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Stressing out: Figuring out the grad-school application process. (Oh, and battling a low undergrad GPA.)


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I'm 36 years old, have a bachelors in Computer Science, but truthfully, I'm burned out on coding. I want to do something else, especially since I got bitten by the politics bug starting in 2006.

So I went back to school, went for a second bachelors, this time in Political Science. Right now, I'm absolutely rocking in my classes - I got straight As this spring, and I got 4 As and a B last fall. My new major GPA is 4.0, and I anticipate graduating this fall.

I'm enjoying myself, and decided I want to move on to grad school, tentatively planning to be in a masters program or PhD program in Poli. Sci. or a related field starting Fall 2011. I haven't taken the GRE yet, but plan to this summer. There is a problem, though - my GPA from back in the days of my first GPA is awful. And when I went to get my second degree, well, that cumulative GPA's stuck to me like a ball and chain.

Cumulative GPA is currently 2.4, and if I get another semester of straight As next fall, I can kick it up to a 2.5, but due to the law of averages, I mathematically can't kick it up further than that.

I'm hoping that getting a good GRE score, good letters of recommendation from my profs, and emphasizing my major GPA and the grades I got solely working on my second bachelors, and pointing out that all the really bad grades I received happened back in the 90's, when I was young and stupid, will overcome this.

Right now, I'm looking over options, trying to figure out what grad schools have good programs, and I'm totally confused. There's hundreds of schools out there, I'm not sure which ones have good programs, which ones I'd be likely to admit me, or how to go about planning for this. I'm pondering everything from trying to get into grad school here at Colorado State (where I'm currently working on my second bachelor's), going to other schools in the state, finding schools across the country, or trying for an international program in Europe.

Any advice would be very helpful right now.

Edited by Meldroc
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You know, if you're really worried about the cumulative GPA thing, look for programs that only ask for your GPA over your last 60 units. I'm not in poli sci, so I can't say for certain which schools do this. (Some schools have a campus-wide admissions policy, and some vary from department to department--if you were a chemist I could give you definite answers.) Maybe some poli sci folks who applied last year can help you out. Or maybe you can just research this on your own.

Also: as someone who totally screwed up her first two years of undergrad, I'm pleased to say that some schools don't really care...as long as your last couple of years look good; it sounds like this is the case for you.

Good luck!

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My first two years were the same as Unlikely Grad--I screwed them up too. I think I was sitting at a B- average. When I applied for my MA program, my department was mostly interested in my last two full-time years as an undergrad and even at that, they were more interested in the courses that were applicable to the program.

I know that reference letters are a big part of the application package. So, if you have good solid references who are willing to speak positively on your behalf, that will definitely help.

I had one semester where I was seriously ill and that ended up lowering my GPA pretty significantly in my third year. That ended up affecting my cumulative GPA. I was unable to comment on it in my letter of intent, so I asked one of my references to mention it in her letter instead. In some ways, I think that was more helpful, since it didn't come across as me attempting to excuse my illness (which, I think would be totally okay anyway!), but rather it was acknowledged by a faculty member who knew me and could comment on how I was able to overcome it and excel in my courses afterward.

I'm not sure if it would be appropriate for your situation, but could you ask one of your references to make a statement about your cumulative GPA and why it's at 2.4? Maybe having one of them explain that it was a different program and that your interest in Political Science is reflected in the excellent grades you achieved in your current course work will help the selection committees better understand your circumstances.

Edited by JenMR
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If it helps at all

I had the same situation

I was young and dont mind admitting immature doing undergrad - especially as I had a job offer in the middle of 3rd year.

Last year I staerted an MA in IR. Really enjoyed it

So much so that I want more, Im not sure what I wish to do as a PhD project so I thought Id look at a really good school for an Mphil or Mlitt

applied to 2 very prestigious top 50 world ranked schools (both in EU) and I have 1 offer and waiting on the other....

With my situation I believe I showed that even though I had never really proved myself academically I was mature and had career direction

Im 32 now btw

Hope this helps,

I found talking with people I was applying to really helped too

My first two years were the same as Unlikely Grad--I screwed them up too. I think I was sitting at a B- average. When I applied for my MA program, my department was mostly interested in my last two full-time years as an undergrad and even at that, they were more interested in the courses that were applicable to the program.

I know that reference letters are a big part of the application package. So, if you have good solid references who are willing to speak positively on your behalf, that will definitely help.

I had one semester where I was seriously ill and that ended up lowering my GPA pretty significantly in my third year. That ended up affecting my cumulative GPA. I was unable to comment on it in my letter of intent, so I asked one of my references to mention it in her letter instead. In some ways, I think that was more helpful, since it didn't come across as me attempting to excuse my illness (which, I think would be totally okay anyway!), but rather it was acknowledged by a faculty member who knew me and could comment on how I was able to overcome it and excel in my courses afterward.

I'm not sure if it would be appropriate for your situation, but could you ask one of your references to make a statement about your cumulative GPA and why it's at 2.4? Maybe having one of them explain that it was a different program and that your interest in Political Science is reflected in the excellent grades you achieved in your current course work will help the selection committees better understand your circumstances.

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Meldroc,

I wouldn't sweat your GPA from the last bachelor's. Your age, experience and pursuit of a new BA will make it irrelevant in the minds of most adcomms. I think a passing reference to the time and subject gap between those grades and today will be enough to alert even those that might overlook it. You might consider contacting a couple admissions counselors at chosen schools to make sure this is the case though.

In terms of cutting down your multiple options... I know it seems overwhelming, but you'll get there.

I looked at my scores and my goals from the degree and used those crappy rankings to select a broad range of schools where I might be competetive and which would help me get to my goals. Then I started researching.

I have an Excel doc with several tabs; one for admin (addresses and GRE submission numbers), one for substantive application issues (rules on writing samples and statements), one for professor and student profiles that match my research interests, one for financial aid, etc. I supplement my online research by identifying students or faculty for informational interviews about the specific school and the broader market.

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Thanks for the advice, everyone! I was under the impression that I could overcome the GPA problems, sounds like that impression is correct.

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  • 1 month later...

UPDATE! I just took the GRE: Verbal is 640, Quantitative is 790. It'll take a couple weeks to get the essay grades back, but I think I did pretty well.

Just looking for a little feedback on where I should be looking grad-school-wise. I'm thinking I'll probably specialize in American or comparative poli-sci, though I'm still deciding.

Edited by Meldroc
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UPDATE! I just took the GRE: Verbal is 640, Quantitative is 790. It'll take a couple weeks to get the essay grades back, but I think I did pretty well.

Just looking for a little feedback on where I should be looking grad-school-wise. I'm thinking I'll probably specialize in American or comparative poli-sci, though I'm still deciding.

I think in your ROC I would explain it but not dedicate the ROC to it. Mention...explain...briefly...move on... I would talk more about why you want to get an advanced degree. I think that would be more compelling. Give examples. Show them you really want this. The GPA will hurt you a little. What school are you looking at?

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think in your ROC I would explain it but not dedicate the ROC to it. Mention...explain...briefly...move on... I would talk more about why you want to get an advanced degree. I think that would be more compelling. Give examples. Show them you really want this. The GPA will hurt you a little. What school are you looking at?

Right now, I'm looking at schools in my area (Colorado), which means University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado State University (where I am now as an undergrad), and the University of Denver (though they're very expensive - I'd need significant financial assistance to afford to go to school there.) I'm also looking at schools on the east coast, such as George Washington University; and I'm also exploring the idea of getting my masters degree abroad, say in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Austria, assuming I can get in a school over there with courses in English.

I'm also looking at the US News rankings, but I'm not entirely sure where I should be shooting. I'm not sure I can get into the really top-ranked schools - too competitive, and my ball-and-chain undergrad GPA will hurt me there, but should I look into 20th-to-30th ranked schools?

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Right now, I'm looking at schools in my area (Colorado), which means University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado State University (where I am now as an undergrad), and the University of Denver (though they're very expensive - I'd need significant financial assistance to afford to go to school there.) I'm also looking at schools on the east coast, such as George Washington University; and I'm also exploring the idea of getting my masters degree abroad, say in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden or Austria, assuming I can get in a school over there with courses in English.

I'm also looking at the US News rankings, but I'm not entirely sure where I should be shooting. I'm not sure I can get into the really top-ranked schools - too competitive, and my ball-and-chain undergrad GPA will hurt me there, but should I look into 20th-to-30th ranked schools?

The low GPA will hurt...hurt bad...

I would go for a masters then apply to a PHD program. They will look much more at the masters. The low GPA will hurt but use the masters to really show your skill and show it was just a fluke.

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Another update: My GRE scores are official now, Verbal: 640, Quantitative: 790, Analytical: 5.0.

Pretty decent scores there.

Oh, would I be able to mitigate my GPA by mentioning my current major GPA? (which is 4.0 - since I've gone back to school for the second bachelors, I've been acing my classes, so I've got an awesome major GPA.)

Edited by Meldroc
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Another update: My GRE scores are official now, Verbal: 640, Quantitative: 790, Analytical: 5.0.

Pretty decent scores there.

Oh, would I be able to mitigate my GPA by mentioning my current major GPA? (which is 4.0 - since I've gone back to school for the second bachelors, I've been acing my classes, so I've got an awesome major GPA.)

YES! I would mention that! Was there a large amount of years when you went for the 1st degree? Also, its not likes its a related degree so the weight on that may not be as much. You are not out of the running. You are just not a clear cut case either way. I would also try to get the verbal up a little...but that is minor.

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YES! I would mention that! Was there a large amount of years when you went for the 1st degree? Also, its not likes its a related degree so the weight on that may not be as much. You are not out of the running. You are just not a clear cut case either way. I would also try to get the verbal up a little...but that is minor.

Basically, I got my first bachelors back in the 90's when I was younger, and, well, less motivated and mature, so I had some horrible semesters.

The whole point of me going back and earning my second bachelors was to prove that I was indeed capable of doing it right. So far, I've been in for two semesters - Fall '09 GPA: 3.8, Spring '10 GPA: 4.0. I think I can make a persuasive case that yes, I have the necessary talents, and I've grown up to the point where I don't have any problem with doing the work and earning the grades.

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Something else I think you should do that no one's mentioned so far is be extra active in contacting professors. Like UnlikelyGrad said, some schools only want to see your major GPA for the last two years, so your Computer Science degree won't matter at all. However, at least in my field, MOST schools want you to put down your cumulative GPA. And applications with low GPAs are often just thrown out without being reviewed. I think once you have narrowed down a few professors you would like to work with in grad school you should definitely try to set up a meeting with them. Don't mention the GPA thing right off the bat, but do try to work it in the conversation somehow. Tell them you have a 4.0 or close to a 4.0 major GPA and that you would hate to have your application ignored due to Computer Science grades from more than 10 years ago. I am sure they will understand and maybe will even flag your application to make sure it passes through the first round and at least gets reviewed.

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Something else I think you should do that no one's mentioned so far is be extra active in contacting professors. Like UnlikelyGrad said, some schools only want to see your major GPA for the last two years, so your Computer Science degree won't matter at all. However, at least in my field, MOST schools want you to put down your cumulative GPA. And applications with low GPAs are often just thrown out without being reviewed. I think once you have narrowed down a few professors you would like to work with in grad school you should definitely try to set up a meeting with them. Don't mention the GPA thing right off the bat, but do try to work it in the conversation somehow. Tell them you have a 4.0 or close to a 4.0 major GPA and that you would hate to have your application ignored due to Computer Science grades from more than 10 years ago. I am sure they will understand and maybe will even flag your application to make sure it passes through the first round and at least gets reviewed.

Good point. I'll see to contacting faculty at the schools I'm targeting.

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Here's one more question. I can pick out a few "reach" schools easily enough, but I'm really having a hard time tracking down schools that would qualify as "match" schools or "safety" schools.

With my GPA, is there such a thing as a safety school? Where would I look to research which schools are competitive and which ones are easier to get into? It seems a lot of schools keep their admissions requirements close to their chests - they'll tell you they want really good GPAs and GRE scores, but won't tell you how good.

For that matter, I'm not entirely sure where I should be aiming at all. Do I have the slightest chance of getting in one of the US News top 20? Top 30? Where do I look to find schools. There's zillions of schools out there, I'm not sure which ones will accept me, and I have no idea how to suss out the ones that will and figure out which school's right for me.

Edited by Meldroc
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I just want to respond to the question about how to find schools. You should start as follows: take research you've enjoyed reading, figure out where the author is teaching, and look at their colleagues to see whether you would be happy in the intellectual environment. What is lost in applying somewhere you don't get in? Just the application fee: you should be spending minimal time tailoring an application to each individual school. In the scheme of things, the $100 application fee (or whatever it is) isn't so much. Apply everywhere that you think you'd be happy and let the admissions committee decide rather than ruling out a place a priori.

Here's one more question. I can pick out a few "reach" schools easily enough, but I'm really having a hard time tracking down schools that would qualify as "match" schools or "safety" schools.

With my GPA, is there such a thing as a safety school? Where would I look to research which schools are competitive and which ones are easier to get into? It seems a lot of schools keep their admissions requirements close to their chests - they'll tell you they want really good GPAs and GRE scores, but won't tell you how good.

For that matter, I'm not entirely sure where I should be aiming at all. Do I have the slightest chance of getting in one of the US News top 20? Top 30? Where do I look to find schools. There's zillions of schools out there, I'm not sure which ones will accept me, and I have no idea how to suss out the ones that will and figure out which school's right for me.

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I just want to respond to the question about how to find schools. You should start as follows: take research you've enjoyed reading, figure out where the author is teaching, and look at their colleagues to see whether you would be happy in the intellectual environment. What is lost in applying somewhere you don't get in? Just the application fee: you should be spending minimal time tailoring an application to each individual school. In the scheme of things, the $100 application fee (or whatever it is) isn't so much. Apply everywhere that you think you'd be happy and let the admissions committee decide rather than ruling out a place a priori.

True. When applying for undergrad, I paid all of the fees up front then submitted the apps, so on December 31 I had one application left (after submitting the others in October) to do for which I didn't want to write the essays. But since I had paid the $70, I wrote them and submitted. I ended up going there. This year, for my master's, I applied to 2 schools in October and was waitlisted, so I applied to the third on a whim and was accepted last-minute. I'll be starting this fall. So I think it's tough to judge which schools are worth the effort and which schools aren't, especially when "fit" is so important.

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True. When applying for undergrad, I paid all of the fees up front then submitted the apps, so on December 31 I had one application left (after submitting the others in October) to do for which I didn't want to write the essays. But since I had paid the $70, I wrote them and submitted. I ended up going there. This year, for my master's, I applied to 2 schools in October and was waitlisted, so I applied to the third on a whim and was accepted last-minute. I'll be starting this fall. So I think it's tough to judge which schools are worth the effort and which schools aren't, especially when "fit" is so important.

Question: Do you have to have a huge amount of undergrad research under your belt to have a chance at grad school? I've written plenty of papers for my poli-sci classes, and did a little research for them, but my current school's has a mostly classroom-based cirriculum, so I didn't anticipate having to write a dissertation for my second bachelors.

If all else fails, I can take an independent study next spring, see what I can do purely on my own, but I'm wondering if that's necessary to get me in the door in grad school.

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Question: Do you have to have a huge amount of undergrad research under your belt to have a chance at grad school? I've written plenty of papers for my poli-sci classes, and did a little research for them, but my current school's has a mostly classroom-based cirriculum, so I didn't anticipate having to write a dissertation for my second bachelors.

If all else fails, I can take an independent study next spring, see what I can do purely on my own, but I'm wondering if that's necessary to get me in the door in grad school.

I didn't do an undergraduate thesis and I was fine in the application process. However, if you're applying this fall, I would suggest doing the independent study in the fall if you can. It's a good way to show you can work independently.

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I think you are a good candidate for schools much higher than the one's you are talking about. If you have good references and a strong SOP, I think you can likely get into a top 20, if not top 10, school (the top 20 and top 10 is usually loosely based on the US News Ranking - there should be some older threads that list them. You can PM me with your subfield if you want more specific advice on programs). If your goal is to have a career as an academic (really the only reason to get a polisci PhD), you really should not limit yourself geographically. This means applying to every program in the US that is a good fit, has a strong reputation, and can get their students jobs. If you are concerned about location, the best time to take that into consideration is AFTER you get accepted to a good school.

On the GPA: I don't see why any admissions committee would care about your performance 10+ years ago in an unrelated field, which is how they will see it. They know career changes happen, and all they care about is if you are intelligent and motivated enough to succeed in their program. They will look at your PoliSci performance, that's it. Maybe I'm wrong, but just know they do look at your transcript, and your GRE scores should be enough to get your file looked at.

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