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How does a political science admissions committee evaluate GPA?

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I'm currently majoring in International Relations and would like to pursue a PhD in political science. I'll try and keep this brief, but my question pertains to "which" GPA an admissions committee will consider deeply. By "which" GPA, I'm referring to cumulative/overall GPA and major GPA (for courses that pertain to ones major).

I'll make this part of my post quick, but in my situation, I began at a California community college (CC). I wasn't a very good student in high school, and that transferred over for the first semester at CC. However, I quickly discovered what I wanted to do with my life, and I began receiving A's. Fast forward a bit, and I was able to get into a respected public research university. I've been able to get at least a 3.8 each quarter I've been at my university, and I've recently completed an honors thesis as well.

However, my problem is this: I, like hundreds of others, would like to go to a "top-tier" university. The faculty at most (but not all) of these universities match my research interests. The issue, however, is when I read something such as this: "admitted students have typically had an overall GPA of 3.8 or above." Now, when I calculate my overall GPA (CC+university), it comes to about a 3.6. However, my "major" GPA (all courses counting toward my major) is at a 3.81, and my GPA at the "real" university is 3.86. Without considering letters of recommendation, GRE scores, the writing sample, or the statement of purpose, does my mediocre performance for part of my undergraduate career wreck my chances of getting into an extremely competitive institution? Thanks for any and all responses!

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A 3.6 won't hold you back if all other parts of your application are superior. It's just one metric - don't stress about it. Which is important will vary from school to school, but I think you're fine. And if, as you say, your GPA is better in the later semesters than it was in the earlier, you should have no issue at all.

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To follow the storied academic tradition of citing oneself, here were my thoughts on using GPA for admissions at my top 5 program:

"GPA is a tough signal to interpret, because there is so much variation in grading standards, both between institutions and within an institution depending on what kind of courses you take. I find it very challenging to use GPA as a signal, except as a negative one, although grades in particular courses can sometimes be useful. GRE is not the most important factor, but it is at least a consistent measure from applicant to applicant, so I tend to take a quick glance at that first. Fit and intangibles are probably most important when at the final narrowing stage, although significant violations of fit (i.e. applying to do nothing but ethnographic research focused on a region where we have no-one with expertise) might be enough to make us feel that we shouldn't admit you."


So to summarize, on the question of which GPA, the answer is probably neither. I might take a quick glance at the "overall GPA" section at the beginning of the application, essentially just to see if it was anomalously low (anything above a 3.5 wouldn't get a second thought from me, and I only really started to wonder when things got below 3.2, at which point it would just get me to look more closely at the transcripts to figure out what was going on).

I had more thoughts on admissions in the 2013-2014 cycle thread, so I'd recommend searching through that if you want more.

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