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On submitted applications and the ocean's difference between A- and A

Posted by gellert, 15 December 2011 · 382 views

So today is the last day of exams, and also the application deadline for the gross majority of my schools of interests. It feels strangely like the end of an era; this entire semester has been colored by the shadow of grad app deadlines hanging overhead, which has contributed to a constant low level of stress buzzing in the back of my mind and making me feel guilty when I do anything that isn't working on applications.

And now it's over.

I'm not sure what to do with myself anymore.

I mean, no, that's not precisely true, I have a general idea of what I can do. Work on my honor's thesis, for one. Start that paper I'm co-authoring with my adviser. Finish the novel I started writing in October. Have a real social life. Compulsively check my application statuses. (Stati? No, that's not right.)

Also, I have burnout. Or senioritis, whatever you want to call it. Kind of hit at an inopportune moment, really; right in the middle of exam week. Though I suppose it's better that it's coming right before a long break (winter hols) than in the middle of the semester and thereby influencing my grades to a greater extent. I'm one of those obnoxious kids who is disappointed when they get an A- , because they're convinced that if they really knew the material they'd have a straight-up A, and there's no reason not to know the material because they're a smart kid and so it really comes down to whether or not they worked hard enough. No escape in citing incompetence. Just akrasia. No one and nothing to blame but oneself.

My parents are not "tiger parents." Well, they kind of are: "You don't need to be dating anyone, gellert, you need to be applying to graduate school" and "Why are you going out on Friday night? Why not studying?" --but on the flip side of that coin, they think a B+ is a perfectly acceptable grade and see no distinction between an A- and an A. I've had people tell me before that I need to be less grade-focused and put the emphasis instead on material comprehension, but for me the two are one and the same. If I understand the material, I will make an A. It's what's happened in the past, it's what generally happens in the present. If I get an A-, it is often in classes or on assignments in which I can freely admit I didn't put in sufficient effort and that is why I didn't fully comprehend the material. Had I worked a little harder, studied a little, I would have an A, and more importantly, I would understand. Not saying this is true for everyone, but it's true for me.

The point is, no, it's not about some arbitrary letter for me. It's about what the letter represents in terms of my personal comprehension. Confessions of an intellectual perfectionist.

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I agree with you on all points of this blog entry. (Except for the parents bit as they are not involved in my graduate life because they thought graduate school would be a waste of time-- I haven't talked to them in years because our ideas of life are so completely different.)

On an unrelated note- where is your icon from? Or, more importantly, what is it about?
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Yeah, I'm fortunate that my parents are very supportive of me pursuing graduate education, even if it's now become a Huge Thing for them in which they're constantly trying to go over application checklists with me, etc. etc.

The icon is from the movie X-Men: First Class and features the character Prof. Charles Xavier, a geneticist and telepath. The thing he's pulling over his head is a device called Cerebro which expands his telepathic ability to cover pretty much...the world. In this particular scene he's testing it out as a thus-far untested prototype (and an associate of his derisively calls him an "adorable lab rat" for his troubles). In later movies, Cerebro will be perfected and be the method both by which he'll find new mutants (people with special abilities) to train, and which the villain will manipulate him into using to attempt to commit genocide against all non-mutants (humans) in the world.

Wow, sorry for the tl;dr answer! But you should definitely check out the X-Men movies if you get a chance -- help fill some of those long hours in the waiting game. I particularly recommend the new movie First Class. It really is phenomenal, and got excellent reviews from all corners.

...I also like the image because I'm a psychophysiologist and it feels relevant. :P
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I totally see where you're coming from with the A/A- dilemma. One of the very few A-'s on my transcript came from a course which had an optional final exam to raise one's grade: before this exam, my grade was reported as an "A" on the online course system, and then AFTER the optional final exam they changed the weighting of the averages so I found out that I had missed the "A" by a tiny tiny single point. It was infuriating, because it was really more the mistake of the graders than my own fault. I could have easily taken the optional final in order to raise my grade.


Ultimately though...not having, say, a perfect 4.0 is not the kiss of death. In fact, I've heard some professors say that perfect 4.0's can in some instances make an adcom question the difficulty level of a student's undergraduate career. This isn't to suggest that a 4.0 means a student had taken it easy, but the courses matter too. The DGS at my undergrad mentioned that it isn't really as admirable for someone to have a 4.0 when they take, say electives in 100 level freshman courses during their senior year rather than challenging themselves in senior/grad level courses. They'd rather see you push your limits. The fact that you're worried about A-'s and not B's or C's is a good indicator that you have been doing just what you should be doing.
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And, for the record, the difference between an A/A- in my experience is much more often the result of a professor who is really lax/unclear about their own grading expectations and less so about how much I actually learned. So don't beat yourself up~
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Yeah, I'm definitely taking challenging courses, and came out with three A-'s this semester. But I will freely admit that, yeah, I didn't quite...apply myself as well as I should have in two of those classes. Way too distracted with grad apps and honors thesis and my job, haha. :P The other one I tried really, really hard but the professor is known for being a harsh grader and it was a 400-level subject I had previously known nothing/very little about.

It is kind of refreshing to hear your words about the prof's lack of clarity with grading expectations being a factor. I tend to be one of those types who first looks for where she/he might have gone wrong rather than possessing an external locus of control. (Which is actually really good 99% of the time, because it also makes me very intrinsically motivated to do well. Sometimes, however, it leads to situations in which I can be unreasonably self-critical or expect far too much of myself.)

I definitely don't have a 4.00, so no worries there. There's a few B's littering my transcript here and there during times of my life that were particularly challenging for one reason or another. But I do 100% agree with you -- I think a 4.00 can imply that there was grade inflation in effect, or easy coursework, or the person lacking a life outside of studying. It looks far better to have ... well, pretty much anything over 3.5 and loads of research experience. I think any grad adcomm would readily say they'd prefer a few A-'s and B+'s but the person obviously spent loads of time in the lab, than seeing a perfect 4.00 transcript but a clear preference for grades over research experience.
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I once had a professor tell me that I was too grade focused. Of course, she was trying to convince me not to appeal my grade in her class, and justify why she gave me a B at the end of term when, according to the grading scheme in her syllabus, I should have had an A+. She ended up threatening me, and I went ahead and appealed the grade. Since she had no ground to stand on, I got my way. But I was dumb. I asked for an A instead of the A+ I'd earned. This kicked me in the butt later...

What I tried to explain to her is that in some places, your ability to get funding for graduate studies is determined by your average. I'm a dual US/Canadian citizen, and I'm only applying to U.S. schools because most Canadian funding requires that I have an A- or better average in each of the last two years of study. My average over the two years is an A-, but if you look at the two years individually, I have a B+ in the year I had to appeal that grade and an A in the other, which averages to an A-. I don't qualify for national funding in Canada, and so I'm forced to search only in the US. Perhaps if I'd asked for the A+, today I'd be searching for schools in both countries.

The point of my rambling comment? There are many practical reasons to worry about the fine gradations of a grades. Even if your reasons are more personal, that does not make them any less valid. Don't listen to the people who say you worry too much about it! If it matters to you, then it does. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it isn't distracting you from the actual studies, or leading to unhealthy behaviors.
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