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Big Dreams Despite a Low GPA


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Hi everyone,

Please be patient with me since this is my first time posting on this site. To cut a long tale short, I went to college with the intention of majoring in business and earning a minor in mathematics. To give you some perspective, when I was in high school, I was elected student body president of a school with a student body of 4,000 and received automatic entrance into one of the top 50 state universities. I'm not saying any of those things are very noteworthy; I'm only providing background to demonstrate that I wasn't a total moron.

My parents described my "out of character behavior" during the summer before I departed for college as "disruptive." Unfortunately, this served as a harbinger of what was to come over the next four years. By the conclusion of my freshman year, I had been booted out of my major and forced to enroll in tourist management, which was a farce of a life science major. College was quite difficult for me. Even though I'd been toeing the line for three and a half years, I somehow managed to avoid failing out. I was hospitalized during the beginning of the second semester of my senior year, which was the beginning of the semester before that. I was sent to both a therapist and a psychiatrist for further evaluation. They diagnosed me with Bi-polar disorder, which was, in retrospect, an exceedingly apparent diagnosis. I had been suffering from incredibly stressful mood swings and bizarre conduct for the previous three and a half years. For the majority of that period, I was certain that I was becoming nuts or that I was getting schizophrenia. I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone or beg for help. This would mean acknowledging that there was something wrong with me and admitting that I was "mad," and being mentally sick was too far removed from my self-concept for me to consider. Eventually, things became so awful that I had no choice but to confront reality. Following my hospitalization, I was prescribed medicine and began seeing a therapist. Within a few weeks, my life had completely shifted. My mood had normalized, and I was able to return to work. I graduated from college with a 2.44 grade point average, which is horrendous.

My obsession with making up for lost time and realizing my full potential has grown since then. I learnt to program and developed an interest in data science as a result of this experience. I decided to enroll in the Master of Liberal Arts in Data Science program at Harvard Extension School. It is a difficult set of courses, and the vast majority of them are the same courses that true Data Science graduate students do. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have taken courses at Harvard in Data Visualization, Data Mining, Advanced Python Programming for Data Science, Statistical Modeling, and Mathematical Modeling. Extra undergrad education in Linear Algebra and Vector Calculus was completed online through Louisiana State University. Throughout all of these courses, I earned an A- or higher grade. I also have a GRE score of 169Q and 167V, which is really good. While I was attending these seminars, I was also working full time as a Marketing Analyst, where I was in charge of the digital marketing for a small consumer products company with a 20 million dollar annual revenue.

So, let me get to the heart of the matter. Is there a possibility I'll get accepted into one of the best Data Science Masters Programs based on my Undergrad GPA and all I've done since then? What about New York University, Columbia University, the University of San Francisco, and so on?

Greetings and apologies for any secondhand trauma you may have experienced.

I'm looking forward to hearing back from you.

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  • 2 months later...

I think that in some circumstances, it is possible to overcome a low GPA. It is possible that for the top programs, those circumstances need to be exceptional and so does your track record of performance in other areas (eg. publications and research). However, the right narrative around the low GPA may make the case for you even stronger, given that you have succeeded in turning things around so significantly and what that says about your character. 

If you are now wanting to apply to PhD programs, what you will need to show more than anything is your ability to do research. They will look more closely at your record in your masters than they will at the undergrad, and your GPA isn't the best indicator of success for research anyway. 

Your undergrad GPA is what it is, and it isn't changing, but you have demonstrated growth, which is something that admissions committees love to see. So the real question you should be asking is: how can I present this in a way that assures an admissions committee that I have what it takes to succeed? Take what you wrote above as a baseline to inspire a personal statement that talks about how you overcame your struggles and thrived in your masters program. Don't belabor the mental illness part though. Unfortunately, struggling with mental illness remains something that is discriminated against on admissions and hiring committees. With that in mind, understand that this is your private medical history and you are under no requirement to disclose it. You should allude to it as the reason for your poor GPA, but skip the details, make the story about how you overcame it and what you did next. 

Given your experiences, do you really want to be at a school that will penalize you for every misstep in your past? Write the statement and apply to the top schools, the right program will see how you have grown and adapted in the face of life's challenges and feel lucky to have you. 


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