How Much Does GPA Matter?

GPA – Sure a super high GPA is a nice plus, you worked hard to get that 3.7 or 4.0 and you should show it off. On the other hand, after reading 30 applications how likely is it that the readers will remember GPAs, even outstanding GPAs? Pretty low. That may be bad news if you were counting on your GPA to get you in, but my guess is that for a lot of you, you are more worried about your GPA keeping you out. For the high GPA people you should take this warning, numbers are just numbers. After reading a stack of applications a 3.75 GPA can eventually blend right in with a 3.2. Your GPA matters, but don’t count on it to do any work for you, that’s still your job.

If you don’t have a super high GPA then the above might be better news. It means that your GPA is not the be all and end all that you might think it is. If your GPA  meets the minimum required GPA to apply, then your application will be considered. That means that your fate is still in your hands, your work now will be the thing that will make the difference. 

****There may be some specific situations where GPA will matter more than this. Particularly if a department has a ton of applications then they may do some kind of sorting of the apps by GPA in order to reduce their workload. The thing is, you can’t do anything about that, and you will have no idea if that will happen or not. Once your application leaves your hands, then anything and everything could happen. Your job is not to get hung up worrying about that, your job is to simply make your applications as polished and amazing as you can right now. Whatever happens after will happen, but there is no use stressing about this now. The message is, for any school where you meet the minimum requirements, then that’s a school that you should consider applying to. You have no idea, for good or bad, what the process will be when they get your package, don’t count yourself out of the game before they even get a chance to read your stuff! ALSO, this advice is coming from a place of experience, I applied to PhD programs with the bare minimum required overall GPA, a 3.00000000000001. I got into four places, big-name important Universities with stuffy reputations to defend, you can do it too.****

So your GPA may not be the sole thing to determine your fate, but it can matter. Particularly you should know a couple of things about the schools you are applying to. The first is whether or not they have a minimum GPA to even be considered. For many programs this may be a 3.0 but there are plenty of programs where the minimum may be a 2.5. Second, what is the average GPA of students who are admitted? Harvard’s minimum GPA may be a 3.0 but the average GPA of the students who get admitted is probably quite a bit higher. Lastly, what is the acceptance rate? Meaning, what is the percentage of applicants who get in each year? You can find out all of these from a couple of sources. One may be the department website if you’re lucky. The second, and probably more reliable source is the department’s graduate coordinator, a person whose job it is to administer the graduate program. In larger departments this may be the sole job of one or more people, in smaller departments, this role may be delegated to a faculty member. In any case you should be able to call the department’s front desk and ask the main administrator who the best person to talk to is. Remember, an email can be ignored easily, a phone call much less so. Don’t stop until you get the info you need! ****(side note: be as nice and politely as humanly possible to any administrators you talk to. They probably won’t remember you, and it won’t impact your chances in a significant way one way or another…BUT… Administrators are the beating heart of a departement. They know all the ins and outs, they know all the paperwork that needs to be filed, who to talk to if you have a problem and in many cases they are in charge of a large number of things that could impact your daily life as a grad student. Admins have a shitty job in many cases, but they also have a lot of hidden power. Do everything you can to not make their life more difficult. Be insistent and persistent about what you need, but remember, it’s not the admin’s fault if a professor doesn’t call you back! Making friends with the admins in any department will make your life, and their life SOOOOO much easier.)****

So now that you have that information about the GPAs what do you do with it? Well, the whole point of having the information is to make the best decisions you can about the limited time and resources that you have to expend. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply to Harvard? No… absolutely not, you should! But you should get as much information as possible, and if you are applying to some places where the admission rates are less than 10%, you should also be looking for a couple places where the admission rates are higher. With a well written essay and materials, you can, no matter your GPA, be a really well qualified candidate. BUT, there will be other well qualified candidates, and there will always be an element of chance, luck, or plain happenstance that lets some people in, and leaves some people out, no matter their GPA. The more places you apply, the more chances you give yourself and your application to find the right place, at the right time, with the right circumstances to be admitted. Give yourself as many of those chances as you reasonably can.


Letters of Recommendation Notes

A few thoughts on letters of recommendation:

I remember the feeling I had as an undergrad going in to talk to my professors knowing that I would eventually want to ask them for a letter of recommendation. I felt kind of dirty, like I was buttering them up, or leading them on in some way. I felt like they would be angry with me if they knew that I was hoping to get something from them. BUT, now being on the other side, I can tell you that this feeling is almost completely in your head.

The reality is that writing letters is a part of our job, we EXPECT to write letters and often times we really enjoy it! When you come into our office hours we don’t feel like you are there to take advantage of us, if anything we’re impressed that you have it together enough to plan ahead and come talk to us! What you don’t know is that as former graduate students and as professors we have had to get COUNTLESS letters of recommendation over the years. We’ve had to ask SEVERAL different professors at multiple different institutions to do the same thing for us that you are asking us to do for you.

If we have a job as a professor it is in part because someone took the time to write us a really good letter, and more than that, someone took the time to be our mentor, to walk us through the confusing, overwhelming and stressful experience of graduate school. Now that we are on the other side the expectation is that we will do the same things for you that were done for us. So don’t be embarrassed, don’t be afraid and don’t wait! In a lot of ways you asking for help is giving us a chance to give back the help that was given to us.


My Second Best Advice – What’s Your Radius?

So, now that you have my best piece of advice, here is my second. You need to think about what your radius is. What I mean is this, there aren’t colleges in every town, let alone two. If you are going to apply to multiple places then you need to be prepared that this might mean moving, or at the very least, commuting. Knowing this, you need to think about what your radius is, meaning how far can you travel?

For different people this will be very different. Some of you have families, kids, a job. Your radius may not be bigger than the town you’re in, or places that you can commute in a day. If that’s the case, then don’t worry. Now that you know, find out how many colleges there are in that radius that have graduate programs. One thing that will help, every college that has graduate programs will have an Office of Graduate Studies. On the website for that office will be a list of every graduate program and graduate degree that the university offers. Use this list to take a look, not only at the programs that you know about, but also look for programs that you may never have thought of before. Though you may have a real strong idea of what program you want to go to, keep an open mind, there may be a lot of paths to getting to your final destination (I’ll write more about this later).

If your radius is so big that you are having trouble narrowing things down, one way to do it might be to think about places you would never want to go, or never want to live. For me that was most of the mid-west and a lot of the South. Nothing against those areas, but I just knew that culturally and geographically they weren’t for me. But that still left a a lot of places that could potentially be really interesting. The other way to look at it is that this may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to a place you’ve always wanted to go. New York City, Paris, Berlin, Portland, who knows! A grad program can help you lessen the risks of a big move like that a little bit. The grad school will be your home base, a place to anchor you to a new city, and to give you resources you might not otherwise have if you were just moving on your own.

Lastly, if your radius is so small that it only includes one university or one program that can work too. The one thing that you will need to prepare yourself for is that you may need to apply multiple times. If you only have one place to apply, then you may need multiple shots to find the right circumstances to get you in. But remember, grad schools are institutions like any other in our society, they yield to persistence and pressure. In other words, if you keep it up, if you have the attitude that you will keep knocking on their door until it breaks down then it will happen. It may not happen right away, but as first generation students, stubbornness and persistence are qualities that we have a ton of. We got ourselves through our undergrad degrees through sheer acts of will and determination. This is no different. You can do it.

My Best Advice

In my grad school workshops I usually tell people that my number one piece of advice is that you need to be prepared to apply to more than one grad school, in fact the more the better. 

Most people that I work with have one program in mind and they haven’t thought much outside of that option. But the reality of the situation is that this entire process is full of things you can’t control, and the more options you give yourself then the more chances you have to get an acceptance. Even people with perfect GPAs, stunning letters of recommendation and stellar CV’s are still basically folding their application into a paper boat and floating it down a river, with no control over what happens next. Now, don’t let me discourage you, the work that you will be doing to prepare and revise your application package will pay off for you in a big way. You’ll be giving yourself the best shot you can at acceptance, but your application will also be among the applications of other people who spent time and energy.

The more place you apply, the more chances you get to have your application meet with all the right circumstances. You give yourself multiple chances to get the one reviewer who had a great breakfast that morning and is in the perfect mood to read your essay. You also give yourself another shot when your application lands in the hands of the professor who is in a bad mood, had read ten shitty essays in a row, and now is prepared to deny yours immediately. All of these situations can, and will happen, along with a bunch of situations you would never guess in a million years. The more times you put your application package out there, the more shots you have at getting your awesome application into the right hands at the right time.

Now that you have my best piece of advice, I’ll give you my second best in the next post.

What to do first…

This whole process can be extremely overwhelming. Your first job is to find some allies. Going through this process alone is not recommended, it can be isolating, alienating and extremely stressful. You need support.

Friends and other students can be a great resource during this period. The key though, is finding other people who will be going through the same process. Your other friends will be helpful, but if they’re in their senior year like you they will have a ton of other stress going on. You need to find other people who are also going through this grad school process. This is a unique process that comes with a ton of unique challenges. Finding others to go through it with you will help a lot. Look for groups on your campus who might be focusing on the same thing, or other students in your department.

Your next ally is professors. At some point in this process you are going to need letters of recommendation. Your best bet here is to start your conversations with your professors at the start of the semester. Let them know what your plans are, talk with them about their own experiences in grad school. The point is to get a conversation started. A letter or recommendation is not a one time request, it should be a process that you go through with your letter writers. Your professors can let you know about other students who might be going through the same process, they can also give you support and guidance through the process. We’ll talk about relationships with professors in other posts, but for now the important thing is to get this conversation started.

Go, go now! Email your professors and set an appointment!

An Introduction

Hi Folks

Let me introduce myself. Most important things first. I am extremely intelligent. I’m a professor, I have a PhD, I wrote a fancy dissertation, I’ve published papers and I’ve read and written many deep and terrible thoughts that should intimidate you. Also I was kicked out of CSU San Diego for failing a class called, “Biology: World of Animals.” It took me close to eight years to finish my Bachelors degree, and without spell check I would have spelled Bachelors wrong. My undergrad GPA was 3.0000000000001, and it took every A I could muster in my last two years to overcome the many D’s on my transcript.

Kincaid pic

The point is that people who go to graduate school are just people, they are not all brilliant geniuses who constantly think deep thoughts, they do not all ace every class, and they most certainly don’t know everything. People who go to graduate school are just people who stayed in school even when the school was trying to give them hints to get lost. Sometimes the hints were, “here, have a degree…” and sometimes the hints were an F in a bio class that I’m pretty sure was filled with relatively bright 9th graders. Either way, if you go to grad school, it has less to do with how amazingly smart you are, and much more to do with how amazingly stubborn you can be. Getting into grad school is an exercise in being a stubborn bastard, staying in classes, fighting through discomfort, ignoring negative voices, and staying until they are forced to give you a damn degree.

In other words, grad school is for you, whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever your GPA is, you can do it. If you can relate to any of the above, or just feel intimidated, confused or completely lost when thinking about college, graduate school and life after, then this website is for you. Over time this site will fill up with insights, experiences, tricks, tips and information about graduate school, specifically from the perspective of those of us who were the first person in our family to go to college.

I hope you find something useful here, something inspiring, and maybe something funny. But more than anything, know this, you can go to fucking graduate school. You can get a fucking Masters degree, a PhD, a teaching certificate, a MSW or any other damn grad degree you want, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.

Prof Kincaid