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Hi all! I'm looking for advice on how to shore up my application given my undergrad GPA. I was unable to really balance the demands of a chronic illness and working, though I started a new treatment my senior year that made a huge difference and my grades improved immensely. While I have two Cs in Political Science, I have only received As since starting the new treatment and have even taken courses post-grad and received As. I'm planning on spending some time before applying but because of the job market, will probably limit my application to top 10-15 schools. Is there anything I can do to keep theme from immediately throwing my app out when they get to my transcript?

Undergrad institution: Top 25 institution, no political science graduate program.

Undergrad GPA: 3.0. Yikes, I know.

GRE: 168 verbal, 169 quantitative, 6.0 AWA.

Writing sample: While I have a solid paper from undergraduate, I'm working with an advisor on an original project that required data collection and unique methods that, if not publishable, I'm hoping to at least submit to a future conference.

LORs: Solid letter from two well-known professors who can speak to the strength of my work in what I consider my "new leaf". One is the aforementioned advisor. Can also have a decent letter from my most recent non-academic work experience. 

Research experience: Besides a single undergraduate paper, just the current project I'm hoping to get out there. Hoping to TA our methods course this spring, though there are COVID-related logistics to overcome.

Miscellaneous: I live near a CHYMPS school and before COVID shutdowns had been attending graduate student seminars out of personal interest to learn more and get a feel for the experience.

My PhD interests are in American Politics, Methodology, and local politics. Knowing that it may be a stretch, I'm interested in Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia, MIT, and Chicago. How can I best improve myself, stand out, and demonstrate that my GPA is not representative of me as an applicant- if I can do so at all?

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Hi NewFrequency. One thing I'd say is that most universities have a 2.0 or 3.0 GPA institutional requirement for incoming grad students' undergraduate degrees. If you fall a little below 3.0 you may, unfortunately, be excluded from a lot of programs on that basis alone.

Your background a very unusual with really outstanding GRE scores and a very low GPA for a graduate program. If you spent two years on pre-med, I take it that you have only done coursework in the social sciences through your junior and senior year. And you have two Cs in political science courses. Students are not required to major in political science in order to be competitive for political science graduate programs, but usually background in the social sciences or strongly mathematical subjects is an advantage.

I will say however, that the following speaks against you as an applicant; 1. low GPA, 2. non-extensive background in the social sciences, and 3. those Cs in political science courses. And of course, your extraordinary GRE scores speak in your favor. Overall I would say that you most likely should look for programs in the top 35-50. It would not surprise me if you got admitted to a program in the top 20-30 range, but it would surprise me if you got into a top-10 program. I would still apply to 2-3 top programs just so I had no regrets but I probably would not count on getting admission to these.

Note also that next admission cycle will be particularly competitive due to all this covid-business. I should also say that if you took your GRE test this year then it is virtually useless since it's not taken at a test center. If you took it from home I think, unfortunately, that the test counts for nothing and I do not think that adcoms will even consider it. Many programs do not require the GRE for the upcoming cycle. If you took the GRE at a test center, then this is to your advantage since you will stand out for that reason while the test of many other applicants will not be considered.

I hope I have not discouraged you. You have a shot at very many great programs in the ranges I mentioned above. In my view a top-10 program is outside of what you might expect, but fortunately you can get really excellent training in programs in the top 20-35 and that is the range I think you should aim for. 

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Thank you for your perspective- I really appreciate it! Two clarifications: I did major in political science and complete it with a 3.0, and I took the GRE prior to COVID.

I'm also not planning on applying in this cycle, but rather am wondering how to best continue engaging with the discipline and strengthen my application.

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6 hours ago, Theory007 said:

I should also say that if you took your GRE test this year then it is virtually useless since it's not taken at a test center. If you took it from home I think, unfortunately, that the test counts for nothing and I do not think that adcoms will even consider it. Many programs do not require the GRE for the upcoming cycle. If you took the GRE at a test center, then this is to your advantage since you will stand out for that reason while the test of many other applicants will not be considered.

Are you absolutely certain about this? The score report is exactly identical between the at-home and at-center versions, so in principle they would have no way of knowing this. I guess the committees could judge score reports according to the date, but test centers have continued working across the globe (I do not know about the US though). They would have to check the specific date and place you took the test, and check if there was some sort of lockdown that closed down test centers (which seems counterintuitive, as the whole thing about the GRE scores is that they are an easy and fast way of weeding out people.

If you have any insider knowledge to back up your claims I would greatly appreciate it :)

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4 hours ago, clesanbar said:

Are you absolutely certain about this? The score report is exactly identical between the at-home and at-center versions, so in principle they would have no way of knowing this. I guess the committees could judge score reports according to the date, but test centers have continued working across the globe (I do not know about the US though). They would have to check the specific date and place you took the test, and check if there was some sort of lockdown that closed down test centers (which seems counterintuitive, as the whole thing about the GRE scores is that they are an easy and fast way of weeding out people.

If you have any insider knowledge to back up your claims I would greatly appreciate it :)

I am simply observing that very many programs do not require the GRE score for the next admission cycle, and probably many other programs will follow in the coming months. The test really is useless now; anyone who is willing to cheat can cheat with ease. Cheating is as impossible as anything can be at a real testing center. When you take the GRE at a center your finger prints are taken, you need to bring official identification with you, you cannot leave the building, you are monitored by cameras at all time, when you take a break between sections you will be examined with a metal detector in order to spot fraudulent equipment, etc. Given this, I find it hard to believe that there will be nothing that indicates on the test if it was taken at home. There must be a way to distinguish the two tests since they are very different indeed. Say you are right that the reports for the two tests are identical (which I still doubt) then I expect that any major program will make the GRE score optional as many have done already. There is simply too much at stake for programs to admit students on the basis of tests where a large proportion of them will or may be fraudulent. That's my take, but I'm interested in hearing what others think about this.

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12 hours ago, Theory007 said:

I am simply observing that very many programs do not require the GRE score for the next admission cycle, and probably many other programs will follow in the coming months. The test really is useless now; anyone who is willing to cheat can cheat with ease. Cheating is as impossible as anything can be at a real testing center. When you take the GRE at a center your finger prints are taken, you need to bring official identification with you, you cannot leave the building, you are monitored by cameras at all time, when you take a break between sections you will be examined with a metal detector in order to spot fraudulent equipment, etc. Given this, I find it hard to believe that there will be nothing that indicates on the test if it was taken at home. There must be a way to distinguish the two tests since they are very different indeed. Say you are right that the reports for the two tests are identical (which I still doubt) then I expect that any major program will make the GRE score optional as many have done already. There is simply too much at stake for programs to admit students on the basis of tests where a large proportion of them will or may be fraudulent. That's my take, but I'm interested in hearing what others think about this.

Yeah I agree that cheating will probably be a major issue. I actually took the at-home version of the test, and I think they were as thorough as they could be given the circumstances. ID, a panoramic view of the room, under the desk, only a whiteboard allowed for the quant excercises, nothing stuck to your screen, but that was pretty much it. I have seen most universities make it optional, but I would not see that as a sign that they suspect most scores will be fraudulent (if they did, they would not accept them altogether probably); rather, I think it is they recognizing the fact that some people will not be able to take it this year. However, I can assure you there is no indication in my score report that I took it at home (other than the date maybe?). They even say so in ETS's webpage (https://www.ets.org/s/cv/gre/at-home/faq/): "Q: Will there be an indication on my score report that I took the test at home? A: No. Your GRE score report will not indicate that you took the test at home." (This makes sense as ETS has the incentive to entice people into taking the test, and they know that departments will look down on at-home tests.) I think that this year's scores will be downplayed a bit, but again, I am not sure of it.

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Just now, clesanbar said:

Yeah I agree that cheating will probably be a major issue. I actually took the at-home version of the test, and I think they were as thorough as they could be given the circumstances. ID, a panoramic view of the room, under the desk, only a whiteboard allowed for the quant excercises, nothing stuck to your screen, but that was pretty much it. I have seen most universities make it optional, but I would not see that as a sign that they suspect most scores will be fraudulent (if they did, they would not accept them altogether probably); rather, I think it is they recognizing the fact that some people will not be able to take it this year. However, I can assure you there is no indication in my score report that I took it at home (other than the date maybe?). They even say so in ETS's webpage (https://www.ets.org/s/cv/gre/at-home/faq/): "Q: Will there be an indication on my score report that I took the test at home? A: No. Your GRE score report will not indicate that you took the test at home." (This makes sense as ETS has the incentive to entice people into taking the test, and they know that departments will look down on at-home tests.) I think that this year's scores will be downplayed a bit, but again, I am not sure of it.

It sounds like you know more about this than myself. You are probably right that the take-at-home test is made a safe from cheating as possible, but I don't think that challenges the idea that people could still cheat easily if they wanted to. You took the test; do you believe that it would have been impossible to cheat on it? And if it is not signaled anywhere on the test that it was taken at home, I simply can not think that the GRE will play a major role in admissions at least in the United States, which means a hard admission cycle for students without US degrees and outside the US. But no one knows how much the GRE weighed to begin with. I do not know how familiar you are with the American university system or if you are interested in studying in the United States, but admission to top-phd programs in the US is incredibly prestigious and comes with a host of advantages that are reserved for a very small group of people. And adcomes will not extend these privileges by taking serious account of a test that anyone can cheat on.

Another way to put it is like this; maybe a low GRE score will still lead to a rejection from a program and programs may still accept people only above a certain GRE-threshold. But the number of applicants above the threshold will likely be higher this year because it is easy to cheat, and this means that stuff like the writing sample, the SOP, and letters will matter more this time around because adcoms need to distinguish between more applicants in a larger pool.  This effectively downplays the weight the GRE score can carry compared to previous years. So even though I clearly cannot tell what individual programs will do next cycle, I am saying that the GRE will be less important/not important at all since it cannot be any other way.

That's all I have to say on the topic but I'd like to hear more about this if anyone has insider information :)

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2 hours ago, Theory007 said:

It sounds like you know more about this than myself. You are probably right that the take-at-home test is made a safe from cheating as possible, but I don't think that challenges the idea that people could still cheat easily if they wanted to. You took the test; do you believe that it would have been impossible to cheat on it? And if it is not signaled anywhere on the test that it was taken at home, I simply can not think that the GRE will play a major role in admissions at least in the United States, which means a hard admission cycle for students without US degrees and outside the US. But no one knows how much the GRE weighed to begin with. I do not know how familiar you are with the American university system or if you are interested in studying in the United States, but admission to top-phd programs in the US is incredibly prestigious and comes with a host of advantages that are reserved for a very small group of people. And adcomes will not extend these privileges by taking serious account of a test that anyone can cheat on.

Another way to put it is like this; maybe a low GRE score will still lead to a rejection from a program and programs may still accept people only above a certain GRE-threshold. But the number of applicants above the threshold will likely be higher this year because it is easy to cheat, and this means that stuff like the writing sample, the SOP, and letters will matter more this time around because adcoms need to distinguish between more applicants in a larger pool.  This effectively downplays the weight the GRE score can carry compared to previous years. So even though I clearly cannot tell what individual programs will do next cycle, I am saying that the GRE will be less important/not important at all since it cannot be any other way.

That's all I have to say on the topic but I'd like to hear more about this if anyone has insider information :)

It’s always been the case that applicants have to reach some arbitrary threshold, but beyond that no one really cares how far above someone is. It will be the same this year for students who submit. You are significantly overstating the role the GRE plays in a regular year beyond that threshold. 

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1 hour ago, munch22 said:

It’s always been the case that applicants have to reach some arbitrary threshold, but beyond that no one really cares how far above someone is. It will be the same this year for students who submit. You are significantly overstating the role the GRE plays in a regular year beyond that threshold. 

I did say "But no one knows how much the GRE weighed to begin with" and all I am saying is that it will weigh even less this time.

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5 hours ago, Theory007 said:

It sounds like you know more about this than myself. You are probably right that the take-at-home test is made a safe from cheating as possible, but I don't think that challenges the idea that people could still cheat easily if they wanted to. You took the test; do you believe that it would have been impossible to cheat on it? And if it is not signaled anywhere on the test that it was taken at home, I simply can not think that the GRE will play a major role in admissions at least in the United States, which means a hard admission cycle for students without US degrees and outside the US. But no one knows how much the GRE weighed to begin with. I do not know how familiar you are with the American university system or if you are interested in studying in the United States, but admission to top-phd programs in the US is incredibly prestigious and comes with a host of advantages that are reserved for a very small group of people. And adcomes will not extend these privileges by taking serious account of a test that anyone can cheat on.

Another way to put it is like this; maybe a low GRE score will still lead to a rejection from a program and programs may still accept people only above a certain GRE-threshold. But the number of applicants above the threshold will likely be higher this year because it is easy to cheat, and this means that stuff like the writing sample, the SOP, and letters will matter more this time around because adcoms need to distinguish between more applicants in a larger pool.  This effectively downplays the weight the GRE score can carry compared to previous years. So even though I clearly cannot tell what individual programs will do next cycle, I am saying that the GRE will be less important/not important at all since it cannot be any other way.

That's all I have to say on the topic but I'd like to hear more about this if anyone has insider information :)

Yeah I agree that the system could be easily gamed, or at least it is safe to say that it is easier to cheat with than the test center version. I am aware of the selectivity of the graduate programs I'm interested in (<10% in normal times), and I actually agree that it is likely that the GRE will play a lesser role this year (only one of the programs I'll be applying has not made the test optional, which is a pretty telling sign). I was curious in the first place as to where you got that info, but I now understand that it was simply your intuition (which you are entitled to! and which I think is generally sound).

Good luck!

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