Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.
Every year, thousands of students apply to graduate schools in North America. Most of them apply to more than one school, and those who are serious in their desire to get into graduate school are eventually accepted into a program, somewhere. For many, the decision to go to graduate school and obtain an advanced degree has been part of their education and career plans since they first entered college or university. For those individuals, the advanced degree is an absolute prerequisite for their career goals. For others, the decision to go to graduate school came only after they had been in college or university for a few years and began to question how valuable their undergraduate degree would be when they finally entered the job market.
Now, consider the greatest of the common misconceptions about graduate school — the idea that you must have outstanding undergraduate grades to get into graduate school and to succeed once you are there. Do you believe this? Most people do, but it’s simply not true! Although outstanding grades certainly help your chances of getting into graduate school, there are ways to get in even if you do not have excellent grades.
Have you ever been told or have you thought to yourself that you haven’t got a hope of ever going to graduate school because you are not an Honors student? That’s not true! I know dozens of people with PhDs who were never Honors students. I have three degrees: a B.Sc., M.Sc., and a PhD, and was never an Honors student. But what if you have only average or slightly above-average grades? Could you really expect to pass the kinds of courses you would be taking in graduate school? Absolutely!
Once you begin graduate studies, you are just as likely to obtain a master’s or doctoral degree as many of your current classmates who get As and A-pluses in all of their classes. It might be hard to believe that this is true, but it is. It has to do with the ways that students are taught and evaluated in graduate school. The methods of learning and evaluation are so different from those of undergraduate school that some students’ undergraduate GPA can be a rather poor predictor of their future performance in graduate school.
Although there have been studies that found significant correlations between undergraduate GPA and graduate school success in some disciplines, these analyses typically involved very large groups of students, and many graduate-program faculty members would argue that the correlation is not so apparent when considering only the students in their own program. Even in disciplines in which there are thought to be stronger relations between undergraduate grades and graduate school success, no one would deny that there are frequent exceptions, and almost any graduate-program faculty member knows of cases in which students with suspect undergraduate grades turned out to be among the best graduate students.
There are graduate programs in which applicants are rejected more or less automatically if their grades are below some ridiculously high minimum. Obviously, you would need higher grades to get into one of the most competitive programs in North America than to get into one of the hundreds of less competitive programs. But as you will soon discover, in the majority of schools and disciplines, the acceptance and rejection of graduate-school applicants is far from being an automatic process based entirely on grades.
Before we go any further, it’s important that we clarify something: Although I have been emphasizing that students can get into graduate school without an outstanding undergraduate GPA, it definitely is true that in most graduate programs, the quality of undergraduate grades is an important criterion for evaluating applicants. What many students fail to realize, however, is that this is only one of the important criteria, and that a shortcoming in terms of undergraduate GPA can often be compensated for by excellent performance on some of the other important criteria.
It is equally important to emphasize here what I mean when referring to grades that are not outstanding, but still good enough to get into graduate school: In most areas of study, this includes students with a GPA between B-minus and B-plus. Very few programs in any discipline would accept applicants with a GPA lower than B-minus, no matter what other strengths such an applicant possessed, although there may be rare exceptions in some disciplines.
The relative importance of undergraduate grades varies widely across programs within a particular field, depending on the prestige or competitiveness of the program. Not surprisingly, the differences across disciplines are even greater. Some programs have minimum entry requirements with respect to undergraduate GPA, but these are usually not very high, and few applicants are weeded out because their grades are too low. Moreover, these minimum-requirement rules are not always written in stone.
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