Posted May 13, 2015 by

Even if Undergrad Was a Struggle, Grad School is Still Possible

Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge

There’s good news and bad news for those who had a rough time in undergrad and are now thinking about graduate studies. The good news is, you are now older and have more experience, so it’s likely you won’t get caught up in the same business that gave you trouble in the first place. The bad news is, you’re going to have to find a way to overshadow any anomalous GPA issues. But let’s start with the most important concern.

Are you sure you’re sure?

Getting your Master’s is not for those who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It’s for driven individuals who have all that pretty well in hand. The work will be harder, the competition rougher, and the expectations much higher.

So first assess your reasons for wanting to go to grad school. If they boil down to:

  • You don’t feel like joining the workforce and are looking for something else to do
  • Someone told you to do it (parents, mentors, your little sister)
  • You think you’ll make more money with a grad degree (you might not)

Then don’t do it. Instead, keep working and see where your passions take you. Maybe you’ll still end up in grad school, but in a field that is more interesting to you where you’ll succeed instead of burn out. Any other impetus is a waste of your time and money.

Okay, so let’s say you do in fact have a really compelling reason to go to grad school. Here are a few things to help you on your way.

Don’t spend your time making excuses when applying.

If you did poorly in undergrad, the natural inclination is to make excuses—particularly if the reason had to do with emotional or physical health. Do your best in your applications not to focus on this (unless they specifically ask). Instead, give them reasons to accept you. Focus on all the great work you’ve been doing since undergrad, and your related accomplishments. And don’t frame it in comparison to how you used to be (and how you’re so much better now).

GPA isn’t everything.

If you can demonstrate solid work in your area of interest, you can often bypass the GPA discussion. Practical experience will trump academics every time.

Be a leader.

Leadership is a coveted attribute, especially when applying for an MBA, but in other grad departments too. These institutions want to have the best in the business, and have some assurance that you will be successful (which is usually marked by previous successes). If you can show substantial leadership ability, you will likely be able to overshadow any poor grades in undergrad. Seek out leadership positions, if not at work then in volunteer work or even your hobbies.

Dominate the GRE.

Absolutely killing the GRE (or similar graduate-level exam) is a great way to show adjudicators that you are on a good track, even if your grades in undergrad were iffy. Make sure to give yourself enough time to study and if you can, take some practice exams. They usually only look at your last score, so go ahead and take it a couple of times if you have the energy.

Obtain the very best recommendations.

They say it’s not what you know… it’s who. That can be a truism in everything. If you seek out people who have influence at your chosen university, it can really help. Try to learn everything you can, and ask the university if there are alumni you can speak with now. If you make a good impression, you might also get a solid recommendation out of it.

Make up classes.

Maybe taking some classes at your chosen university will be a good plan. You can go a few different routes with this. If you really struggled in undergrad, it might be a good idea to see what it takes to get a second (two-year) BA or similar degree in your field of choice (and ace those classes!). If you don’t feel that’s necessary, you still might want to audit some courses. You can sometimes even get special registration status as a non-degree-seeking graduate student and then slide into graduate school more easily when you get the lay of the land (and meet some influential professors).

The best advice I can give you here is not to focus on the past. Look to your future—and have a future in mind.

By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Petersons & EssayEdge

About the Author

Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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