think-twice-before-trading-a-full-course-load-for-higher-grades

Think twice about trading a full course load for higher grades

My choice of topics to write about today was inspired by a conversation I had with a student during a recent academic advising session. She is a Psychology major, about halfway through her program. She said she hopes to go to graduate school, and she wants to know if her prospects of getting in will be jeopardized if she takes a break from school, next semester.

 

I could see from her transcripts that she has good grades, but not excellent by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly though, I noticed that since she began her program, she had been taking only 3 courses each semester, rather than the normal full-time course load of 5 courses per semester. She explained that she has difficulty handling a full course load, but she can get good marks if she has a lighter load. It’s not that she has other things going on that compete with school for her time. She doesn’t have a job, or a time-consuming hobby, or anything like that. She just needs to be able to take her time to study and learn, she explained.

 

She feels she’s been putting everything she can into school, and now she needs a break because she has never really had one. Lately, both she and her family are worried that she will experience burnout or a have breakdown if she doesn’t take an academic break.

 

To be frank, I think she should take the time off. It’s not worth it to push oneself to the point of exhaustion or exasperation. She should take the break, and come back to complete the program when she feels ready.

 

But, really, she needs to forget about graduate school in Psychology — not just for now, but also for good. And that would be my advice to her, even if she decides not to take a break from her studies, next semester.

 

If that seems harsh, let me explain why it is really just realistic for this young person to start making a move to join the workforce, and plan to complete her degree program, on her own terms, and within a time-frame that will enable her to finish with good grades, and without undue stress or anxiety along the way.

 

In most Psychology graduate programs in North America, an applicant is accepted if, and only if, a faculty member indicates an interest and willingness to supervise the student’s graduate research. Psychology professors supervise graduate students because they need the help of graduate students to accomplish their own research objectives. In most cases, a professor will agree to accept a new graduate student only if he or she believes this applicant is the one who is most likely to benefit the research program over the next few years. Only the most promising applicant will be selected from among those who indicate they want this professor as a graduate supervisor. That is, if the professor chooses anyone at all.

 

An undergraduate student who is unable to handle a full course load and get solid grades, semester after semester, is unlikely to be able to handle the high demands of graduate studies and research. Professors only want to invite hard-working people who can deal with a full load, all the time, over a period of years — because this is what professors need from their graduate students.

 

Hopefully, a time will soon come when the student in my story has gainful employment with some sense of job security, and also a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. One might not know exactly when good, long-term employment will actually come along, but in the context of today’s rising unemployment levels and struggling economies, it might be a while. Her best strategy would be to drop graduate school from her long-term plans, and focus on goals that are realistic in light of what she is willing or able to do.

 

There has been a trend for some years now, at least at my university, of undergraduates enrolled as full-time students taking course loads that are less than completely full. Many students are willing to take an extra semester or two to complete their degree, if it means they can avoid feeling overwhelmed with school work and get good grades along the way. Lightening one’s course load is a sensible way to achieve that goal. But, there might be a high price to pay, later on, especially if one is hoping to proceed to graduate school.

 

Students often tell me: “I have a job, and I need to work so many hours a week, and I just can’t deal with a full course load.” That’s too bad, because there are a lot of other people out there who also have a job, and who work a similar number of hours each week, and who have a full course load and still get excellent grades in all of their classes. And those who can handle it are not doing something above and beyond normal expectations, either. In fact, taking a full course load in each semester, and getting good grades in every course, is the bare minimum of what is expected of all undergraduate students (except for those who are expressly enrolled on a part-time basis, and those with disabilities that would normally preclude such expectations).

 

That last point about minimum expectations is an important one, so I’ll repeat it: If all a student does is take a full course load every semester and get good grades, he or she is doing nothing out of the ordinary. Someone who is enrolled in an undergraduate program as a full-time student, but who is taking less than a full course load — whether they began the semester that way or else dropped a course along the way — are doing less than the minimum of what is expected.

 

Note that the minimum required is far less than the minimum expected. There are no immediate negative consequences for a student who is doing less than expected. As long a student meets or exceeds the minimum requirements in terms of academic performance, the school will happily continue to accept tuition payments. So, most students just continue along until they eventually complete their program of study. Most will attempt to then join the workforce. But, a significant proportion will apply to graduate school, hoping that an advanced degree will bring greater opportunity.

 

Few, if any, professors are interested in accepting as a new graduate student someone who was an ordinary undergraduate. This means that students who are hoping to go to graduate school need to do more than just take a full course load and get good grades. They need to stand apart from the crowd. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this. For example, one could volunteer to be a professor’s research assistant, or regularly attend symposia or workshops in the field of interest. If a student’s current school has a work-study or co-op program, that might be a good way to get valuable work experience and begin establishing a network within the field.

 

There are other ways to stand out from the crowd, but that is the topic of another column, so I won’t get into all the options, here. I think you get the point: Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special. This is one reason why only a small fraction of college students end up in graduate school. Few are exceptional enough in terms of work-ethic and readiness to make personal sacrifices.

7 comments

  1. My GPA isn’t amazing (3.37) but I am in what is considered to be one of the “harder” degree programs at my school, and it isn’t terrible. I am making good grades this semester and (hopefully) will be able to raise it to a 3.4 by the time a graduate. I have also been involved with the campus Y, an honor society for finance and accounting majors, and a radio show that I hold at the station I work at.

    Like

  2. What about students who finish their 4 year undergraduate degrees in 3.5 (or less) years thanks to credits transfered from high school through the advanced placement programs and the like? Do you think they should stick to a normal 5 courses/semester plan to graduate in 3.5 years when they can take fewer courses each semester and graduate in 4 years instead?This offers a better opportunity to prepare their graduate application components as less time needs to be devoted to course work.

    Also in favor of a 4 year graduation scheme, is the fact that there is no lag time for students applying for the fall semester which is when most universities accept applications. A shorter plan would entail at least a few months wait until the start of graduate school in September.

    In my case specifically, one of my semesters will only have 2 courses and I’m thinking of taking a graduate course to make up for the lack of courses. So now, I’d have 3 courses which is still going to give me ample time to focus on my graduate application and strengthen all its components (GREs, Research,etc). So if I do choose this option, am I going to come across as ‘doing less than the minimum of what is expected’ by taking a small course load, which will reflect negatively on me? (Taking my initial 5 course schedule in that semester will lead to my being swamped in coursework and not so free to perfect my graduate applications as I’d like to as the courses are difficult senior courses.) On the contrary, would taking the graduate course add positively to my application? (And when I say graduate school, I mean engineering graduate school)

    Also, your blog is the first time I’m hearing that a student’s course load per semester actually has a bearing on his application for graduate school. Other blogs and forums usually say that graduate schools don’t really care how long you took to finish your degree as long as you have a decent GPA.

    So in a nutshell, if I am not going to come across as a good candidate for having graduated faster than my peers and it keeps me from working on my graduate applications, then why shouldn’t I just trade my full courseload for not just higher grades but also to buy more time to perfect my applications?

    Like

    1. Thank-you for sharing the great question, Lena. I have met many students facing a similar situation to yours due to transfer credits, or some other reason. I’ll do my best to give you my views.

      What about students who finish their 4 year undergraduate degrees in 3.5 (or less) years thanks to credits transfered from high school through the advanced placement programs and the like? Do you think they should stick to a normal 5 courses/semester plan to graduate in 3.5 years when they can take fewer courses each semester and graduate in 4 years instead?

      If one has benefited from transfer credits, whether they be through an advanced placement program, or a previous college or university degree, then there is no need to pick up extra courses just for the sake of maintaining a full course load. The best time to have a less-than-full course load is in your last semester, or two. You are correct in expecting that much time will be needed to deal with your applications, during that time.

      The main message I want to convey with my warning about trading-off a full course load for a higher GPA is that the high GPA doesn’t seem very impressive when a student accomplishes it without carrying a full course load. This is because there are many students who get straight As while they have a full course load. They show they can handle a full load and still excel academically. People who never shows they can do that during their bachelor’s program are at a disadvantage.
      But, you don’t necessarily have to have a full load every semester over a 4-year period. If you have a full course load at least most of the time, then you don’t need to worry about it.

      Also in favor of a 4 year graduation scheme, is the fact that there is no lag time for students applying for the fall semester which is when most universities accept applications. A shorter plan would entail at least a few months wait until the start of graduate school in September.

      True. However, many students who end up with a few extra months between their undergrad degree and the beginning of grad school find it beneficial. I think this depends a lot on what field of study one is heading to grad school for. Maybe not so relevant for you, in Engineering — unless you are able to find relevant employment. Students in the natural sciences or social sciences often temporary research positions that keep them busy during the months leading up to grad school, and they might even get a head start on their graduate-thesis research, in some cases. So, although it’s normal to want to get doing with graduate studies as soon as possible after finishing the undergrad, there can occasionally be benefits of having several months to use in various productive ways. There is no rule of thumb for this. You just need to consider your own situation, opportunities that might be available to you, and your preferences.

      In my case specifically, one of my semesters will only have 2 courses and I’m thinking of taking a graduate course to make up for the lack of courses. So now, I’d have 3 courses which is still going to give me ample time to focus on my graduate application and strengthen all its components (GREs, Research,etc).

      I like your plan to pick up an extra course, because it;’s going to be a useful one. And, yes, you’ll still have more time to use in other useful ways if you only have 3 courses in that semester. Good idea.

      Other blogs and forums usually say that graduate schools don’t really care how long you took to finish your degree as long as you have a decent GPA.

      Most blogs and websites out there are produced by people who don’t have the experience needed to know what they’re talking about. Most of the information they provide is very generic, and much of it is actually bad advice. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the graduate admissions process in Psychology does not emphasize an applicant’s GPA in deciding whether he or she is accepted. In this post from last summer, What if the Guru is Wrong About That?, I explain why grades are not what it’s all about. Grades do play a role, but not the one that most people think. After reading that post, it would be worthwhile to also read the two that follow, as they are a continuation of the same discussion about grades and why a high GPA does not pave the path to graduate school in Psychology.
      On a few occasions over the past decade, I have compared the GPAs of the applicants that are accepted into the Master’s or Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology or Experimental Psychology at my university (Concordia University, Montreal) to the GPAs of those applicants who are rejected. I have not yet discovered a significant difference in the GPAs of those who get in and those who don’t!
      Granted, your undergraduate grades might be weighted somewhat differently for graduate programs in Engineering than in Psychology, but probably not much differently.

      So in a nutshell, if I am not going to come across as a good candidate for having graduated faster than my peers and it keeps me from working on my graduate applications, then why shouldn’t I just trade my full course load for not just higher grades but also to buy more time to perfect my applications?

      Like I said a bit earlier, you don’t have to worry about it looking bad if you have a light course load during your last year because you didn’t need the credits that required a full course load. No none would expect you to spend more money on courses you don’t need. The best thing to do would be to take only those classes you need to take in order to finish, make sure you graduate with the equivalent of an Honors degree. The best way to spend the extra time afforded by a light course load in your final year is to spend time as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors.
      If you look through the recent articles I’ve posted on this blog, and also through the archives from the past three years, you will find a lot more advice along these lines.

      Like

  3. “Most undergraduate college and university students are not exceeding minimum expectations. Even the majority of those who think they will succeed simply by getting excellent grades are not really doing anything special.” I can certainly see the truth in this but at the same time there are plenty of not so special people who do make it into a masters program. In fact I was told you actually dont need stellar grades to apply for grad school, you just need good GRE scores. I know of someone who had mediocre grades and a not so stellar score but knew the program she wanted to get into, applied and they accepted her.

    Higher education has a lot of cracks in it, and I truly know from experience the system does not really care for the success of the majority of their students. Its about making money and getting the research they need. Thats it. I struggled greatly in my undergrad as im sure many others have whether financially, mentally, emotionally. No one and nothing really prepared me and I’ve suffered a great deal b/c of that. There are also more and more students coming out with debt but without jobs or worse yet, without a degree. I’m sure the universities could care less, and why should they when they dont have to?

    Like

    1. I agree with pretty much everything you say, here. There are indeed a lot of problems in higher education. The business end of things often conflicts with pedagogy, the culture of the academy is bizarre in many ways, and egomaniacs abound. Unlike any other industry of the same scale, there is a general lack of effective quality-control mechanisms applied to the performance of faculty members and administration. – Dave

      Like

  4. Hi, I am a sophomore and due to a dyslexia, I have decided to start taking reduced course loads so that I can better my GPA. What do you think about using a consistently reduced course load transcript in applying to non-PHD programs like masters of public policy, masters of finance, etc, where you are not working for a professor and you are actually PAYING money to get in?

    Like

    1. Good question, Jason. I think that if there are reasons why one must take a reduced course load to avoid getting poor grades, then it should be done. This is often the case for students with disabilities, and it is usually far better for them to take a reduced load. And it does make a difference what type of program you’re applying to. Just as you have suggested here, it’s generally not so critical to have had a consistently full course load as an undergrad if one is applying to a master’s program in which they will not be doing research under the supervision of (ie., doing research for) a professor.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s