking advanced courses that deal with more complicated subject matter than undergraduate courses. It’s not like that at all, in most disciplines (apart from a few sciences, like physics and mathematics).

      You can get a lot of highly consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of my blog, and by visiting the MyGradSchool website. You can also get all my advice and insight in one place by getting your hands on a copy of that book you see over on the right-hand side of this page! It comes at a fraction of the cost of a single grad school application, and is available as an e-book, too. By helping readers make sound choices of where to apply and how to do it successfully, this book saves them a lot of money, while at the same time it clears up all the confusion about how the whole grad school application and admission processes work.

      Best of luck to you in grad school, DL! Thank-you for leaving your comment.

      – Dave Mumby

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