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OT: Applying to graduate school in one's 40s

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  • OT: Applying to graduate school in one's 40s

    Since people here Get It Done, I thought this might be a good place to seek a response to the following:

    An old GTD post of mine drew an inspiring reply from an infrequent poster about his returning to graduate school in his 40s. I'm considering doing the same but am instantly stymied by the fact that I did horribly as an undergraduate. The program and school I'm interested in applying to states that they seek a minimum 3.0 GPA. I have heard but never confirmed that it is possible to make a case for admission even with a sub-par GPA.

    Can anyone tell me whether they they have knowledge about how GPA's play into graduate school admissions in the real world, and whether it is possible to circumvent that obstacle?

    Thanks!

  • #2
    Originally posted by Vilmosz
    I have heard but never confirmed that it is possible to make a case for admission even with a sub-par GPA.

    Can anyone tell me whether they they have knowledge about how GPA's play into graduate school admissions in the real world, and whether it is possible to circumvent that obstacle?
    GPAs play into graduate school admissions in the real world by eliminating applicants. A good GPA doesn't help; a bad one hurts. Graduate schools get many more applications than they can accept. Processing them begins with eliminating any application that's subpar in any of the major areas. Then there are still an amazing number of applicants with top GRE scores and GPAs. US students are competing with the brightest from all over the world, too.

    Making a case for a sub-par GPA may be possible depending on the school and just how bad the GPA is. And where it's from. My school is pretty rigid, but admitted a student with a GPA just below criterion because 1) he had gone to Cal Tech, a killer school, and 2) he had since published some good research. But the department had to fight the higher powers on this one. It was a remarkable exception.

    Still, GRE scores are considered much more important than GPA because GRE scores actually do predict something: success in the first year of graduate school. And GREs are standardized unlike GPAs.

    I can't speak for all schools, to be sure, though. It may be possible to find one with more relaxed admissions criteria, but this may also be accompanied by less respect for the degree you'd get (at least in academia). Which may or may not matter, depending on your goal. So that brings me round to the big question, what's the successful outcome of going to graduate school. Degrees can help with certain goals, but they cost a lot of time and money to obtain. And they guarantee nothing. On the other hand, if learning is the goal, there may be other ways that are better.

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    • #3
      I had to "settle" for a "second-tier" school because of my undergraduate GPA. The department then proceeded to win three Nobel Prizes in six years, launching itself well into the first tier.

      While I couldn't have predicted the Nobel Prizes, it was clear when I applied that the school was about to do good things. The lesson being that ratings change, and you may care more about where your school is going than where it's been.

      For your situation, the first step is to get a good GRE score. Then, I'd suggest talking to a faculty member or three in your area at your target school. "Special" applications always do better with faculty support, and a faculty member is better placed than we are to suggest ways to make a case for your admission.

      Katherine

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      • #4
        What kind of program do you want to go into, and what kind of career do you want?

        Eventually getting into academia is different from career tracks in business or government, and the sciences, humanities, and professional programs all tend to have different "cultures." Who do you need to impress?

        eta: Do you have any experience in the field you want to go into? Older students may sometimes be at a disadvantage, but sometimes they also have a chance to show how their prior experiences set them apart from the field.
        Last edited by ActionGirl; 09-19-2005, 07:43 AM.

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        • #5
          I talked my way into a top 20 law school, despite well-below-average college grades and an average LSAT score ("average" meaning average compared to a typical student admitted to that schoool). I succeeded, in part, by convincing several people that I possessed certain personal qualities that would be desirable in a law student and lawyer; partly by demonstrating that I had changed in such a way that my LSAT was a better predictor of law school success than my GPA; partly by appealing to their sympathy re: a personal concern that I had; and partly by being a persistent pain in the rear end. You never know what will work, but you should not let a decades-old GPA stand between you and your goals.

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          • #6
            Originally posted by DallasLawyer
            I succeeded, in part, by convincing several people that I possessed certain personal qualities that would be desirable in a law student and lawyer...
            Off-topic, but this is such a huge gaping entry for your favorite lawyer joke to be inserted here...

            Matthew (who has to put with the engineering geek jokes regularly as well!)

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            • #7
              GPA is not the total picture

              You don't mention how old your Undergraduate GPA is. Nontraditional and second degree students tend to do better in their 40's (and 50's) than they did the first time around (in their 20's) and most universities recognize that. Your experience and motivation make up for the earlier poorer performance. I started my MS program at age 44, and got straight A's (WAY higher than my original GPA), and most of my middle-aged grad student freinds had the same experience.

              Go for it!

              Rachel

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              • #8
                Originally posted by Vilmosz
                Can anyone tell me whether they they have knowledge about how GPA's play into graduate school admissions in the real world, and whether it is possible to circumvent that obstacle?
                Thanks!
                I am a faculty member in the physics department of a major private midwestern research university, where I currently serve as director of graduate studies. Graduate admissions typically rest on a few things:

                Letters of recommendations
                Standardized test scores (GRE, MCAT, LSAT, et cet.)
                Grades/Preparation

                plus any special information, including relevant life experience and congruence of interests. Generally, admissions to graduate programs is handled by individual schools or departments, so the admissions decision is made by people close to the program, e.g., faculty members. It is generally understood that undergrad GPA's are at best not very predictive, and particularly so for non-traditional students. That said, if you flunked calculus, you are probably not a good candidate for a Ph.D. program in math.

                Start by identifying programs of interest to you. Don't restrict yourself to a particular school or degree program immediately. Find out on the web what each school has to offer, and then call or write for more information. Then schedule a meeting with someone like the director of admissions for the program, or with a faculty member whose work is close to your interests. Be honest and realistic, but put your best foot forward. Listen to people's advice. Sometimes it is possible to get your feet wet by taking a few courses for background or to prove you can handle the program.

                Good Luck!
                Mike Ogilvie

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