Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA
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.