Thursday, August 16, 2007

GPAs - To Care or Not to Care?

I worried through most of last application season that my grades were far too low for admission to graduate school. A disastrous freshman year at college brought down my overall GPA to about a B-. That's fuhgeddaboutit-bad for aspiring academics. The anxiety was compounded by my having been out of school for over fifteen years. Just what were the chances that admissions committees would believe I could come back to school and do grad-level work after such a drawn-out absence ? Would MFA programs be willing to take a chance on someone whose grades did not show absolute freakin' academic brilliance and promise of unqualified success in graduate school?

Fortunately, the answer was yes--though not every program I looked into at the start could have looked past the GPA issues, had I ended up applying. At some schools, applicants must pass through the hoops of the MFA program AND those of the graduate school. Graduate schools at many programs require a minimum GPA. The Iowa Writers' Workshop website states that its Graduate College requires a 3.0 GPA for admission, for example. Other programs, such as Cornell's, do not state a minimum GPA requirement at all. Obviously, it would be to anyone's advantage to apply to programs where a certain GPA will not disqualify them immediately.

Other than that, my advice is to stop worrying about the GPA. If it is truly shabby, perhaps address it in a few sentences in your Statement of Purpose--do this briefly, turn it into a positive, and move on to explain what it is you hope to gain as a writer by coming to the particular MFA program. But really, MFA applicants, don't worry so much about that GPA. Put your best effort into dazzling the admissions committee with a strong writing sample.


Bolivia Red said...

My undergrad GPA was an unmitigated disaster. I had more than one bad semeser for various reasons, but I pulled it together later on. What many of the programs are more interested in is how well you do in the last 60 hours of your undergrad and/or how well you do in your major field (I've heard from two different program directors that they realise many young students blow it their first few semesters and over look that if the end result is strong).

In some cases, the Graduate School will require a particular GPA or GRE score, while the MFA program itself doesn't really care about the GRE or GPA (or at least not as much). You still have to submit those items to the Graduate School, but if the MFA program wants you, they'll get you around the grad school hoops (of course you'll have to check with the individual program to be sure).

Noah said...

ugh... i did the exact opposite - totally blew it my last semester. burnout, partying, and personality clash with a professor (i was really a know-it-all a-hole with her) led me to a fantastically dismal last semester. although i still managed a 3.4 overall, i receive a C in my final (gulp) fiction workshop (i was in an undergrad CW program). worst of all, i could have easily gotten an A if i hadn't been a stubborn jerk and actually completed assignments.

anyway, i'm a little worried about this fact since i'm planning on applying for fiction... is it something i should address in my personal statment. should i attempt to get that professor to write me a rec? i don't want her to change the grade, just support my app.

ugh... i was a dumb 22 yr old.

Mike Valente said...

My undergrad GPA was horrific, but my grades were "worse" during my freshman and sophomore years. I was hoping that schools wouldn't put too much weight on my C-minus in Multivariable Calculus class during the fall of 1996.

I think in my personal statement I mentioned my grades/undergraduate experience indirectly, like I was a Public Policy major, wrote analytical papers, took econometrics, etc.

Don't worry about your undergrad grades if you're already out of school, since you're not in position to change them. Maybe address your grades in your personal statement if you endured a unique situation or something. If you are still in school, then definitely take your classes seriously, right up until the final whistle.

Bolivia Red said...

Since you admit some fault in the cause of the lower grade, you demonstrate that you've grown and learned something from it, right?

Probably you can address it with just a line in your personal essay. As Lizzy suggests, turn it to a strength--"I had a minor stumble in my last semester, though it taught me some valuable lessons. On the whole you'll notice my fiction workshops showed strong work..." You might even get away with not addressing it if you have some really good rec letters from other profs.

Have you been in contact with this professor since that time, perhaps with a big fat apology? She might be willing to write that rec letter if so.

Lizzy said...

Yes, Noah. What Bolivia Red said :o) One or two sentences, turn it into a positive, move on.

Whiffless Apprentice said...

i have to say -- yesterday morning, i was typing a response to this post when my computer completely CRASHED.

(Not to worry -- it had nothing to do with blogspot; there were signs days before the meltdown.) But I'd like to remind everyone to backup your work.

I had saved everything (including my manuscript that I've worked so diligently on, for the upcoming semester) on my external hard drive -- so everything there was still intact. An external hard drive is entirely worth the investment.

But anyways -- as I was writing yesterday, my undergrad GPA was horrendous -- I made note of it in my SOP but that was about it.. no use worrying over something you can't change, right?

While I don't know this for a fact, I think, with the workshop setting being so crucial to the MFA experience, admissions folk might be more concerned (after they've praised your writing sample, that is) with your character than your GPA. They need to feel certain that you'll bring a spirited presence to the workshop environment - and this shows in your SOP and letters of recommendation. The fact that you got a D in Multivariable Calculus your freshman year of college, shouldn't really matter.

Bolivia Red said...

One thing about grad school that bemuses me is the change in quality of student from undergrad to grad school. Prior to actually applying and going, I thought grad school looked scary, and I couldn't imagine that I had the qualities to succeed, let alone get accepted in the first place. Grad students seemed to have some mysterious quality of serious study and understanding of the world that I didn't get as an undergrad.

Since I've been in grad school, I've had a few classes with undergrads (seniors here have to take one grad-level course) and they were a real pain to have in class. But then the next year they came back as grad students and they were totally different students, and for the most part better. The only thing that had changed from one semester to the next was that they'd graduated. It's weird.

When I mentioned this to my professor, she said that the difference was they'd successfully applied to grad school. She said a lot of people apply but their applications are incomplete or sloppy. They're missing some vital piece or they don't get everything in by the deadline.

All that's to say, getting your act together in terms of the application is sometimes more indicative of whether or not you'll be able to successfully navigate the beauracracy of grad school than your GPA, especially if the GPA is low because of a bad freshmen year or something.

Katherine said...

Okay so its true. Most of the more prestigious MFA programs do typically have the 3.0 GPA minimum. Which for me was discouraging, because I was nowhere near that. But then I found Emerson and Sarah GPA and GRE scores didnt matter one bit. They were solely concerned with my writing sample, rec. letters, and personal statement.

Its a crapshoot sometimes. I literally had a prof at Sarah Lawrence say to me that GPA doesnt matter the littlest bit. They look at it to make sure you're enrolled in a college and on track to graduate in time, but thats it. I encourage you to talk to profs at your prospective schools. Sometimes there are loopholes that they can't post on websites or announce at open houses.

Raysen said...

My undergrad is in engineering and my GPA is below 3.0 (which is not unusual among engineering grads). But I went to a top notch engineering school. But I also did so much more after undergrad.

My only concern is whether the Admissions committee will reject my application outright just because my GPA was under 3.0...and it wasn't even in English or English Lit!!! (Iowa, Virginia, and UC Irvine, among others mention that 3.0 is the cutoff point.) If that's the case, I don't even want to waste my time applying to those schools.

Could anyone shed some light on this issue?

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