Getting Into Graduate School With or Without Excellent Grades

Many factors determine whether someone will be accepted into a graduate program, but most students who apply to grad school are completely in the dark about how the process of selecting applicants works. As a consequence, most applicants will make a number of missteps that hamper their success, due either to miscalculation or naivety.

A great deal of confusion surrounds the role that grades and GPA play in determining the outcome of an application, and most students overestimate that role. Meanwhile, most students underestimate the importance of how they come across as a person, along with other factors that can sometimes weigh more heavily than grades. Few students realize that their letters of recommendation will be the deal-maker or breaker in most cases, and even fewer know how to make sure their letters are actually helpful rather than a hindrance to their acceptance. How important is the personal statement? How long should it be, and what should be in it? What about standardized test scores (e.g., the GRE)? How high do they have to be?

There are a lot of issues that must be addressed along the way to a successful grad school application. Many questions must be answered, and critical decisions made. And there is no shortage of people who are happy to give advice on how to handle it. Problem is, most people give bad advice on how to prepare for graduate school and how to put together a winning application. This includes the majority of academic advisors, career counsellors, most professors, and many people who were successful themselves at navigating the application process and getting in. It’s true – even the people one would expect to give the most solid information and advice are more likely to give you vague, generic, or inaccurate information and advice. The most well-prepared students sometimes fail to realize why their applications to graduate school were successful, and those that are rejected will never be told why.

The remainder of today’s post consists of a comment left by a reader a few years ago, along with my rather long reply. I think her confusion will seem familiar to some of the students reading this blog, today. Hopefully, my reply will help clear up a few things. This is especially likely if readers take the time to read the other content to which I have provided links.

D.L. asked the following:

“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 full-time 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!”

My reply:

“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 some previous posts. The following post What if the Guru is Wrong About That? should be read along with this post Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA in order to get all the related points on 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 course, 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 (here is another link to a blog post on 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 of those applications, 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 of 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, it’s unlikely the actual 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).”

A person can get a lot of consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of this blog, and by visiting the MyGraduateSchool website. Much of this advice is also available in one place — my handbook, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. You can purchase it at amazon.com for a small fraction of the cost of a grad-school application, and it’s also available as an e-book or kindle. Graduate-school application fees are always non-refundable, so it’s easy to waste a few dollars on unsuccessful applications. The book will pay for itself many times over.

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