Getting Into Grad School Without Top Grades: One Student’s Amazing Story

My last two posts have been aimed at explaining how grades come in to play in the selection process, and the main message has been: You don’t need to have the top grades to get into grad school, because that’s not what the decision-makers care most about. To help prove my point, I have reproduced, below, an email message I received a few years ago from someone who had been an undergraduate in Psychology at Concordia University, which is where I am a faculty member. I did not know the student while he was at Concordia, and I still have not met him in person, although we have had some email correspondence in recent months.

You will no doubt notice that he makes a few kind remarks about a book I wrote, but I want to assure you that the reason I am showing his entire unexpurgated message is for the sake of authenticity, and because he says a few other things that are more important, and which I want to say a few more words about, afterward.


Dear Dr Mumby,

As of May I have not been a student at Concordia but I keep getting e-mails about your grad info-sessions. Although I never attended your grad info-sessions I DID read your book and the e-mails have egged me on to contact you. I did not have particularly fantastic marks. Keeping this in mind, I followed all of your instruction and managed to get accepted into a Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) degree at Alliant (previously California School of Professional Psychology; birthplace of MFT and has had Carl Rogers among its faculty). I was packed and ready to go to California when I got a notice that I had been accepted into a masters in Criminology program at Cambridge UK. So here I am, a student who did not even make the academic cut-off for application, sitting in Cambridge (ranked second in the world, surpassed only by Harvard, third is Oxford); I am on the faculty/student liaison board for my course and am also the captain of my rowing crew (very big competitive sport here). My supervisor is very happy with my hard work and the faculty is amazing. Our library supposedly has the largest criminological collection in the world. I am confident that following the procedures in your book helped me get where I am today and I encourage you to read this letter, or part of it, at your lecture (although I would appreciate remaining anonymous). This just goes to show that marks are not everything to everyone and I caused myself large amounts of undue stress over them. Thank you,

P.S. I did get some lab experience in my undergrad and finished with my PSYC400.



This happy story is only a single anecdote, but it is highly useful because it refutes a couple of misconceptions I notice being frequently expressed by undergraduate Psychology students (and even by many academic advisors who don’t know better):

1. Many students place tremendous stress on themselves because they believe that they must attain top grades in almost every class in order to get into a good graduate school. Near the end of his message, this student admits that, in retrospect, he experienced much unnecessary stress over his grades. It is pretty obvious that this fellow was accepted at Cambridge, and at the professional psychology program in California, for reasons other than his undergraduate grades. It’s not in his email, but I can tell you that his GPA at graduation was slightly below the level required to be in our Honors program (3.30). As he indicates, it was also below the “academic cut-off” for application to Cambridge. That did not stop him from applying, and it did not stop him from getting in. Do you think he got in because of his GPA? Obviously, he got in because of other factors, which made up for the relative shortcoming in his GPA. I have emphasized this point many times during the past 2 years of writing this blog: There is so much more to preparing for graduate school and putting together a successful application than just getting good grades in your undergraduate program.

2. Students often tell me they need to be in the Honors program because they plan to go to graduate school after the baccalaureate. Although the Honors Psychology program in my department is intended to facilitate students’ preparation for graduate school, it is by no means necessary that a student be in that program in order to get into grad school. The student in this story was not in the Honors program.

3. Finally, he mentions in the postscript that he got some lab experience while an undergraduate. He refers to PSYC 400, which is a 6-credit course in which students do a research project under the supervision of a faculty member and write a thesis to report the findings. It is equivalent to the 6-credit project and thesis undertaken by students in our Honors program (ie., the Honors thesis). Importantly, however, the PSYC 400 thesis is an option for students who aren’t in the Honors program. The student in this story obtained ample undergraduate research experience, mostly by virtue of completing an undergraduate research thesis. It did not matter that it was not the Honors thesis, per se.

So, how did things work out for this person? Things have worked out very well for him, indeed. He sent me this email in November 2006, and he is now a practicing marital and family therapist.

[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

The only thing you’ll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide the most accurate and actionable information and advice, all in one location. It will take me several more months to spin out commentaries on all the things I think are worth mentioning. I don’t get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I will make a few dollars. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly been happening a lot! Ah well,… if you read through the archives and my more recent posts, and keep checking back over the next year, or so, you eventually get everything I have to offer, for free! ]


  1. Hello Mumby!
    I stumbled upon your website while I was stressing on my undergraduate GPA and have always wanted to go to law school. I am currently in my last semester senior year pursuing B.A. economics at University of Southern California, and my GPA came to about a 2.8, and I am currently doing research in economics. There’s nothing I can do to increase my GPA, as of now. Your website did encourage me to apply for law school with my low GPA, but I still have some doubts. What are some of the ways I can prove to law school that I can perform well despite my setbacks in undergraduate education? I’ve browsed the Internet for that topic, but would love to hear it from you!


  2. Dr. Mumby,

    I recently graduated from The University of Southern California with a BA in Neuroscience and a great GPA (3.8), but while I was at school, I wasn’t too interested in pursuing Neuroscience as a career. After graduating and working for a year, I’ve decided I do want to pursue Neuroscience and attend graduate school. I know I need research experience, especially because I did none in undergrad, and so for the past 6 months I’ve been contacting PhDs and professors and applying to research assistant positions online and through job boards, but no opportunity has come to fruition. I stumbled upon your blog and thought maybe you would have some advice or a blog post to point me towards on how to go about getting a research assistant position. The two issues I’ve come across is that I have no research experience and I am no longer an undergraduate student, but I’m determined, passionate and a fast learner.

    Thanks for your time,


  3. Out of curiosity, a student in a science program whose first few years were terrible (avg. GPA ~2.2) then stepped it up in the last couple of years (avg. GPA ~ 3.6). BUT cGPA 2.47. Currently volunteering in a lab where myself and the supervisor get along/work very well together?


    1. Probably not. But, it depends on a lot of other things. You didn’t specify your subject area. Certainly you are unlikely to get into a good grad program in one of the natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or associated fields. If you’re looking at grad school in Psychology, those grades will still hurt you, especially the fail. If you read through much of the other blogs I’ve posted here over the past few years, you’ll get an idea of what you would have to do to make up for those poor grades and till get into grad school. – Dave


  4. With all due respect, this student is not the ‘norm’ and I feel that it gives the average under-achieving student the wrong impression. It is my understanding that an application that is below gpa cut-off will almost never make it to the committee for review. The only time this could possibly happen is in non-competitive years that are generally few and far between or with *greedy* schools only interested in collecting tuition from students that probably wont make it through the program anyway.
    Therefore, the vast majority of applicants will be wasting their money applying to a program that has no intention of accepting them, regardless of what else they bring to the table apart from a lowly gpa.
    I believe that once you meet the minimum requirement, then and only then will you have a shot. Please balance the ‘feel good’ story with the harsh reality of gpa baseline requirements.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Matt… sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I was completely off the blog during the holiday period.

      You raise a completely valid point, and I agree, for the most part. The vast majority of applicants who have mediocre undergraduate grades would be wasting money –and time, and hope — on applications to highly competitive graduate programs. I have emphasized this point in past blog posts. I do not want to give the wrong idea to students with an average GPA, or one that is only slightly higher than average.

      The present blog post is really the third in a series that address a general point: That getting into graduate school is NOT based primarily on an applicant’s GPA. This post is not intended to encourage ‘average’ students to apply to programs that are out of their league So, if an under-achieving student is reading this, please be sure to read my two previous posts (at least), for an important reality check.

      The student in this example was an exception, for sure. But, not a highly rare case. I know of many similar success stories about students whose grades were unimpressive, but they still managed to make it into grad school and succeed once there. There are many exceptional people out there who are able to succeed in their endeavors because they posses strong and valuable personal qualities. That is why this student got into Cambridge.

      Another reason he got into Cambridge is because he had a decent understanding of how the process of ‘being accepted’ works in most graduate programs in the sciences and social sciences, and he took other advice I gave about contacting potential graduate supervisors before applying. (These two topics are covered extensively in previous posts, and in my book). In fact, this student was implicitly accepted before he even sent his application to Cambridge! That might sound strange and implausible, but it’s actually something that happens quite often, because of the way the admissions process tends to works in many graduate programs. (If you are interested in a more complete explanation, please read this previous post from a few years ago).

      It is true, as you say, Matt, that for some graduate programs, an applicant will only have a shot if they meet the minimum requirement. This will be the case for any program that has a committee, or some other process, that performs an initial vetting of applications and eliminates some of them based on failure to reach minimum criteria. This is how the admissions process works in most programs in which grad students do not have a faculty member responsible for supervising their thesis work. So, that generally means non-thesis master’s programs.

      Students in almost any doctoral program will have supervisor, however. Importantly, that faculty member is the person who ultimately decides who he or she will take on as a graduate student. The role and influence of the admissions committee varies a lot from one program to the next, but in the majority of programs in the social sciences or natural sciences, there is no initial vetting of applications by the admissions committee. The committee normally does not make selections — those are made by individual faculty members. The committee’s major roles are to administer certain aspects of the admissions process, and to give a final official approval to faculty members’ decisions about whom to accept. Faculty members choose their own graduate students, and although almost any decent graduate programs will state that they have a minimum GPA requirement, this is not always a rule, per se. The minimum GPA requirement is posted on a program’s website or in their literature in order to convey that they standards, and to discourage “average” students from applying — because average students should not be thinking about grad school. The minimum GPA requirement is not usually a hard-and-fast cut-off, in reality, however. It is violated more often than one might expect, even at highly prestigious schools, as this student exemplifies. I have seen it happen to at least a dozen other students and I have known personally, and I have also heard of countless other occasions on which a student got into graduate programs despite having grades below the published cut-off level (this student’s story is only one of many similar emails I’ve received in the past). IMPORTANTLY, all of these people were exceptional in terms of qualities that their graduate supervisor’s were looking for.

      Faculty members simply need to make a case to the admissions committee for why they want to accept an applicant despite a GPA below the required minimum. The admissions committee is usually made up of other faculty members, who understand the motives of the student’s potential supervisor, so they will almost always go along with whatever decision their colleague has made concerning who to accept. After all, it’s the graduate supervisor who has the most at stake in terms of whether or not the student turns out to be strong grad student, or not. I have served on a graduate committee for many years, and from time to time, we have accepted new grad students who did not meet our “minimum GPA requirement”. In every case, we accepted the student because a colleague said that he or she didn’t care about the grades and wanted to accept the student based on other considerations. The other considerations vary, but they have always been convincing to those of use on the committee. I suspect a similar process led to the student in the present example getting into Cambridge (and the other high-profile school in California).


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