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Should I Apply to Graduate School with a Just-OK Application?
(full story below)
By Tara Kuther, Ph.D.

Updated May 25, 2015.
I want to apply to grad school but my qualifications aren't stellar. My GPA is just ok, about 3.0 overall but 3.7 in my major. I changed majors late in college. I love my major and want to work in this field as my career. I have little experience out of class: no research experience, no internships or applied work. I talk with my professors frequently but haven't worked with any out of class. I told my favorite professor that I'm considering applying for graduate study. She was supportive, but as I look at my qualifications and the school applications, I'm not sure it's a good idea. Am I doomed to failure - rejection?

This is a difficult question. Lots of students find themselves in this situation. First, let's consider the graduate school application: What are the components of the application and what purpose do they serve?

Your transcript lists your academic performance. Admissions committees often place more weight on the GPA for your major.

Also the types of classes you've taken matters. A 3.0 GPA based on many difficult courses in areas valued by the admissions committee, such as math and science in science fields, may be worth more than a 3.8 based on courses that are viewed as soft and not valued by the committee.

Admissions Essay
The admissions essay is the place where you speak directly to the committee. The essay demonstrates your writing ability, maturity, sense of purpose, and fit to the program. The committee hears your voice. This adds the personal element to your application, describes research and applied experiences that make you unique.

Recommendation Letters
Recommendation letters indicate faculty views of your abilities and potential. They are a critical component of your application because faculty describes the research and applied experiences that make you unique. Without good letters your application goes nowhere.

GRE Scores
Scores in the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) indicate academic promise, your potential. The GRE emphasizes your verbal, quantitative, and reasoning abilities. It is often used as a cut-off to weed applicants. It is also used in making decisions about financial aid and scholarships.

As for your case, there's no way to know for sure until you submit your application and wait it out. That said, your biggest weakness is the lack of out-of-class experiences - no research or applied experiences. These experiences not only demonstrate your interest, motivation, and competence, but also are opportunities for your to develop relationships with faculty who can write you excellent letters of recommendation.

Ultimately what will your success depend on?

~Your recommendation letters
~Applicant pool: How many applicants? Applicant quality?
~Field of study: How competitive is the field?
~Program: How competitive is the program?
~GRE scores: Excellent GRE scores can trump an adequate GPA
~Your essay: Does it reflect maturity, judgment, motivation, and intellectual curiosity?
~How well do your goals match the program?
~How well do your interests match the faculty?

What are your options?

1. Apply now and see how it goes (if you're graduating).
2. Wait and strengthen your application by seeking out-of-class opportunities, forming relationships with faculty, and raising your GPA.
3. If you've been considering a doctoral program, shift your attention to a masters program as an alternative step between the BA and doctoral degree.
4. Improve your GRE scores by studying, using review material, and/or taking a class.

Photo: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / Flickr
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